Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Transformative Leadership

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity for families to talk about the impact individuals can have on making positive change in society. 

In the 20th century, there was a French school of historical thought that minimized the impact of individuals on the course of human events. Known as the Annales school, these historians argued that there were larger forces that shaped our experience, including major influences like geography, economic and political systems, and ideology. The historians of the Annales school suggested that these forces act almost as an ocean that crashes down on humans, who have little agency in the face of its power.

As a historian who has always been interested in leadership, I have struggled with this notion. We all recognize historical figures who either rose above their conditions or harnessed larger change around them to provide transformative leadership. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is one such leader.

To give some credit to the Annales school, King rose to prominence at a critical juncture in history that allowed his message to gain attention. From the end of the Civil War to World War II, the American South struggled economically, impacting both Black and white Southerners. That began to change with the New Deal, when unprecedented government spending enabled projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority. Massive WWII spending and the expansion of various military bases brought even more resources to the South. But most of these did not benefit African Americans and gave King an opening to point out the vast differences between the lived experience of African Americans and that of whites. 

Further, the rise and defeat of Nazism offered all Americans a warning about where hate speech could lead a nation. The death and destruction of the Holocaust made clear the horrors of bigotry. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the great African American athlete Jesse Owens demonstrated that Hitler’s theories of white supremacy were wrong. 

The efforts of Black WWII veterans to fight for a “double victory”—victory abroad and at home against Jim Crow—served as a powerful foundation for King, as his actions and words shaped a movement that had a revolutionary impact on American society. Certainly, King’s ability to inspire and to create a message that resonated with all Americans was critical. Take a moment to listen to his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. In the context of Jim Crow segregation, this is a radical address. 

I just read an amazing biography of the musician Chuck Berry. While the biography talks about Berry and his musical vision, it also does an incredible job of describing the hardships faced by a Black musician trying to travel in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. Most importantly, it documents the high potential for violent conflict with law enforcement and white Southerners that was always present. 

King’s “I Have a Dream” talks about the history of injustice and what is owed to African Americans based on promises baked into our Constitution. King draws attention to the urgency of the moment and is relentless in his call for change: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” If you dig deeply into the text, you can find these lines that show a fierce determination: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.” 

Given the idealistic closing of King’s speech, which intentionally evokes images of different Americans holding hands, it is important to note that this is not a speech that is hedging or calling for compromise: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” At one point, King praises the “marvelous new militancy” in the Black community—presumably a reference to Malcolm X. King’s genius was his ability to call for justice in unflinching ways, while also finding the language to build a positive vision of how all Americans would benefit from civil rights reform.

The other part of his genius was the strategy of non-violence that proved so effective over time.  Influenced by Gandhi and his own Christianity, King developed an organization that could train protestors to protest in ways that would expose the violence of the Jim Crow system. Certainly, his approach took time and drew criticism from younger civil rights reformers who encouraged a more militant response. At one point in “I Have a Dream,” King takes this on directly: “But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” 

It is important to appreciate the patience his approach took. King gave his most famous speech a full eight years after the Birmingham Bus Boycott. During that time, the country witnessed a series of key events, from the Little Rock Nine to the Greensboro Sit-Ins, to Ruby Bridges, to the Freedom Rides, among many other events and protests. Less than a month after King’s speech, a bomb set by white supremacists at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four girls. More violence would come, but King’s strategy of rising above the hatred to expose the violence that supported Jim Crow was critical to winning key legislation in 1964 and 1965 that dismantled de jure segregation.

There are times when we can feel like we are powerless in the world. The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is such an important reminder that we all can make a difference and bring good into our lives and those of others.