Martin Luther King Jr.:
Life, Leadership and Language


By Chris Lyttle

Michael Woods

Declan Heery

Ronan Lyons

Lesley-Anne Denvir

Stephen Crawford

Leanne Quigg

Anja Friedrich

Claire Devlin

and Peter Munce



Martin Luther King Jr. - Life, Leadership and Language




The theory of leadership is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only in the last ten to fifteen years has the study of leadership been examined on its own terms, and not as part of the ‘management philosophy of the business world. In all definitions of leadership that have their roots in the world of business there has been a glaring omission of reference to the basic concept of human rights, or mention of leadership as a self denying concern for others.


Leadership has at times proven an elusive and vague concept. As a result most attempts to define it have fallen short of capturing a true meaning. Although there are countless definitions, there are no set rules or formulas for leaders to follow. There are only guidelines and abstract generalities. This is why the art of leading people is so difficult to master and teach, and why there is such a need to study great role models. We need to study individuals who have demonstrated their abilities with tangible results.


Most leadership programs take an outside-in approach to leadership, focusing on the rules we must follow to fit the build of a leader, rather than looking at who a leader is, or has been.


Ben and Roz Zander have been part of a movement to create new definitions of leadership, definitions that take an inside-out approach. Our study of Martin Luther King Jr. is steeped in this school of thought and we believe that by looking at the life of this great man, we can we learn more about being a unique leader.



Lessons in Leadership: The Life of Martin Luther King



To begin, we must take a look at Ben and Roz Zander’s concepts of leadership. Many of these are applicable to the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Zander model, an effective leader will:


Š      Speak possibility/Create possibility for others

Š      Enroll everyone in the vision

Š      Make others powerful

Š      Quiet the voice in the head that says ‘I can’t do this’, ‘We can’t do this’


In addition to these concepts of leadership, we would also like to include our own definitions of what makes Martin Luther King a truly great, even unique leader. These are concepts that Dr King consistently adhered to during his life, concepts that elevated him into the role of the world-renowned civil rights campaigner and the extremely effective and popular leader we have come to examine. In learning from this man’s life, we can infer that an effective leader will also:


Š      Connect into a bigger story

Š      Make the vision accessible to the common people

Š      Create momentum/urgency

Š      Have dedication to the task at hand




Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15 1929, Martin Luther King was a gifted child and very quickly made a name for himself in his academic life by skipping three grades and attending college at age fifteen. By the time he was twenty-six, he had a BA in Sociology, a BD degree from Crozer Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University. During his college days he studied the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, another great leader who became a strong influence in his life, especially with his principle of non-violent resistance. In 1948, Martin Luther King Jr. was ordained a Baptist Minister, certainly a major factor in making him the great orator he was, a leadership quality we will examine further later in the chapter.

In 1955 the civil rights movement began with the famous bus boycott. Mrs. Rosa Parks, a forty-two year old seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Dr. King became involved in the incident. As a means of protest the Montgomery Improvement Association was organized in December 4, 1955. Dr. King was elected president. The boycott was the catalytic event, which started Dr. King on the road to become America's crusader and most famous civil rights leader.

Creating possibilities for others is something that is certainly in evidence throughout Kings career. By taking on the Presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association, King showed that black people had a voice and a leader. Until this point the movement had really been a rudderless ship; Dr King helped this group to identify the possibilities ahead.

In 1964 Time Magazine honored King as “Man of the Year” with a feature story and cover photo. Towards the end of the year King also received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. For a black man to receive awards like this was virtually unheard of and demonstrated to other blacks just what could be achieved.

As a basic principle great leaders need a significant following from people whom they enrolled in their vision, King was very adept at this. The common man was not a stranger to King, nor he to them, just listen to the speeches that he delivered. If you examine the language used, it is easy to see how the common man was enrolled in his vision. He was accessible to his audience at his mass rallies and spread his message in simple terms that people understood. In the mass march on Washington in 1963, his “ I have a Dream” speech demonstrates how he got people involved and made them a clear part of his team and vision. In publishing his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King spread the word of the success of the Montgomery boycotts to the American public and enrolled people all over the country into the greater vision.

The ability to empower is a key skill that all great leaders possess and King was most successful in empowering others with his principles of non-violence despite all the violent opposition against him and his followers. Learning from Gandhi’s methods in India, and from his strong faith in God, King taught the biblical idea of ‘turning the other cheek’, a process which made his followers powerful, as they showed superior moral integrity against the often heavy-handed police forces and racist groups. Despite being repeatedly harassed, jailed, and beaten, King’s

followers remained peaceful, gaining worldwide support, attention and aiding their cause significantly. King also empowered his supporters with inspiring speeches. His oratory skills were used to enlighten, encourage, and urge on the masses to which he preached. By making others powerful, King enrolled more people in the vision, further promoting the cause he was dedicated to fighting for.

Quieting the voice in the head

Everyone can be afflicted by a doubting voice in his or her head that says ‘I can’t do this’, and Martin Luther King was no different. Throughout his life, King faced much adversity and constantly had to remain strong, focused, and dedicated towards what he truly believed in. On a number of occasions, King was beaten and indeed was almost killed by a deranged black woman, who stabbed him in New York in 1958. He was imprisoned many times for participating in protests and marches, and even had his own house bombed by those in opposition to his vision. These events triggered numerous doubting voices in his head, calling him to question the path that he had taken in his life. Yet, despite all his fears, Dr King persevered with his dream and put the advancement of his beliefs before his own personal safety. Looking back to even the beginnings of his work in the civil rights movement, King had serious doubts about his ability to become an affective President of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Dr King however quieted the voice in his head and reveled in his new role.

The bigger story

It is vital for a leader to connect his vision into a bigger story in order to increase the significance of the vision for all the followers. King’s main tool for doing this lay in his speech making and reference to Biblical images or beliefs. This helped to illustrated a sense of a higher purpose and rallied increased support within the movement. An example of this is the last speech that King delivered entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”, and also his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In both these addresses, King helped to connect the struggle of man and the civil rights movement to biblical teachings, increasing the importance and magnitude of his words.


It was important for the civil rights movement to maintain a sense of urgency and to keep pushing out the boundaries. The momentum created from this urgency was the fuel that kept the fire burning in the hearts of his followers, avoiding the tranquilsing drug of gradualism that so many prominent figures of that time wanted. The various rallies created momentum by getting more people involved and the ever-increasing attendance at these rallies helped perpetuate this phenomenon. In 1963, King, while in his Birmingham jail cell, wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he expressed his concerns and criticism of the slow pace of justice in civil rights for black Americans. He was frustrated at the lack of urgency of the developments. King published two more of his books “Why We Can’t Wait” in 1964, and “Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community” in 1967 which further voiced his fears that not enough was being done. His desire to constantly achieve harder goals was very apparent and was always a driving motivation in his life.

King also realised the urgent need to educate Black people of their obligation to fully exercise their voting rights. In 1964, a new plank in the civil rights movement started with Black and White students called the Council of Federated Organisations. They initiated massive voter-registration drives in the summer of that year.


The quintessence of Martin Luther King, Jr.



As we can see from the account of his life, Dr. King's adulthood was an interesting and eventful one. The many events in his life and his accomplishments show a true leader of his time, a person with vision and purpose, someone dedicated to spreading the message of peace and love, of empowering others, of a better world for all.


In taking any meaning from the life of Dr. King, however, one must try and establish those factors in his life that made him unique, not just as a person but as a leader. He had many admirable qualities, and these may be necessary as prerequisites of great leadership, but they may not be enough on their own. To learn from his life and teachings, we need to establish which qualities in particular made Dr. King the unique leader he was:


King's unique status was not self-evident to many who breathed the movement, slept the movement, suffered the movement, and sometimes died the movement. He was a minister, but so were many other agitators... He mastered Ghandian non-violence; but so did dozens of others, including James Farmer more than a decade earlier. He volunteered for jail duty, but so did Farmer and hundreds of others. He headed a major political organisation, but so did Farmer, Wilkins, John Lewis and James Forman. He choreographed dramatic confrontations with Southern sheriffs... he exhibited statesmanlike abilities to listen, deflect hostile criticism, and lead despite deadly opposition... [and] he proved an expert political strategist and organiser, but so did Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and many others. He risked his life... he survived attempted assassination... [and] he was martyred for the cause of black rights, but so were Evers, Malcom X, and many more... But none of these qualities alone or in combination made King unique, for he shared them with Farmer and their colleagues.


However, unlike them, King became a media magnet and a superstar... In the eyes of the press and most of America, King emerged as a uniquely powerful leader. But how did this process occur? What made King a superstar? The answer to this question can be stated in a single word: language.[1]


 As a preacher, Martin Luther King’s oratorical skills were of prime importance to him. Furthermore, as a preacher to the masses, his use of Biblical imagery and the notion of a nation whose destiny was freedom for all oppressed peoples touched a chord in the hearts of ordinary people. His sermons were clear and direct, accessible to all classes.

