Martin Luther King, Jr., on Leadership

Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times


By Donald T. Phillips

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Read the detailed and absorbing chronicle of Martin Luther King's leadership during the most tumultuous period in America's recent past—featuring a foreword by Dr. Bernice King.

Martin Luther King Jr. is known for famous speeches such as I Have a Dream, and his ability to inspire the people of the United States to demand equality, regardless of the color of their skin. His ability to lead has cemented himself as one of America's greatest civil rights advocates.

And in today's world, his wisdom and teachings are needed more than ever. Martin Luther King Jr., On Leadership chronicles the actions of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and identifies the key leadership skills he displayed such as:
Practice what you preach
Take direct action without waiting for other agencies to act
Give credit where credit is due
Laws only declare rights, they do not deliver them
And much more . . . 

This book is part history and part guide to becoming a great leader, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate to peaceful change while never wavering in making the opposition listen and give in.



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MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. ON LEADERSHIP. Copyright © 1998 by Donald T. Phillips. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Warner Books

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

ISBN: 978-0-7595-2109-4

A trade paperback edition of this book was published in 2000 by Warner Books.

First eBook Edition: January 2001

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"I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman."

Martin Luther King, Jr.,


"Montgomery is known as the Cradle of the Confederacy. It has been a quiet cradle for a long, long time. But now the cradle is rocking."

Martin Luther King, Jr.,

March 31, 1956


First Listen: Lead by Being Led

As he reached the top of the steps, twenty-five-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., must have paused to take a look around before entering the small two-story red-brick building for the first time. Looking to the east, he couldn't have missed the Confederate flag waving in the wind atop the old state capitol building—still there after having been unfurled for the first time nearly a century earlier. He probably would have noticed, too, that the American flag was positioned below the Confederate flag. Also from his position, he could have readily viewed the portico where, on February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. As it was, Martin found himself standing smack dab in the middle of downtown Montgomery, Alabama—the "Cradle of the Confederacy"—the first national capital of the Confederate States. The building he was about to enter was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the parish for which he had just accepted the job of pastor. It was to be his first professional position after leaving Boston University, one he had taken despite the initial reluctance of both his father and his bride, Coretta Scott.

Martin's new church, with its all-black congregation, was created during Reconstruction after the Civil War—purposely erected in the shadow of the all-white capitol building as a symbol of the newly mandated freedom of former slaves. But in 1954, Montgomery was a bastion of racial segregation. It had been that way for generations—part of an ingrained southern culture that perpetuated a never-ending downward spiral of oppression and despair for African-Americans. People were used to it. That's just the way it was.

Black citizens and white citizens, for instance, were not allowed to sit together on a public bus. If a white person took a seat next to an African-American, the African-American was required to stand in the aisle. Even though 75 percent of the bus company's clientele were African-Americans, they were always directed to the back of the bus and, by city ordinance, violators were subject to fines and imprisonment. Bus drivers, all of whom were white, were given authority to enforce the rules. Such power, though, often resulted in heated arguments that resulted in the drivers calling passengers a variety of racial epithets, including "black cow," "ape," and "nigger." In one ugly episode, a fifteen-year-old named Claudette Colvin, who also happened to be unmarried and pregnant, was dragged from a bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. For her resistance, the young woman was charged with assault and battery along with violating city and state segregation ordinances. This incident occurred shortly after Martin King settled into his new home.

Interestingly enough, immediately upon his arrival, Martin placed the existing racial situation in a context that had not previously been articulated to local residents. "It is a significant fact that I come to Dexter at a most crucial hour of our world's history," he said in his first sermon, "at a time when the flame of war might arise at any time to redden the skies of our dark and dreary world. …At a time when men are experiencing in all realms of life, disruption and conflict, self-destruction and meaningless despair and anxiety."

For him, the human environment in Montgomery was part of a national crisis not to be tolerated. And Martin let it be known that he intended to do something about it—and that he also expected his parishioners to do something about it. "Dexter," he went on to say in that same sermon, "must somehow lead men and women to the high mountain of peace and salvation. We must give men and women, who are all but on the brink of despair, a new bent of life. I pray God that I will be able to lead Dexter in this urgent mission."

Montgomery's newest preacher hit the ground running. He joined the NAACP's local chapter and was quickly elected to its executive committee. He became a member of the Planned Parenthood Federation in an effort to assist and educate unwed young mothers. And, in an attempt to build alliances and broaden his understanding of cultural issues, he joined the only interracial organization in Montgomery, the Alabama Council on Human Relations. "From the beginning, I took an active part in current social problems," he told a reporter in later years. "I insisted that every church member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP."

During Martin's second year in Montgomery, an incident occurred on a city bus that effectively ignited the American civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a forty-two-year-old tailor's assistant, was commanded by a bus driver to give up her seat to a white male passenger who had just boarded. Mrs. Parks simply said, "No." She knew she was breaking the law, but she nevertheless refused to move. In response, the driver stopped the bus, called the police, and had her arrested. "I don't really know why I wouldn't move," she later commented. "There was no plot or plan at all. I was just tired. My feet hurt."

Rosa Parks, however, was no ordinary woman. For the previous twelve years she had been a civil rights activist with the NAACP and heavily involved in voter registration drives. She was well known in Montgomery's African-American community. And when she called home from jail, word of her arrest spread around town like wildfire. At that point, E. D. Nixon, a lawyer and former president of the local NAACP chapter, rushed downtown and secured Mrs. Parks's release on bond. After hearing the details of the incident, Nixon told Mrs. Parks that, if she was willing to be the lightning rod, they would try to take her case all the way to the United States Supreme Court while also instituting a boycott of the bus company. With some hesitation, Rosa Parks gave the okay to let her attorney move forward with his ideas.

That was all Nixon needed to hear. The next morning he telephoned every black leader in town to let them know what had happened, to inform them that there was already a spontaneously generated boycott of city buses taking place, and to call an emergency meeting for that evening. He was also asking everybody to support the boycott. When Nixon reached Martin King, he detected some reluctance in the young minister's voice—even though Martin had agreed to host the gathering in Dexter's basement meeting room. Nixon then called Ralph Abernathy (pastor of the First Baptist Church), who had become fast friends with King, and asked him to help persuade the young pastor to become fully committed to the boycott.

That evening, somewhere between fifty and seventy leaders of Montgomery's African-American community met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Abernathy and Rev. L. Roy Bennett, president of Montgomery's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, ran the meeting. Anyone who wished to speak was allowed to do so. Martin, however, remained silent; listening intently, whispering to those near him; pondering, thinking.

Two key decisions were agreed upon by the group. First, the ministers would launch at least a one-day boycott (starting on Monday, December 5) in a show of unity and support for Mrs. Parks's position. Second, they would hold a community-wide mass meeting that same evening in order to determine whether the public would support an indefinite extension of the bus boycott. After the meeting broke up, Martin and Ralph stayed at Dexter late into the night mimeographing flyers. The next day, hundreds of volunteers began spreading more than seven thousand notices all over town. Some of the ministers even went around to nightclubs to spread the word—and, at Sunday services, each alerted their congregation to the boycott and the upcoming mass meeting.

Over the next few days and weeks, Montgomery's African-American leadership team took five major steps that would result in the eventual success of their movement. These strategic actions would also become key elements in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, future approach to leadership.

1. Set Goals and Create a Plan of Action

A specific plan of action was created to implement a long-term boycott of city buses where people would use any other method of transportation possible until government officials agreed to their proposals. In addition, three goals (or demands) were set that would be the basis for negotiation with the opposition for ending the boycott. First, no rider would have to stand when there was a vacant seat nor would anyone be compelled to give up a seat already occupied. Second, bus drivers would have to be courteous to all patrons. And, third, African-Americans could apply and be hired as bus drivers.

These goals and the overall plan were conceived by the three-person committee of Nixon, Abernathy, and Rev. Edgar French (Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church)—and later presented to, and approved by, the larger team of leaders.

2. Create a New Formal Alliance

The leadership group founded a formal organization that was specifically designed to administer the boycott. When Abernathy suggested the name Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), it was immediately accepted. And then, to his surprise, Martin was nominated president of the new alliance. Those who supported him did so because he was well liked, highly educated, and an eloquent speaker. Also, because he was relatively new in town, he was not tied to any particular group and, therefore, had no known baggage or personal agenda. In essence, Martin Luther King, Jr., was something of a compromise, middle-of-the-road candidate. He accepted the position right off the bat. "Somebody has to do it," said Martin, "and if you think I can, I will serve."

3. Involve the People

A mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church was held in the evening of the first day of the boycott. Rather than riding the bus, over 99 percent of Montgomery's African-Americans walked, hitchhiked, rode mules and horses, or found some other way to get to work and back home again. Accordingly, the boycott started out as a tremendous success.

Thousands of people began assembling for the mass meeting several hours in advance. By the time it started, at least a thousand were in the church, spilling into the aisles, standing on the sides and in the back. An estimated four thousand more people were crowded together outside on the lawn and in the streets listening to what was being said from a loudspeaker that had been mounted on the church's roof.

