Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile of a Leader Essay

 

Many notable personalities remained in the minds and hearts of people because of their exemplary contributions and achievements. These personalities are unique because they strived to fight for what they believe in. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of these notable personalities who became famous and celebrated for leading the Civil Rights Movements. He struggled to advance social justice and human dignity amidst the issues of racial discrimination and inequality.

King serves as an inspiration for us because of his undaunted spirit in fighting for his beliefs. The Knowledge of Reality Magazine (1996) declared that he was an American saint. The magazine added that while some religious leaders were much on belief, they were light on behaviour, much on doctrine but light on deeds, and much on principles but light on action. King was not like them. He led through example and by involving himself through working to fight for freedom.

King’s leadership was effective, as proven by the many changes that took place as a result of his guidance. He has preached to a large number of people many times and led many mass struggles for racial equality which changed America forever. He also aimed to destroy the segregation among blacks and whites. However, this was usually misunderstood. Many think that what King did was to free blacks from segregation and that he led movements in favour of black equality. While this is accurate, it is also too restrictive. People should realize that through King’s efforts, blacks and whites alike were freed from the century-old hypocrisy about race (White 1998). Through King and the movement, U.S. can be called the leader of the “free world.” If his efforts failed, perhaps racial discrimination and inequality were still intense today.

Even before the Civil Rights Movements, there have been recorded events of racial discrimination and inequality against blacks. They were usually the poor ones, living in ghettos and slum areas and not entitled to the privileges that the rich enjoy. They cannot enjoy simple pleasures such as sitting in a bus when a white person boards up. They cannot go to the same school that whites attend. They cannot vote or even hold high positions or even have decent jobs. Some were not allowed to eat at lunch counters, rent or own a house in rural areas, or use whites-only rest rooms. What’s more, some blacks were obliged to get off the sidewalk and stand in attention when a Caucasian walked by (White 1998). All of these acts of injustice against blacks were swept away through the movement that King led.

Before the movement, King was a preacher who was passionate about the Old Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. His being a preacher was advantageous as he was able to reach the black masses and it gave him a base within the black church. Aside from this, King was also a man of courage. He strongly believed in the effectiveness of non-violence. Even though there were countless death threats against him, he still continued his mission, starting from his leading the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 to his assassination 13 years later. Moreover, his home was once bombed, with him and his family inside. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI’s director at that time, also harassed King by circulating scandalous stories about him, bugging his phone and hotel rooms and even forcing him to commit suicide after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. But through these trials, King stood firm in his faith (White 1998).

King’s Early Life

On January 15, 1929, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King of Atlanta, Georgia were blessed with another child, whom they named King, Jr. Christine, who later married Isaac Farris, Sr., and the Reverend Alfred Daniel Williams King were King, Jr.’s siblings. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a local pastor while his grandparents on his father’s side were sharecroppers on a farm in Georgia.

When King, Jr. was five, he attended the Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta (The King Center 2004). However, he was forced to stop when the school found out about his true age and was advised to continue studying at the age of six. After Yonge School, he attended the David T. Howard Elementary School. He spends his high school years at the Atlanta University Laboratory School and Booker T. Washington High school (The King Center 2004). He showed intelligence during high school and he got high scores on the college entrance examinations during his junior year of high school. His accumulated high scores was his ticket in attending Morehouse College without actually having formal education from Booker T. Washington School (The King Center 2004). He was just 15 when he began college, having skipped ninth and twelfth grades (The King Center 2004).

In 1948, he finished college from Morehouse College, with a degree in Sociology. He then enrolled and was accepted in Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (The King Center 2004). Simultaneously, he attended the University of Pennsylvania. He became the President of the Senior Class and delivers the valedictory address. He was also the most outstanding student, being awarded the Peral Plafkner Award and the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship. This entitled him for a chance to pursue graduate study in any university he likes (The King Center 2004). Moreover, he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer in 1951.  Shortly after, King, Jr. pursued his doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University (The King Center 2004). He also attended the Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1955 (The King Center 2004).

During 1948, King, Jr. was ordained, at the age of nineteen, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Georgia. He immediately became the Assistant Pastor of the church (The King Center 2004). After finishing his doctoral studies at Boston University, he took over as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama. He was the pastor there from 1954 until 1959. He resigned so he could direct the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta (The King Center 2004).

