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Martin Luther King's Style of Leadership

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


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.

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.

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.

Campaigning for peace and justice

President Lyndon Johnson discussing the Voting Rights Act with Martin Luther King
President Lyndon Johnson discussing the Voting Rights Act with Martin Luther King
While it is customary to judge leaders by their successes, it may be argued that King showed his most heroic leadership after 1965, when he championed a US withdrawal from Vietnam, and the tackling of poverty and deprivation in black ghettos, with little success. It had taken bravery to confront segregation in the South, but it took equal courage to challenge the President on foreign policy and to demand a massive redistribution of wealth and power to the underprivileged.

Even in the days after the disturbances in Watts, Los Angeles, in August 1965, President Johnson spent part of a meeting with King demanding his support on Vietnam. Having developed a strategy that ultimately cast the White House in the role of ally, King increasingly accepted that the federal government was his adversary.

'... they despised King as a hypocrite who spoke about peace and non-violence but created strife and disorder.'

His attempts to dramatise the evils of poverty and demand change in Chicago's ghettos provoked an angry reaction from whites, who saw him as threatening the value of their homes, the security of their jobs, and the secure parochialism of their children's schools. Beneficiaries of institutional racism, they despised King as a hypocrite who spoke about peace and non-violence but created strife and disorder.

'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.

Find out more

Books

To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership and Martin Luther King Jr by Adam Fairclough (University of Georgia Press, 1987)

Martin Luther King by Peter J Ling (Routledge Historical Biographies, 2002)

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow (Jonathan Cape, 1988)



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Published on BBC History: 2003-04-01
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