This carried over into his speeches as a political activist in the cause for human rights. His use of public speech, his colourful imagery and metaphors, his belief in a greater future within our grasp and his passion for non-violence are some of the qualities that in and through his language made him a great leader, and it is to this that we now turn.


Lessons in Leadership: The Language of Martin Luther King


Address to the first Montgomery Improvement Association


“Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”


In March 1955 a fifteen-year old girl was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on the bus.  Martin Luther King was on the committee that protested in response, but no action was taken as a result.  On December 1 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks felt she was too tired to stand up and give her seat to a white man who had boarded after her, so she stayed seated.  The bus driver ordered her to move, but she refused.  She was then arrested and taken to the courthouse. From there, she called E.D Nixon who made several telephone calls on her behalf.  One person that he rang was King, who offered his Dexter Avenue Church for a meeting place that night. Over forty black leaders showed up and they agreed to boycott the buses on the following Monday and then hold a mass meeting that evening.  The word was effectively spread and on the Monday morning, the Montgomery buses were practically empty.  Mrs. Parks was convicted that morning for disobeying the city segregation ordinance and fined ten dollars plus court costs. That afternoon King was elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association.


The address he made to the First Montgomery Improvement Association mass meeting aimed to enroll everyone in a vision, a vision for the future that King saw. The language he used aroused positive action among his listeners. With clear emphasis on his principles of non-violence, he instilled discipline in his followers. “There will be no white person pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and lynched for not co-operating.  There will be nobody amid, among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist.” Martin Luther King spoke for the hearts of many when he declared that they were “tired of being segregated and humiliated”.


Through the language he used and the way in which he delivered this speech, he energised his listeners.  He made them realize that they did not have to tolerate being treated as second class citizens, and if they all stand together and work together, then change can and will happen.  In effect, he quiets the voice in the head that says, “I can’t do this”.


The main content of this particular speech is based around his faith.  He talks about keeping God in the forefront at all times, and reiterates his principle of non-violence, which is very deeply embedded in his faith.


With his words of conclusion King connects his speech and that moment into a bigger story. “Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future somebody will have to say, there lived a race of people, a black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.  And thereby they injected a new meaning in the veins of history and of civilization”. King’s mastery of language allowed him to go as far as telling his followers what was going to happen and the actions they would take to achieve this, as though the history books had already been written. By doing this King enrolls, empowers and then challenges the voice in the head that is telling his people ‘we will not be able to do this’ and replies; it will be done.



Riverside Church, New York


On April 4th 1967 Martin Luther King addressed a congregation gathered at Riverside Church in New York.  Throughout this speech there are many interesting and exciting examples of Dr. King’s unique use of language.  As we have seen Dr King understands the capacity of speeches to motivate individuals to move forward along side him, with a common goal in mind.


King attempts to illustrate the point through this address that there comes a time when “silence is betrayal”.  For him, not to use your voice is indeed as much an offence as deceiving the cause for which you believe in.  As he himself claims, he has moved to break his own betrayal of his own silence and to speak. He is not attempting to say that he is perfect; in fact if anything he is aiming to show quite the opposite. He is illustrating the fact that everyone is fallible, everyone is not perfect, however the main thing is to aim to be as near to perfect as possible.


Continuing in this vein, Dr King also refers strongly to the Bible, “The Good News”, he says, “was meant for all men.”  King felt that his job was to look after all people, and not merely himself and his followers. In stating that Jesus died for all people he illustrates this point with great poignancy and vigour.  Dr King is unrelenting in his constant aim for a non-violent society. 


Each paragraph of his speech in some way conveys this notion, even when dealing with a separate topic.  This is often found behind the initial face of the paragraph aiming at the notion of non-violence in society.  For example he uses phrases such as, “we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness,” and, “my moral vision,” all of which reinforce his aim for a higher good and a policy of non-violence. His followers are therefore his counterparts, and not merely people hiding behind their leader's words.


Dr King’s most striking statement however in this speech is that of, “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and non-violence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” Clearly his conviction means viewing everyone as valid individuals and thus this aspect of his leadership is steeped in compassion. One can truly see this in his statement that, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars need restructuring.” Dr King shows through this very statement his enormous vision and understanding to see further into a problems source and look at a bigger picture. A leader with a vision of a bigger picture and an understanding of the perspective from which their opposition is coming, is a true example of an individual born to lead and living to serve.