Later on, he became the leader of the civil rights movements, advocating non-violent protests. His exemplary actions earned him the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him on 1964 in Norway. He donated his prize money to the civil rights groups which aimed to secure the rights of Negroes (Stevens 2006-2007).

King’s Leadership during the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement during the late 1950s has been one of the most important events in the American history. Through this movement, there was transformation in the black-white political and economic and social relations. It advocated commitment with discipline, moral suasion and economic pressure (Challenor 2000).

According to Ling (2003: 1), King’s leadership was deeply rooted in oratory, as King declared that he will not be silent. His speeches have inspired a lot of people. During the Civil Rights Movement, King showed passion for the outcomes he wanted to see. He grew up in Georgia, where racism was dominant. He has witnessed the negative effects it had especially on blacks. Segregation was also dominant, as blacks were treated inferior. King wanted social change, and his education was coincidental to the profound task ahead of him. His education served as his preparation for his role as a spokesperson and articulator of the many injustices against African Americans. He wanted to find solutions to this growing problem.

Despite the complacency that the outcome of the situation can bring, there was also the violent outcome that could go uncontrolled. To be effective in the endeavour he wanted to pursue, King consulted the different views of the many philosophers, social and moralistic thinkers, and theologians. He was comforted with the works and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. King was inspired by Gandhi’s support for the passive resistance movement. In 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting the non-violent means in achieving civil rights reform. When he travelled to India and met Mohandas’ followers in 1959, he became more convinced that non-violent resistance was a better form of struggling for freedom (Chew 1996).

The Practice of Leadership (2007) web site launched the book review which declared that King was a great leader who was effective because he became the change he wanted to see. He was ardent in his beliefs and in pursuing freedom, equality and justice for all.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was seen to be the most important figure in the Civil Rights Movements. He became the President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and was chosen to lead the protest against segregated buses. His leadership made him known as a leader of the movements. The Montgomery Improvement Association was largely responsible for the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956 (The King Center 2004). He was arrested, alongside 90 others, for leading the boycott. Although they were found guilty for the indictment that it is illegal to scheme to obstruct the operation of a business, they appealed their case. At that time, King was gaining national reputation as the boycott continued. It is the success of the boycott which made him a national hero (Chew 1996).

The Montgomery bus boycott sparked when Rosa Parks, an ordinary but respected seamstress and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white. She was charged for violating the Alabama’s segregation laws, which opened the way for a direct challenge to the segregation laws. She then decided to appeal her conviction after the trial and conviction that year. Her case was thrown into the national spotlight.

The leaders of African-American community in Montgomery met to discuss the actions they will take. The team considered five steps which later on resulted to the success of the movement. These steps became the key elements of King’s approach to leadership.

Setting goals and creating a plan of action was the first step. The team planned to execute a long-term boycott of city buses until the government agrees to the team’s proposal. The team also has three goals that would serve as the basis for ending the boycott. First is that no one would be forced to give up a seat if already occupied and no one will have to stand if there was a vacant seat. The second goal concerns the courteousness of bus drivers to all passengers. This was included in the goal since drivers tend to say racial epithets to passengers. Third, African-Americans will be given a chance to be hired as bus drivers, as the drivers that time were whites only (Phillips 1998).

The second strategic step was creating a new formal alliance. MIA was the organization created to accomplish this step. King was elected the president because the members thought he was highly educated, well liked and an eloquent speaker. Moreover, as King had no affiliation with a particular group and was new in town, he had no known personal agenda. He was a “middle-of-the-road candidate” (Phillips 1998). The third step is involving the people. Throughout the duration of the boycott, ever individual is involved. They were included in mass meetings. If there were anything that the mass should know, mass meetings were held and the agenda were disseminated to churches. Seeking dialogue and negotiation is the fourth step. The team organized the negotiation with the bus company regarding the three demands (goals). Throughout the boycott, King strived to seek additional negotiations. Sometimes they speak with those who are in authority.

The fifth and last stage was innovation. One problem which existed was the issue of getting thousands of citizens to and from work. It was obvious that they have to find imaginative and creative solutions to this problem. The MIA then allotted a transportation committee to deal with the problem. As a result, a car pool system was suggested (Phillips 1998).

