BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

26 September 2014
Recent Historybbc.co.uk/history

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Martin Luther King's Style of Leadership

By Dr Peter J Ling
A leader who can stop

Children watching a black voting rights march in Alabama.  Martin Luther King led the march from Slema, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery
Children watching a black voting rights march in Alabama. Martin Luther King led the march from Slema, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery ©
Prior to his 1963 success in Birmingham, Alabama, rifts in the movement and an embarrassing failure in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, had damaged King's credibility as a leader. He had joined the Albany protests hastily, only to discover that the campaign had too many aims and too many divisions to outmanoeuvre a wily local sheriff. While SNCC charged him with an attempted takeover, King's SCLC had in practice lacked the capacity to lead in Albany.

Before the Birmingham campaign, he tried to remedy that deficiency. He selected Birmingham because he believed its black citizens were united, and their white opponents were volatile. He limited his local goals to concessions from economically vulnerable, downtown storeowners, but he hoped that the unfolding campaign would be dramatic enough to induce presidential intervention and make the case for wide-ranging federal legislation.

Tactically, he overcame several crises during the campaign. He submitted to arrest in order to attract media attention, and when the number of adult volunteers to be arrested dwindled, he used child demonstrators to fill the jails. Equally importantly, in May 1963, he strove to end the campaign before it escalated into a race war. While others urged him to continue the protest, King realised that more might be lost than gained.

'White leaders valued King's ability to wind down campaigns as much as they dreaded his ability to escalate them.'

Such pragmatism, combined with his euphoric reception at the march on Washington in 1963, enhanced King's standing in the eyes of the White House. White leaders valued King's ability to wind down campaigns as much as they dreaded his ability to escalate them. For the same reason, however, some African Americans regarded King with a heightened mistrust.

The charge was levelled that his SCLC was a 'hit-and-run' outfit that exploited local communities and then abandoned them, once the desired media attention had been secured. King, however, was sanguine. As he explained to SNCC activists in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, one had to consider how to end a campaign as well as how to commence it. The brutal treatment of black protesters, and their white allies, by Alabama authorities forced voting rights legislation onto the Congressional agenda. But unrelenting campaigning in Selma, King sensed, was likely to produce more deaths, black retaliation, and a worsening political climate for change.

Published: 2003-04-01



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy