MLK, Leadership, and Nonviolence (part two)

Would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther MLK, Jr. prefer that we celebrate his heroic leadership, or that we continue to work to end racism and all forms of economic and social injustice? Would he prefer a day named after him, or a day set aside for nonviolence and justice?

We should be uncomfortable with many of the celebrations held on MLK Day.  We should be uncomfortable with events that fail to acknowledge the complexity of the movements – civil rights, economic justice, and nonviolence (peace with justice).  We should acknowledge that MLK was a leading spokesperson for a huge movement.  We should recognize those too often nameless other leaders who risked their lives and worked for civil rights.

There are far too many myths about MLK that depict him as the sole heroic leader (The Great Man) of the movement. Many of the myths emphasize the individual at the expense of the leader-full movement. MLK was often a reluctant leader.  As one of the most visible voices of the movement, his life was nearly always at risk.  Others in the civil rights movement saw MLK as one among many “outstanding movement strategists, tacticians, ideologues, and institutional leaders” (

MLK was one of the strongest advocates for nonviolence within the movement.  Nonviolent social change takes discipline and training, and multiple layers of leadership.  Scholars have examined the black struggle as a locally based mass movement.  Sustained protest movements arose in many southern communities in which MLK had little or no direct involvement.  MLK might prefer that this day be National Civil Rights Day, or National Nonviolence Day.

Since the first MLK Day in 1986, our understanding of leadership and the civil rights movement has evolved.  The success of the black movement came from the mobilization of hundreds or even thousands of community leaders (both black and white).  Scholars also recognize the extent to which the movement was transformed through the masses, a bottom up transformation not just the influence of a solitary heroic leader.

It leaves me pondering a few questions.

How would the complex nonviolent movement for civil rights have progressed if historians had not placed so much emphasis on MLK as THE heroic leader?  Perhaps, a greater acknowledgement of the leader-full nature of the movement may have helped to maintain the movement’s momentum.

Is it easier to suppress a movement if we strike down the solitary heroic leader?  I suspect that is the case.  I also wonder if there are lessons to be learned by examining how the civil rights movement fared after MLK’s assassination, or even after a holiday was named in his honor.

And one last question:  What did MLK want to be remembered for?

Here is a link to an excellent article about MLK that helps to answer that question.



When he suggested his own epitaph, he asked not to be remembered for his exceptional achievements–his Nobel Prize and other awards, his academic accomplishments; instead, he wanted to be remembered for giving his life to serve others, for trying to be right on the war question, for trying to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, for trying to love and serve humanity. “I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.” Those aspects of MLK’s life did not require charisma or other superhuman abilities.

If MLK were alive today, he would doubtless encourage those who celebrate his life to recognize their responsibility to struggle as he did for a more just and peaceful world. He would prefer that the black movement be remembered not only as the scene of his own achievements, but also as a setting that brought out extraordinary qualities in many people. If he were to return, his oratory would be unsettling and intellectually challenging rather than remembered diction and cadences. He would probably be the unpopular social critic he was on the eve of the Poor People’s Campaign rather than the object of national homage he became after his death. His basic message would be the same as it was when he was alive, for he did not bend with the changing political winds. He would talk of ending poverty and war and of building a just social order that would avoid the pitfalls of competitive capitalism and repressive communism. He would give scant comfort to those who condition their activism upon the appearance of another MLK, for he recognized the extent to which he was a product of the movement that called him to leadership.