The bus boycott was organized for the sole purpose of matching the legal challenge. The year-long bus boycott started on December 4, 1955 during a mass meeting. In attendance were E.D. Nixon, that time a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, King, Jr., and a pastor of First Baptist Church. Rufus Lewis, a distinguished funeral director and that time Nixon’s contender for the leadership of the black community, was also present. The mass meeting gave birth to the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which primary goal was to negotiate with the bus company and to manage the boycott (Civil Rights Leadership 2002).

During his leadership King practiced non-violent protest, which was based on the principles of civil disobedience. Before going to protests, volunteers and participants were instructed on how to respond in a non-violent way to any form of attack. Through this the Montgomery boycott lasted for more than a year. In response to the charges filed against Rosa Parks, the MIA filed suit to overturn local and state bus segregation laws. This was granted in 1956 (Civil Rights Leadership 2002).

Although King was at first tentative in leading the boycott, he worked with others, followed the lead of others and consulted with the leaders of MIA before making any policy decision. His being an effective leader was helped by the people’s need of a leader who would listen to them and understand their needs. The people also witnessed that King was an excellent listener, thus gaining their trust as time went by. This was because only through listening to the people can their concern be acted upon. Phillips (1998) said that if a leader listens first before speaking, they promote trust to those who follow. He added that listening is an important part of leadership, because only through listening can the leader analyze what they hear.

Phillips (1998) added that King was very proactive, overseeing even the smallest things, and responsible for key management issues. For example, he saw to it that the staff of MIA would have an office space. He was also diligent in monitoring the boycott’s progress and re-evaluating the goals. Moreover, he increased the number of mass meetings every week so that people are informed. Through all this, king was able to keep the people involved in many activities. King’s leadership during the boycott earned him a place for being their leader. From the year the boycott happened until his assassination, he supported the huge numbers of demonstrations and rallies seeking to attain equal civil rights. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) coordinated many of these activities.

Although King was arrested many times for his participation in civil rights activities, he still pushed forward. He was the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was voted the president from 1957 to 1968. Aside from this, King Jr. was affiliated with the National Sunday School and Baptist Teaching Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention, where he was the vice president. His other activities also included membership in several local and national boards of directors (The King Center 2004). He was also a member of the different boards of trustees of countless institutions and agencies. Additionally, he has membership in some learned societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The King Center 2004).

King, Jr. opposed the conditions of African Americans, who were treated as second class human beings. Through his holistic vision and leadership, and his unrelenting support for the principles of non-violence, that status changed. King delivered his message and led movements that brought together people of goodwill. Black and White people, who supported his beliefs, joined him to his camp. All throughout his life was in danger, what with the death threats that kept on coming. He led the Civil Rights Movements in advancing its goals. Through the years, the movement has become an inspiration to the countless victims of racial discrimination and inequality (Chew 1996).

In 1963, King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which became an inspiration for the national civil rights movement. The civil rights movements aimed at ending the system of segregation in every area of public life and in job discrimination. King was also famous for the marches he led, particularly the massive march in Washington DC. There he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, which became very famous. Through King’s leadership and his active support for non-violent protest enabled the civil-rights to be included in the national agenda (Chew 1996). The public was also made much more aware of the real situation of blacks.

King on Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility

According to an article entitled Martin Luther King, Jr. (n.d.), “his influence on ethics was both practical and ideological.” King wanted for people to be judged according to their character and not according to the color of their skin or race.

Moreover, King wanted to achieve this dream through non-violent means. Gandhi has been his inspiration in advocating non-violent protests. His ethical message was obvious. King made it known of his belief that it is wrong to discriminate a person just because he is of different race or culture. Additionally, he made it clear that non-violence is the better way in achieving change which is both effective and right. The article also added that it is not only Gandhi which influenced King on his belief on non-violence, but the teaching of his religion, Christianity, as well.

The Knowledge of Reality Magazine (1996-2006) cited the lecture that Leo Marx and Michael R. Winston gave at the MIT. The lecturers agreed in saying that King expressed a radical, ethical doctrine that racial equality, social justice and economic reform can be achieved by way of appealing to the conscience of people. He also believed that we can do great things without resorting to violence or any other form of coercive force. In his book entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community (1967), King mentioned about a human’s discovery of conviction that is so meaningful and precious. He stated that that was what he found in non-violence, and he would continue to “stand on it till the end.”

