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Martin Luther King's Style of Leadership

By Dr Peter J Ling
'A drum major for justice'

White hostility to his leadership would have been easy to bear, if African American support had been strong. But the reluctance with which America had protected black civil rights had bred disillusionment among SNCC and CORE militants. During a protest march through Mississippi in 1966, they used King's media magnetism to help publicise a new slogan - 'Black Power' - and then announced that they were no longer committed to his key principles of non-violence and integration.

'... violent disorder seemed to capture the establishment's attention more effectively than non-violence.'

Their separatist demands resonated with ghetto youth, who identified more immediately with the slain Malcolm X than with King. As racial conflict raged in America's cities, violent disorder seemed to capture the establishment's attention more effectively than non-violence. Alarmed at these developments, moderates expected King to condemn the 'rioters', or better yet contain them. King, however, insisted that the only remedy was to address the conditions behind the disturbances by switching resources from Vietnam to the war on poverty.

To moderate African-American figures such as the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, King's anti-war stance suggested an immaturity of leadership. It made black Americans appear unpatriotic, and strengthened the white backlash that might choose to elect reactionary members to Congress, rather than reformers. His stance smacked of self-indulgence, consistent with what the FBI was claiming about King's promiscuous private life.

'For King ... leadership meant standing up for what he believed in, and being 'a drum major for justice'.'

Even King's close advisors, such as Stanley Levison, complained that he was amazingly naïve when he suggested that he could personally stop the bombing by going to Vietnam and acting as a human shield. To race leaders like Wilkins, leadership meant keeping in touch with the powerful, and even to shrewd political analysts such as Levison, leadership meant aligning oneself with other powerful groups to form a strong coalition. For King, however, in what proved to be his final campaign, leadership meant standing up for what he believed in, and being 'a drum major for justice'.

There were many leaders in the civil rights struggle, but Martin Luther King was more than just the most conspicuous of them, and more than just an eloquent speaker. His non-violence inspired some support, but it also appealed vitally to neutrals in a way that negated more conservative voices. No one else matched his leadership of targeted, orchestrated campaigns that strengthened national political strategy. After 1965, he accepted the challenge of fighting ghetto poverty and American militarism and spurned the spoils of leadership to campaign for peace and justice. Made famous by a movement that carried him to fame, his noblest legacy is as the founder of movements still in their infancy.

Published: 2003-04-01



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