The proceeding began with a prayer and scripture reading. Then Rev. King, as newly elected president of the MIA, rose to give a fifteen-minute opening speech. He spoke from an outline prepared less than an hour in advance. "We're here this evening for serious business," he began. "We are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning." After portraying Rosa Parks as a great heroine and retelling her story, his voice rose in a melodramatic tone. "There comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. We have no alternative but to protest," he said to thundering cheers from the crowd. Martin concluded by eloquently taking the cause to a higher level: "If we protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, 'There lived a race of people … who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.'"

Rufus Lewis, a business leader who had nominated King for president of the MIA, later commented that this speech was a "great awakening." "It was astonishing," he said. "[We] were brought face-to-face with the type of man that Martin Luther King was…."

Rosa Parks was next introduced and the crowd gave her a standing ovation. They all knew that earlier in the day she had been convicted of her "crime" and fined $14. Then Rev. Abernathy went to the microphone and read a resolution calling for a boycott until the MIA's demands were met. When a voice vote was called for, the people in the audience unanimously thundered their approval.

In order to keep the citizens informed and up-to-date, similar mass meetings were held on a weekly basis and rotated to different churches. They were to become the chief form of two-way communication between the people and the movement's leaders.

4. Seek Dialogue and Negotiation

The next morning, a letter requesting formal negotiations, along with a copy of the people's three demands, was mailed to the bus company and to Montgomery city hall. That afternoon, the MIA leadership held a press conference to explain their goals. Two days later, a meeting was granted with city and bus company executives at city hall. At that gathering, however, King and the other black leaders were sternly informed that there would be no compromise, no meeting of demands, and no more discussions.

Although initially angry, Martin became more determined than ever in his quest, and philosophical concerning the reaction of the white majority. He recalled his study of the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who wrote: "Growth comes through pain and struggle."

Over the course of the boycott, MIA leaders would seek additional negotiations. On occasion they spoke with those in positions of authority, but without substantial gain. An important lesson they learned was that the opposition would not yield on any issue unless absolutely forced to do so. Clearly, the boycott would have to go on for an indefinite period of time before any progress was made.

5. Innovate

The bus boycott created a major problem for Montgomery's African-American leadership. How would they get thousands of citizens to and from work without the benefit of the method of transportation to which people had long been accustomed?

Because they were faced with a new problem, one that had not been encountered before, it was obvious that they were going to have to generate some creative and imaginative solutions. Accordingly, the MIA set up a transportation committee to deal directly with the question of how to get people around town.

Someone came up with the idea of contacting all the taxi cab companies in town to work out some sort of a deal. Sensing a possible windfall in business, eight of Montgomery's taxi businesses agreed to transport people for the same fare as that charged on city buses—10 cents.

The committee also devised a clever car pool system with more than forty pickup and dispatch stations located strategically around the city. Hundreds of people volunteered automobiles and their time in order to make the car pool successful. People who did not work offered to drive any time of day (some drove all day long). Many who had jobs volunteered to drive before and after working hours. With generous donations, the MIA purchased a number of station wagons, dubbed them "rolling churches," and registered them as church property. Within a relatively brief period of time, more than three hundred automobiles were being dispatched in a well-thought-through system that efficiently moved people around town.

* * *

Where was Martin King during the implementation of these five steps? Even though elected president of the MIA, he was not as far out in front as most people naturally think a leader's place should be. He was, in fact, pretty much in the middle of the pack, perhaps even a bit to the rear.

Martin was something of a reluctant leader at first. He feared that he would take on too much for one person to handle and often related to others that he had been "suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest." "Everything happened so quickly," he said, "that I had no time to think through the implication of such leadership. …I neither started the protest nor suggested it," he admitted. "I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman." Having been asked to serve, however, he couldn't say no. "[So] we started our struggle together."

Naturally tentative at first, he followed the lead of others, worked in groups, and made no major policy decisions without the input and approval of other leaders in the MIA. Because he had not sought the point—and even hesitated at accepting it—Martin may have been the best possible leader for the movement to have had under the circumstances. To paraphrase Plato: "Only those who do not seek power are qualified to hold it." At that moment in time, the people of Montgomery involved in the bus boycott may have needed a leader whom they could trust to listen—one who rode with them—more than they needed someone who would simply tell them what to do.

While it's true that the people chose him to lead because, among other things, he had no known agenda, he had a high rate of energy, he was perceived as someone who would try to do the right thing, and he could communicate effectively—Martin, by his own admission, was "unprepared for the role." "This is not the life I expected to lead. But gradually you take some responsibility, then a little more. …You have to give yourself entirely. Then once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself, you are prepared to do anything that serves that Cause and advances the Movement. I have reached that point. I have given myself fully."

Early on in the Montgomery movement, Martin was gauging the wishes of the vast majority of people—following their lead. Essentially he was listening. And in doing so, he was gaining greater and greater trust from people as the months went by.