Khayat (2000), in his speech during the annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr, Commemorative Service, commented that King believed that the dual ethic of respect for others and self-respect are necessary if people wanted to live with dignity and freedom. King gave importance to the respect for human life, and it reflected on his advocacy of non-violence. This enabled America to be aware and to be racially conscious. The people also recognized King’s life-long pursuit of racial equality in a world where some people were treated as inferior.

Aside from all these, King was a firm believer of his theological social ethics, which were agape, personalism and the beloved community. He has also shown the importance of the concept Corporate Social Responsibility through the way he led. His actions showed that he and the SCLC were concerned about the interests of the society and took responsibility for whatever impact those actions may have on communities. Moreover, King saw this not as an obligation but something that he wanted to do for the society. His conscience encouraged him to take further steps in improving the life of the many oppressed and their families.

King has long been since dead, but his legacies still remain. Not even accusations of academic plagiarism and marital infidelity could mar his reputation as a great leader and person. Alan (2005-2007) stated that King’s unforgettable legacy was the influence on Civil Rights Movements, and also on Black Consciousness Movement. He has instilled the importance of non-violent protests in striving for freedom, social change and equality and the importance of involving everyone in achieving goals. He also influenced people through his belief that personal responsibility is important in bringing justice, equality and peace into the world.

King’s life and his teachings were still alive in the hearts of people, and these became entrenched in the consciousness of Americans. His role in the many marches, demonstrations and the civil rights movements continue to show us and to teach us of what it means to be a leader and an advocate of non-violent struggles. He supported and sought racial justice, non-violence, peace, social and economic equality, social change, freedom for all people regardless of race, faith in the nation and the future of mankind, respect for self and others and dignity of the human race (Khayat 2000). His contributions, which influenced the way the nation is shaped today, will serve as a reminder of his undaunted spirit (Sylvester 1998). These should serve as an inspiration for the would-be managers in different fields. King’s legacies taught us that to be an effective manager, one must be an effective model of leadership. We should learn that being concerned for the welfare of others is also important. Through King’s experiences from the civil rights movements and many other protests, we learn that political influence cannot be sustained with the absence of economic empowerment. Moreover, there should be changes in racial attitudes before racial inequalities can be completely eliminated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

List of References

Alan, R. (2005-2007) Martin Luther King, Jr. (online) available from <http://www.betterworldheroes.com/king.htm> (3 January 2008)

 

Challenor, H. (2000) Dr. Martin luther King, Jr. (online) available from <http://www.africanamericans.com/MartinLutherKingJr.htm> (3 January 2008)

 

Chew, R. (1996) Martin Luther King, Jr. (online) available from <http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/96jan/king.html> (3 January 2008)

 

Civil Rights Leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2002) (online) available from <http://www.nps.gov/archive/malu/hrs/HRSAC2.HTM> (3 January 2008)

 

Khayat, R. (2000) Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration (online) available from <http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/chancellor/Speeches_mlk.html> (3 January 2008)

 

The King Center. (2004) Biographical Outline of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (online) available from <http://www.thekingcenter.org/mlk/bio.html> (3 January 2008)

 

Knowledge of Reality Magazine. (1996-2006) Martin Luther King, Jr. (online) available from <http://www.sol.com.au/kor/15_01.htm> (3 January 2008)

 

Ling, P. (2003) Martin Luther King’s Style of Leadership (online) available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/martin_luther_king_01.shtml> (3 January 2008)

 

The Practice of Leadership. (2007) Book Review: Martin Luther king, Jr. on Leadership (online) available from <http://www.thepracticeofleadership.net/2006/10/30/book-review-martin-luther-king-jr-on-leadership/> (3 January 2008)

 

Stevens, P. (2006-2007) Martin Luther King Jr. (online) available from <http://www.gardenofpraise.com/ibdking.htm> (3 January 2008)

 

Sylvester, M. (1998) A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (online) available from  <http://history1900s.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.liunet.edu%2Fcwis%2Fcwp%2Flibrary%2Fmlking.htm> (3 January 2008)

 

TeamCaptainsNetwork. (2006-2007) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership (online) available from <http://www.teamcaptainsnetwork.com/public/255.cfm> (3 January 2008)

 

White, J. (1998) Martin Luther King (online) available from <http://history1900s.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.time.com%2Ftime%2Ftime100%2Fleaders%2Fprofile%2Fking.html> (3 January 2008)