By Paul Schmitz,
CEO, Public Allies
Dr. Martin Luther King was a transformational leader who inspired our nation and bent the arc of history toward justice. When we remember Dr. King only by his greatest victories and quotations, however, we do a disservice to him and ourselves. The iconic King teaches us incomplete lessons about leadership and the struggle for social change that can only be completed by understanding the true, three-dimensional Dr. King.
Over the years, many have mistakenly described Rosa Parks as an accidental activist, a tired seamstress who did not intend to start a movement. In fact, Parks was a long-time NAACP activist who had been fighting Jim Crow long before she refused to give up her seat in December 1955. It may be more accurate to describe Dr. King as an accidental activist. His emergence as leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which led the bus boycott, was by draft more than ambition. He was chosen because he was young (26 years old), smart, and new to town, so he had less to lose. Nevertheless, his maiden speech to the MIA demonstrated his brilliance and vision as he positioned the boycott within the larger historical advance of freedom and equality.
The Gandhian methods that came to define Dr. King also did not come to him automatically. When the great labor organizer Bayard Rustin arrived in Montgomery, he found Dr. King carrying a gun with armed men stationed outside his home. Rustin advised him to ditch the guns and recommended to Dr. King and E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, that all the indicted members of the MIA dress in their Sunday best, march to the courthouse, and turn themselves in. Rustin became one of several mentors and advisors Dr. King counted on throughout the tenure of his leadership.
MIA’s success was also the result of many leaders, including E.D. Nixon; Joanna Robinson, whose Women’s Political Council had the idea for the boycott and organized it; the young lawyer Fred Gray; Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who was Dr. King’s partner in the struggle; Rufus Lewis, who organized the 350-car carpool that transported people for the year of the boycott; Inez Ricks and Georgia Gilmore, who formed cooking clubs that sold food to finance the carpools; Clifford and Virginia Durr, the leading white liberals in town, who advised and raised support; and Aurelia Boyton and Claudette Colvin, other women who had refused to sit at the back of the bus. The list of leaders is much longer, and the reality is that the victory over segregation in Montgomery took the leadership of many.
Among all these leaders, Dr. King certainly distinguished himself through his courage, moral and historical vision, political savvy, and remarkable oratorical skills. Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Stanley Levison, and other long-time organizers saw his potential and created the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) as a platform for his leadership to build on the victory in Montgomery. Not all civil rights leaders were impressed, though. The NAACP continued to believe that the battle would be won through judicial and legislative fights, not grassroots action. Top NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall diminished the grassroots action, criticizing Dr. King as an opportunistic rabble rouser and claiming that desegregation was men’s work, not children’s work.
After Montgomery, the struggle did not advance easily or successfully for Dr. King and the SCLC. Over the next several years, he led several unsuccessful campaigns in towns such as St. Augustine, FL and Albany, GA. Meanwhile, new leadership emerged from students as the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins, the Freedom Rides organized by Congress for Racial Equality, and the creation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) generated new energy and activism. Many of the SNCC activists were critical of Dr. King and the SCLC, especially concerned that their top-down view of leadership did not build, trust, or respect local grassroots leadership. The NAACP also continued to be as much a rival as a partner in their campaigns.
By spring 1963, some in the media described Dr. King as a relic of the ’50s and questioned the effectiveness of his protest strategies. His Birmingham, AL, campaign seemed headed for another failure as he struggled to recruit adult volunteers. With the future of his leadership and the SCLC at stake, Dr. King made a risky and dangerous decision to enact organizer James Bevel’s plan for a children’s march. On May 2, 1963, over 1,000 children marched, facing a brutal police force armed with dogs and fire hoses. Over 600 were arrested, and before long, over 2,600 kids were in jail.
The Birmingham march reignited the movement. It inspired protests that led to 14,733 arrests in 186 cities and struck at the conscience of our nation and the White House, leading to a game-changing civil rights speech by the previously reluctant President Kennedy. Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters picked up on that momentum and planned what became the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where, a few months later, Dr. King, the 14th speaker of the day, shared his own game-changing dream.
Despite the dream and legislative victories on civil rights and voting rights, Dr. King and the SCLC continued to struggle. By 1966, the SCLC had expenses of over $30,000 a month but was only bringing in $8,000 a month. Evaluations of the SCLC’s Voter Education Project and other programs found poor management and limited results. There were intense staff rivalries and low morale, as SCLC left behind a trail of embittered communities. Even the MIA that launched the movement resigned its SCLC membership. There was continued conflict with SNCC and the NAACP along with President Johnson, who, after a promising start on civil rights, was increasingly focused on war.
Amid the turmoil, Dr. King began to see that their celebrated legislative and judicial victories were doing little for the ghettos. He moved up to Chicago to address racism in Northern cities and found as much if not more hate than he had seen in the South. He began speaking out more radically against the three evils — racism, militarism, and materialism — with increased force. His Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War was reviewed in Life Magazine as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi.” Reviewing his book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, The New York Times argued that he had been outstripped by his times. He began working on the Poor People’s Campaign and speaking about the need for greater redistribution of economic wealth and political power in America. His popularity in national polls declined rapidly as he expressed his more radical vision of justice. Tragically, an assassin’s bullet took him from us as he began implementing that vision.
The Dr. King we honor today does not often resemble the Dr. King I’ve described. The radicalism of his vision, the courageous risks he took personally and organizationally, and the continued personal and organizational struggles he persevered through for 13 years are not remembered as much as his great speeches. Dr. King was a historic leader who helped dismantle Jim Crow laws and pass major civil rights legislation and inspired millions to believe in the cause of greater racial and social justice. But he was not a popular or perfect leader.
David Garrow concluded his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Dr. King with a quotation of an educator and friend of Dr. King, Charles Willie:
“By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity — his personal and public struggles — that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize what we could do likewise.”
When we measure today’s leaders against the actual Dr. King, not the iconic Dr. King, it opens us much more to their and our own potential. We should recognize that our young leaders are not fully developed. We need to give them room to take risks, make mistakes, fail, and evolve their vision. How many philanthropists who fund Martin Luther King Day would have funded him if they’d reviewed the SCLC’s program results, internal management issues, and fiscal crises? It would be better for them to take chances on leaders than to honor him by supporting risk-averse celebrations and service projects. Some ask: Where is the next Dr. King? Maybe we just aren’t allowing such leadership to fully develop.
Dr. King had particular gifts of vision, courage, and brilliance, but he could not have given those gifts without the mentorship, partnership, and courageous acts of many other leaders. The continued struggle for greater social justice in America needs the leadership of the many. We need your gifts. Honor Dr. King not by admiring his speeches but by taking action on the issues you are passionate about.