I Have a Dream


“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"



This speech immediately connects into ‘the bigger picture’ that is, American history.  From the outset King refers to Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’. King, in his introduction, reiterates Lincoln’s words and adds a new chapter to Lincoln’s story. He states ‘five score years ago’; this in itself depicts the emphasis and reliance all great orators placed on their predecessors.  However what distinguishes King from his great colleagues at that time was his great use of language, this is a point heavily reinforced by Keith Miller, who believes language was King’s key to unlocking successful leadership. 


In his public speeches, King envisaged a diverse audience. His words were not spoken to reach the ears and touch the souls of his learned colleagues but of a complete nation, african-american and white alike.  Indeed he mastered his words, that they would reach the ears of ‘all’ people.  This can be seen in his creative adoption of various literary devices, of which I intend to discuss in depth.  Repetition, imagery, metaphors, religious and otherwise are often utilized throughout this speech.  King was devoted to the notion of empowerment; his use of religious imagery was steeped in faith, dedication and words of possibility, all of which would ultimately achieve a commitment to equality and recognition of status as citizens.


Ben and Roz Zander highlight the concepts seen in King’s work as essential concepts in the search for effective leadership.  They propose an ‘effective leader’ will be someone who speaks and thus creates possibility, enrolls everyone in a vision, empowers others and removes any doubts or lack of belief.  King’s work offers all this…and more!


Following the introduction that places his public address in historical context, he makes a simple remark; “the Negro is still not free”.  Of the many literary devices he employs as part of his oratory style, repetition is perhaps most evident.  This repetition guides his audience from past to present with ”One hundred years later” mentioned, successively, four times.  He states the current state of ‘Negro’ life and uses graphic imagery to reinforce the severity of the situation.  Statement such as, “sadly crippled”,  “chains of discrimination”,  “lonely island of poverty” and “languishing in the corners of American society” reinforce precisely the current state of Negro life. 


This unacceptable situation is made accessible to common people as King uses the “check”’ metaphor.   All understood and could relate to a check, so to compare the current state of Negro human rights to an insufficient check was indicative of the clever, all encompassing orator that he was. The check and bank related imagery is referred to as many as seven times. This functions to emphasize the urgency to take measures to change this unacceptable situation. 


Again King underscores momentum in seizing the day.  Each statement begins with “now” and is reiterated a total of five times in as many sentences.  In the midst of this sense of urgency, King embellishes in imagery that would touch his vast quarter million audience that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Dr King refers to the “ tranquilizing drug of gradualism”, the Negro valley is, “dark and desolate”, their nation sunk in the “quicksands”.  Although this hyperbole does bring home the current state of negro life, King is intent upon showing the alternative positive situation, one that is based upon “an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality”.  He did, in accordance with effective leadership, speak and create possibility and opportunity.  He proposes that the Negro “whirlwinds of revolt” will “shake the foundations” of domination and “the bright day of justice emerges”. 


Religious imagery is obvious throughout this speech.  He talks of “drinking from the cup” and proposes, in accordance with God “meeting physical force with soul force”.  This statement is applicable to how Jesus turned his cheek on being slapped on the face.  He suggests that spiritual faith should, in his words, “rise” above any physical violation.


King makes use of rhetorical speech, whereby he asks a question to change the tone of his voice, yet answers it himself.  This is a trademark of any good sermon.  In response to his question of satisfaction he repeats on seven consecutive occasions; “We can never be satisfied”.  This style reinforces the urgency of how his community feels.  King adopts a humanitarian style of preaching he refers to his own children and other fundamentals such as ‘water; which is a basic human need.  His deep expression of dissatisfaction climaxes when he bellows, “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”.


This faith-based speech is explicit.  He draws attention to the current inadequacies and inequalities and counterbalances this with positive solutions that will satisfy his peoples.  He inspires hope within in his people by simple statements such as, “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning: and unearned suffering is redemptive”.  King also anticipates the sheer diversity of his audience, black people from different states, exposed to differing treatment, some more severe than others and also white people present with a conviction to end this unjust state of affairs.  However these people, he realizes, are all brought together in their common quest for freedom. 


He concludes his speech to a captive audience with a summary.  He repeats his ‘dream’ on eleven consecutive occasions.  Inequalities are replaced with a desired equality among all men.  He proposes that men, both slaves and slave owners will “sit down together”, and “oppressive heat transformed to an oasis of freedom”, how children of all colors should be judged by their character and should “join hands’ with each other.  All inequalities, he pronounces, should be replaced with a land of justice, this aim is explicit as he states, “the rough places will be made plains”.


King’s speech reaches its climax as he exalts on nine occasions “let freedom ring” throughout all of the United States.  The finishing paragraph reintroduces God and religion, and how everyone must come together to rejoice freedom, a freedom sought by all mankind.  A freedom attainable in the light of God, as he bellows in accordance to the song;


            “Free at last, free at last.  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”




The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.



