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26 September 2014
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Martin Luther King's Style of Leadership

By Dr Peter J Ling
A point of balance and unity

Martin Luther King at a meeting
Martin Luther King at a meeting ©
The black preacher background of both King and his SCLC colleagues largely explains why he saw himself, and was presented, as a kind of prophet. But once one concedes that a 'Messiah' complex weakened his leadership by encouraging a neglect of more basic, organising measures, the concession merely heightens the need to understand the considerable leadership that King actually provided.

'... King had a remarkable ability to get people who would otherwise be constantly feuding to work together.'

This leadership was not confined to fine speeches. In private meetings, King was generally quiet. He listened while others argued, often angrily and at length, and then he would calmly sum up the debate and identify a way forward. From the outset of his career in Montgomery in 1955, right through to his death in 1968, King had a remarkable ability to get people who would otherwise be constantly feuding to work together. He was consistently reluctant to sever or sour relations with anyone who might help the cause. This was particularly important because a by-product of racism was a pronounced tendency to factionalism inside the black community. King became the vital centre - a point of balance and unity.

While King rarely relaxed in public, especially in white company, his conspicuous gravitas commanded respect. This persona was partly why he was chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, and why he emerged to publicise not just the boycott, but the freedom struggle in general. The media quickly spotted his ability to articulate the moral dimensions of the struggle in ways that appealed to moderate public opinion, especially away from the South. He made it easier to accept change.

Although King cultivated a coalition of people of 'good will', he learned that he needed more than simply moral suasion to overturn segregation. He recognised that local leaders in the South would be more likely to give concessions if the movement generated sufficient economic pressure, through boycotts and downtown protests, and through precipitating mass arrests.

'He had to threaten racial catastrophe, while simultaneously holding out the promise of racial peace.'

By the Birmingham campaign of 1963, King had also learned that the White House might intervene, provided non-violent protests created a crisis that threatened to get out of control and to damage US international standing in a Cold War context. As a leader, King had to end the possibility of 'business as usual'. He had to threaten racial catastrophe, while simultaneously holding out the promise of racial peace. He needed compelling images of the nightmare, as well as the dream.

Published: 2003-04-01



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