Excerpted and condensed from 21 Great Leaders: Learn Their Lessons, Improve Your Influence by Pat Williams with Jim Denney (hardcover). Also available in Kindle edition.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. His father, “Daddy King,” was a Baptist minister who taught young Martin to resist segregation.
Once, Rev. King, Sr., took young Martin to a shoe store. They sat down in the front of the store. The young white shoe clerk said, “I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.”
“There’s nothing wrong with these seats,” Daddy King said. “We’re comfortable here.”
“I’m sorry,” the clerk said, “but you’ll have to move.”
Daddy King took Martin by the hand and they walked out.
“This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious,” Martin later recalled. “I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.’”
An exceptional student, Martin skipped the ninth grade, and went straight from the eleventh grade to Morehouse College without formally graduating from high school. He was a college freshman at age fifteen. He graduated from Morehouse in 1948 and went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He earned a Ph.D.in systematic theology at Boston University and became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at age twenty-five.
Dr. King was inspired by The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a treatise on nonviolent resistance by Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience,” theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the life of Gandhi, who employed nonviolent resistance to achieve India’s independence. He played a key role in the 385-day-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, December 1955 through December 1956. The boycott began when Rosa Parks, a secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give her seat to a white passenger. During the boycott, Dr. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed.
His leadership during the boycott elevated him to national prominence.
Communicating the dream
There is much we can learn by studying the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can hear the rhythms and the inflection of his rich voice echoing in the words on the page. In “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” November 4, 1956, Dr. King imagined a letter the apostle Paul might write to the church in America. He delivered this message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. Here’s an excerpt:
America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. . . . You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but . . . you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.
Notice the counterpoint of ideas in this passage. The rhythms of these contrasts make Dr. King’s message even more powerful and convicting.
In “Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957, Dr. King expresses his views on nonviolence. He delivered this message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama:
This morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love, somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the University of Eternal Life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
Loving our enemies is a constant theme in Dr. King’s sermons. He weaves the timeless teachings of the Sermon on the Mount together with eye-opening original phrases such as “matriculate into the University of Eternal Life.” The combination of old and new, familiar and startling, forces us to think deeply about what it means to love our enemies.
“Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” September 18, 1963, is the message of comfort Dr. King delivered at the memorial service for three girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley — who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was memorialized in a separate service. The church was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 — less than three weeks after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King’s eulogy helped accelerate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here’s an excerpt:
God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. . . .
Death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
In “How Long, Not Long,” March 25, 1965, Dr. King again shares a vision from his heart. Standing on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, immediately after the Selma-to-Montgomery March, he says:
However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” . . .
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because “His truth is marching on.”
The rhythm of the words lifts our hearts and makes us feel empowered and emboldened. In our public speaking, we need to choose not only our words but the cadence of our words. How our words sound is almost as important as what they mean.
In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered his last speech. He spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. He closed with these prophetic words:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
The following evening at about six p.m., Dr. King was on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, along with other members of his entourage. He turned to music director, Ben Branch. “Ben,” he said, “make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Then a gunshot shattered the calm evening. Dr. King fell, mortally wounded.
But his dream lived on.
Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the world with the sound of his voice and the force of his convictions. He changed the world through the power of his unconditional love.
Learn from Dr. King. Lead like Dr. King. Tell the world about your dream of a better future. Change the world through the relentless power of love.
“And so I say to you today, my friends, that you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels; you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.