Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Leadership Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Delivered at the Museum of African American History Detroit, Michigan
Martin Luther King, Jr Day, January 15, 2007

“I had decided that I would not sit back and watch but should lead them back to the buses myself.” MLK, Jr.

More than ever in our society and world today, we need leaders who possess compassion, courage and wisdom. We need leaders with moral conscience, moral vision and moral courage; men and women of every husk and hue and every rank and range who are willing to take positive action to effect positive change. We need people willing to study to show themselves approved, willing to speak truth to power and place the interests of their constituents and communities above all most if not all unreasonable self interest.

Needed more than ever in our world today are leaders who selflessly work towards establishing common ground within the family of man; men and women adept at removing all existing barriers by building bridges of dialogue, mutual understanding and community among all people. It is this type of leadership excellence exemplified by the Reverend Martin Luther King. Jr., that we so desperately need today on the local and national levels.

Let me say there are many competent and faithful leaders working both nationally and locally who care about their communities. We see some of them in politics and government. We see some of them in the church. We see some of them in industry, education and other areas of life. Some leaders are household names and others not. Some work publically. Others work privately. Some work nationally. Others work locally, but all leadership, like all politics, is ultimately local. Leadership in local communities provides the infrastructure and foundation for leadership on the national level. Leadership on the national level should reinforce the values and concerns of local leadership.

Martin Luther King was a great national leader but would not have been able to accomplish his objectives without the efforts of local, grassroots, indigenous leaders who cared for their communities, stood and fought for justice and labored long and hard beside him in the struggle for human freedom. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Rufus J. Young, Abraham Lincoln Woods are to name a few.

America has no shortage of leaders, but what we need are leaders with moral integrity; people who possess the temerity and holy boldness to stem the tsunami of moral crisis engulfing our land by giving selfless quality service to the people they are called to serve.

Unfortunately, our society and world has a crisis of moral leadership, for we need leaders with moral courage who are willing to serve the people and do what is right seem to be at a premium. Leaders with moral vision who understand the sensitivities, sensibilities of the people, and who have common sense to lead the nation to higher moral ground seem to be in short supply. Leaders with moral integrity are essential to vital communities. This does not mean men and women who are always morally perfect who don’t make mistakes through omission or commission, but who have a perfect commitment to the moral uplift and transformation of the people. They are men and women who keep at the forefront of their consciences the larger moral purpose to which they are called. Dr. King exemplified these qualities.

We have observed the last six years under the current administration in Washington a paradigm shift in presidential leadership; a change in the style of governing that amounts to what Paul Krugman called in a recent New York Times op ed article “Quagmire of the Vanities”, a title reminiscent of Thomas Wolfes’ Bonfire of the Vanities. What we have according to Krugman is a leader who is not able to own up to mistakes; a person that surrounds himself with people who tell the President what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to know, a leader who punishes people who disagree with him and rewards people who play to his vanity.

Because moral leadership from the oval office often sets the tone for leadership in other parts of our country, the recent escalation of moral malaise and atrophy in our society may have precipitated our current crisis. We live in an era where some political or governmental leaders are unable and unwilling to wield the kind of moral authority and moral courage that reinforces the integrity of balancing power, fails to punishes wrong doing, and is remiss in holding accountable political, corporate and even religious colleagues who often grossly violate the ethics of office. The current moral crisis enveloping our nation has virtually lead to a constitutional crisis in our representative democracy which may be ostensibly attributed to the absence of moral courage which translates into a failure of leadership.

It is in this ethos of leadership crisis that we see the slow subversion of democracy through various abuses of power; a nation lead into war under dubious and questionable circumstances and the continuation of that war by any means. It is in this atmosphere that we have had stalemate and gridlock in Congress; cronyism and corruption running amok and rampant, the needs of the middle class undermined in favor of Corporate and special interests, and civil liberties and freedoms, long a hallmark of our constitutional republic, virtually revoked in the wake of 9/11.

Meanwhile, we have witnessed a gradual increase in hunger and poverty, labor union busting, the continual disintegration and demise of public education in the central cities and urban areas, the virtual dissolution of the traditional black family where most black children are born into one-parent homes.

Furthermore, we have woefully observed the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries and an all out full-scale frontal assault on affirmative action. Racial hostility has increased and violence against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent is dramatically on the rise.

Moreover, in this moral crisis that we have witnessed the exponential growth moral diminution of some Black Mega churches many of which are now commandeered, puppeteered and co-opted by private political interests with churches and preachers on pay rolls who have bankrupted religion and sold Jesus and their congregations out for thirty pieces of silver. Their concern is not for social justice and equality or serving the interests of the least of these but getting fatter and richer through a prosperity Gospel at the expense of poor congregants.

