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Martin Luther King's Style of Leadership

By Dr Peter J Ling
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) ©

There were many leaders in the civil rights struggle, but Martin Luther King was more than just the most conspicuous -and eloquent - among them. Peter Ling examines King's leadership role during his campaign for peace and justice.

The 'great leader' myth

Thanks to the miracle of television, Martin Luther King Junior is vividly remembered as an inspirational speaker, whose leadership was seemingly rooted in oratory. Speeches such as the 'I Have A Dream' speech at the civil rights march on Washington of August 1963 galvanised people of all races, and created an unprecedented bipartisan coalition for anti-racist legislation.

King undoubtedly spoke to, and for, African Americans, and their mounting challenge to white oppression sprang from hearing his non-violent call to arms. When he died the non-violent movement seemed unable to continue without him, and this deepened the impression that he was its essential leader. His leadership, however, was always being questioned during his lifetime, and this has continued since his death.

Martin Luther King waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall during the March on Washington, after delivering his 'I Have A Dream' speech
Martin Luther King waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall during the March on Washington, after delivering his 'I Have A Dream' speech ©
Movement activists, particularly militant black separatists, never saw King as their one great leader. When his lieutenants introduced him as a 'Moses' for African Americans, for example, it rankled. Hearing Wyatt Walker, a key aide, introduce King publicly as the people's saviour prompted Bob Moses of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to ask: 'Don't you think we need lots of leaders?'

Privately, King's supporters knew that non-violence was not an outlook everyone shared, and Walker amused King by telling him of how one black Virginian had responded to a white bus driver who wanted him to enter his bus by the back door. A massive figure, the man had picked up the driver with one hand and said bluntly: 'Know two things. I can break your neck, and I ain't one of Martin Luther King's non-violent Negroes.'

'Privately, King's supporters knew that non-violence was not an outlook everyone shared ...'

This recognition that King's non-violent approach was just one tendency within a larger movement - and that he was created by the movement, rather than being the creator of it - has become a staple of recent scholarship. It was not King but other local figures, for instance, who planned the famous Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.

The first student protesters of the 1960s sit-ins similarly denied that they were following King's orders, and it was the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), rather than King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), that launched the freedom rides of 1961 - and SNCC volunteers who ensured their success. Furthermore, when members of the SNCC asked King to join them on the ride into Mississippi, he pompously declined, saying: 'I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha'. Thereafter, they referred to him sarcastically as 'De Lawd' - and mistrusted a leader who preferred to cheer from the sidelines.

Published: 2003-04-01



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