The best leaders realize that people want to know that their ideas and thoughts are being, at the very least, heard. Only then can there be a chance that those concerns may be acted upon. When leaders listen first, then speak, they are engendering trust in those who would follow. Furthermore, listening is not only an important aspect of leadership, it is an art. Like a painter in touch with his subject, effective listeners take in everything they hear, analyze it within the context of the environment, and then create an image for their minds to absorb. Stephen R. Covey, in Principle-Centered Leadership, wrote that leaders "listen to others with genuine empathy," and that they "seek first to understand, then to be understood." In essence, then, leaders simply must be good listeners. How else can they understand and act for "certain goals that represent the values—the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations—of the people they represent?"

The desire for lifelong learning common to many creative leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) also fosters an equally strong tendency to listen. That's because listening and learning go together. As the adage goes: "You can't learn anything if you are always talking." Deborah Tannen, in You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, noted that "listening is a way to show interest and caring" and that women "hear a language of connection and intimacy." With this realization, one can logically conclude that the art of listening—a decidedly more female characteristic than male—is a critical part of the language of connection. And connecting with people is something at which all leaders must excel if they are to be successful. As a matter of fact, listening itself is so critical in leadership that any leader who is not a good listener will be a failure.

In general, the skilled art of listening has four major benefits for any individual who desires to lead people. It 1) builds trust, 2) facilitates understanding of the people's aspirations and expectations, 3) enables learning, and 4) fosters connection and rapport with others.

Once Martin King formally assumed the mantle of leadership, he did not fail to step forward and take on responsibility for key management issues, and was proactive on a variety of levels. For instance, he oversaw the renting of office space and hiring of a small staff for the MIA. He constantly monitored the boycott's progress and effectiveness and, in response, worked with the leadership group to reevaluate and reset goals—and then create methods for implementation. Also, in an ongoing effort to keep the people informed, he increased the number of mass meetings held each week. At many of these gatherings, Martin took it upon himself to describe the movement as part of a much broader issue. In so doing, he inspired sustained involvement of a wide range of individuals.

"Our struggle here," he said a few months into the boycotts "is not merely for Montgomery but it is really a struggle for the whole of America." At other meetings, he merely expressed the feelings of the vast majority of participants. "As I look at it, I guess I have committed three sins. The first sin I have committed is being born a Negro. The second sin that I have committed, along with all of us, is being subjected to the battering rams of segregation and oppression. The third and more basic sin which all of us have committed is the sin of having the moral courage to stand up and express our weariness of this oppression." At most meetings a vote was held where the people unanimously agreed to continue the boycott.

As the cost of running the MIA and the boycott increased to $5,000 a month, Martin hit the road to give fund-raising speeches. Because the Montgomery movement had generated national attention, leaders of the MIA were in constant demand to tell their story. And because of his excellent speaking ability, Martin was the most popular of the group. Everywhere he went, he told the Montgomery story with eloquence, made it compelling to the audience, and constantly employed metaphor and drama. "Montgomery is known as the Cradle of the Confederacy," he'd say. "It has been a quiet cradle for a long, long time. But now the cradle is rocking. Dixie has a heart all right," he'd tell his audience. "But it's having a little heart trouble right now." Within a year of the beginning of the bus boycott, more than seven thousand individual contributions had been received from around the world totaling nearly $250,000.

The MIA needed every penny of that money to combat the resistance of the white establishment to the movement. The success of the boycott was evident early as the bus company quickly released a statement that it was losing twenty-two cents for every mile each bus traveled. As a result, a variety of methods were attempted to halt the movement. Bus runs in some of the black sections of town were canceled—but revenues went down even further. The police commissioner warned all taxi cab companies that they had better charge the legal minimum of forty-five cents per rider or they would be fined. That move effectively eliminated the use of taxis as a form of cheap transportation. At the same time, city policemen began harassing and dispersing groups of people waiting at pickup points for the car pool. And then one day, insurance policies on the MIA's station wagons were unexpectedly and mysteriously canceled—which prevented the vehicles from being used in the car pool transport system. Government leaders even attempted to settle the dispute with three African-American ministers who were not leaders in the MIA. When the city announced that a permanent settlement had been reached, MIA executives moved quickly to denounce the agreement as a farce. They confronted the black preachers, forced a retraction, and then announced publicly that the boycott would continue.


On Sale
Jan 1, 2001
Page Count
384 pages

Donald T. Phillips

About the Author

Donald T. Phillips is the bestselling author of eighteen books, including Lincoln on Leadership and On the Wing of Speed. He has also collaborated on books with Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K of Duke University), Phil Mickelson, and Cal Ripken, Jr.

Learn more about this author