On the night of 4th April 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King went to the balcony of his Lorraine Motel room to take in some air. As he surveyed the setting around him, a shot rang out. King died an hour later of a gunshot wound to the neck. He was thirty-nine years old. As word of his death spread amongst the African-American community, their grief manifested as an outpouring of violence, for which there was no restraint. Spontaneous rioting erupted in over one hundred and thirty cities in the United States. At least forty-five people died as a result of the violence, the National Guard and Federal Troops were called out, and twenty thousand arrests were made. The violence slowly subsided over the weekend and President Johnson declared Tuesday 9th April, King's funeral, a National Day of Mourning. Several thousand people followed an old wagon pulled by two Georgia mules through the streets of Atlanta. King's coffin was on the wagon. It was one of the greatest outpourings of grief the nation had ever experienced. The reaction to King's death was something he had spoken against previously, urging people " I do not want you to retaliate with a single act of violence. I urge you to continue protesting with the same dignity and discipline you have shown before." Stokely Carmichael explained the rioting as "white America declaring war". However, white America paid its respects to King by passing the Civil rights Act within a week of his funeral. As the President was quoted as saying, "Martin King may have paid for this piece of legislation with his life". Kings legacy was continued by the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In Kings place came other inspirational Black leaders, such as Jesse Jackson and Barbara Jordan. The path for African-Americans during the time of King, up until the present has not been a straight one. The "Black Power" movement encouraged many youth away from Kings message of non-violence into a more dangerous world of believing that violence was a necessary way of changing the system of racial suppression. Today there are no signs saying" White People Only". There are no separate water fountains, diners, schools. Yet are King's children being judged by "the content of their character" and not "by the colour of their skin”? Witness the Rodney King incident. In our time in America a sixteen-year-old boy was beaten by a police officer in Inglewood, California. The incident was caught on video; the boy was black. We have come so far: one of the men who worked with King was Andrew Young. He was involved in the SCLC, spent three terms as Congressman for Georgia, 2 years as a UN ambassador and 2 terms as the mayor of Atlanta. In his short time on the national stage King and black leaders across America gave their people freedom of the spirit - an opportunity to hold their heads up high and be proud to be African-American. He gave white Americans the opportunity to re-educate themselves away from racism. He gave every American a dream to aspire to.



Martin Luther King Jr: The Dream for Northern Ireland



The political landscape in Northern Ireland has for too long been dominated by leaders who are only interested in looking after and defending their own tribal or religious group. It is argued that this selfishness is the root of the problem in Northern Ireland. Looking back over the political history of Northern Ireland and looking at the various leaders who have emerged to lead both unionism and nationalism, there has never been a leader who has had the desire, the drive or the commitment to lead both sides of the divide. There has never been a leader who was willing to defend the rights of all people, regardless of race, religion, gender or social status. To be put more succinctly there has never been a Martin Luther King in Northern Ireland.


What Martin Luther King stood for was equality, justice and rights for all. He may have been an African American who was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement and he may have put his life on the line for the African American civil rights cause, however he also concerned himself with defending the rights of everyone. The speech which best defines Martin Luther King is the famous ‘I have a dream speech’ delivered in 1969, Washington D.C. This speech contains many of the themes, which run consistently through his life, and it is the epitome of everything that he stood for. The man wanted to defend Blacks, Whites, Protestants, Catholics, Male, and Female. He did not want to see one race or religion dominate another, he believed in parity of esteem and equality for all.


So much can be learned from the leadership skills of Martin Luther King. So much can be digested and applied to the situation in Northern Ireland. Tribal and religious expediency breathes so much disrespect and mistrust in Northern Ireland. We have learned that the language of leadership is so important. One thing to remember about language is to always speak about the art of possibility. People may argue that the situation in Northern Ireland is too complex for there ever to be a leader like Martin Luther King to emerge, to this I say remember the language of possibility.


This is the challenge, which faces the current generation and many after it. The challenge for a leader to emerge who will breathe much needed life into the rhetoric filled political landscape in Northern Ireland. A leader who will defend and represent people not because they are Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist but because they are human beings with inalienable divine rights to be represented and defended. Until this can happen, until a leader can emerge, Northern Ireland may move forward but it will not evolve into the mature and legitimate liberal democracy we hope it can be. This challenge is not easy, but a Northern Irish Martin Luther King is a necessity and a pre-requisite for the evolution of the country.













[1] "Voice of Deliverance" by Keith Miller, p.10