The black church, well or ill, has always been a positive moral force in our communities and has been a prophetic voice in our long journey to freedom. Many churches have and continue to serve their communities faithfully and God knows where the black community in particular and America in general would be without them. The good that they do is often overlooked; for they serve not only as transformational empowerment centers for their people, but provide an extended family network that creates safe havens and communities for dislocated, alienated and lost souls.

But many other churches who have national visibility and media presence and clout that could more prophetically engage the powers that be by becoming strident voices for positive change in this country are now strangely silent and afraid to speak out in fear of alienating their earthly masters.

It is in this moral crisis that we have witnessed what amounts to the cooptation and what Andrei Sakarof called the stupefaction of some of our most powerful black churches, which once were and still are our most stalwart institutions. Would the Civil Rights movement, which was born out of the womb and sustained in the bosom of the black church, have ever come into existence and fought so valiantly and vigorously for freedom had it been bankrolled by government programs?

While faith based funding and others resources have helped meet some needs in the African American communities, they may have come with a price, for I am concerned that some black churches overall have become almost Sambo Silent in the wake of our current crises and may have sold out its spiritual birthright and lost its prophetic concern for advocating and effecting positive social change in our communities.

The point is the moral crisis in our country can be seen on every hill and every hamlet, in every sector and every section of our nation: religion, politics, education and in other places. We see this crisis in both high and low places. It is leadership that lacks moral vision, moral authority and moral courage; it is leadership that has lost compassion and empathy for the least of these. This crisis has now regrettably affected one of our most powerful institutions and as a revered representative of that institution, Dr. King would have much to say about that current leadership crisis if he were alive today. He might ask, “Where have all the prophets gone?”

What leadership lessons can we learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in this current climate of moral decline and bankruptcy? What would Dr. King tell us today about developing and cultivating moral leadership for present and future generations?

I. Prepare to Lead -Value Preparation

Great leaders are not born but made. Great moral leaders are made but called. They have been shaped through the fires and storms of life. They have scars and wounds and marks seared by the flames. Few things are as important in life as preparation. Few things are more esteemed in leadership than sufficient preparation. Nothing can substitute for self-confidence, industry, discipline, determination and perseverance. These qualities are essential in the preparing to lead people.

Martin King as a leader called and equipped by God relished the importance of good preparation. Daddy King, Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays at Morehouse College and others were lofty examples of prepared men called to lead. Preparation often means long hours in the study, becoming an ardent observer of life situations and life experiences and developing the disciplined habits of hard work over extended periods of time. Dr. King could not have achieved his higher education without understanding the importance of preparation.

Even at the apex of his career when he was always on the go, running here and there giving speeches, he would pause between stops to collect his thoughts, jot notes and recall quotes from books he had read. He was an avid reader, and as his letter written on small strips of paper from a Birmingham Jail reveals, he could often quote directly and quite extensively various authors. Seldom did we see him speak without notes and while as a gifted orator he did not really need notes, he always valued preparation for all of his sermons and in every aspect of his service to the people.

Preparation evidences discipline. Discipline is the art of continually applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of a chair. Preparation also tells the audience that you respect them enough to give them thoroughgoing effort; that you are will to exhaust every possibility in leaving nothing to chance and leaving no stone unturned and that the people are worthy of only your best efforts.

Richard Nixon once said, “The ability to be cool, confident and decisive in crisis is not an inherited characteristic but is the direct result of how well the individual has prepared himself for the battle.”

As leaders, we must prepare for leadership in our communities. “Preparation prevents poor performance.” We must take seriously the importance of disciplined study, long hard work and noble effort. Preparation minimizes the possibilities of folly.

We must understand that preparation requires patience, fortitude and perseverance and often means delayed gratification. Too many people today view leadership in terms of instant success and immediate gratification. Some want the big payday without the big pay out. They want managers pay for office boys work. No sweat equity. No work ethic, no willingness to labor hard and long to achieve great heights. Robert Frost wrote a poem that says, “The heights by which great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept were toiling upward in the night.”

Some people want everything now because of immediate gratification. They have a vending machine attitude of life. They put their coins in the machine and expect an instant return on their purchase. But good leadership understands that there is no reward without risk and often the rewards come after years of laborious work. You may get out of it what you put into it but this may not come for many, many years. Be prepared but know that the fruits of your labors take time to grow to become ripe for the harvest.

The good leader also knows that preparation for leadership is indispensable to the presentation of leadership. Preparation can come in the school of life or in school itself or both. Life can prepare you to become a leader and usually the good leader values what he can learn from books and what he can garner from a lifetime of human experience. Many good leaders have no formal schooling but they are devoted learners. Unlettered does not mean un learned. As leaders we must value the power of learning from life and the power of learning from books.

Preparation is essential for vital moral leadership today and we need more people who are willing to study and go through the fires to prepare themselves to lead.

Much of the criticism of our current president has to do with his lack of preparation and competency for the job and his general unwillingness to learn and grow from his experiences. There is a resistance or stubbornness to change and that has cost the country dearly. Some writers have said that this attitude may be do to the fact that he is so used to things being handed to him, for the way to be made for him that he has never really had to toil and struggle, suffer and sacrifice to win the day.

Preparation is a life long process. Learning is a life long process as Wayne States College of Life long learning suggests. Good leaders are good listeners and good learners. As long as one is willing to learn and grow, one can continually prepare to grow into the role of true leader willing and capable of meeting the growing demands of leadership.

A hallmark of leadership of President Abraham Lincoln was his constant willingness to learn and grow. Where he lacked experience, he surrounded himself with those who had experience. Harvard Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her work, Team of Rivals tells us that so willing to learn and prepare was Lincoln, that he appointed a cabinet of people who more than made up for his lack of experience. He chose men in his cabinet who had assenting but mostly but opposing opinions.

When he had difficulty at the start of the Civil War in finding the right general who had the moral and physical courage to lead the union troops into victory against the Confederacy, he went to the library and honed his knowledge of military strategy and military history. He was always striving to know more and be more and fired general after general until he arrived at U. S. Grant. After finding Grant and receiving long awaited victory, Lincoln said, “Finally I have found a man who can fight.” When told that Grant had a drinking problem Lincoln, and I am paraphrasing here, “Find out his brand of whiskey and give it to the other generals.

Dr. King surrounded himself with great men and women who had strong opinions about the movement and often tested his mettle. He had self confidence, knew that he had needed to learn and grow from them and was not threatened or intimidated with people who had better ideas. He was armed with knowledge and filled with compassion for service to his people and often engaged in lengthy polemics with his colleagues about keeping with non-violent strategy.

Preparation for leadership means being as student of life and always willing to learn and grow. Sometimes it means leading outright and sometimes it means following and listening to those around you. These same qualities characterized the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.

II. Never Lose Compassion and Sensitivity to the needs of the people you are called to lead.

If we were so survey the vast majority of the people on this planet, which totals in the billions, we would discover that we all have certain needs in common. We all want food, clothing and shelter. We all want a good education and good opportunities for our children. We all want freedom, justice, equality and the means by which we can make a living, and support and sustain our selves and our families.

Historically, speaking, many of the wars and conflicts of humankind have been for these very reasons which have to do with who will control and distribute the resources that make for these basic necessities.

Dr. King understood the needs of the people he was called to serve. His core Christian values embraced a concern for all people. He could converse with the highest of the high or the lowest of the low. His idea of the beloved community was a place in which all people could co-exist as one community where people were judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.

Dr. King catapulted to the forefront of the Montgomery Bus Boycott at a relatively young age and as a student of history and a child of the south, he was intimately aware of the racism and brutality of a segregated system. His people bore the scars of that system and even he himself and members of his family had experienced racism of a virulent variety.

He knew that the people in Montgomery and all over the south, had had enough and were tired of being kicked around and sent to the back of the bus. He knew that they there were people of dignity and had a deep longing for true freedom and equality. He knew that his people had paid the price in blood through many years of suffering and discrimination through slavery and Jim Crow.

Dr. King knew his people’s needs and never stopped having compassion or empathy for them. As a compassionate leader, he was willing to sacrifice, willing to go the second mile. Here was a Nobel Prize winner, A Boston University Ph. D who on the eve on his death was willing to protest the mistreatment of Garbage workers in Memphis.

We must remember that after all his years of faithful service, Dr. King nearly died penniless. His Nobel laureate money was donated to SCLC as they were constantly having financial challenges.

A good leader has a moral concern that is sensitive, compassionate, caring and empathic to the needs of people. Dr. King could sense the suffering and pain and knew the heavy burdens his people had carried over many years. Dr. King never stopped caring for the people and didn’t stop caring for him. Even in his last days, he was preparing to lead a Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington, which was somewhat embarrassing to the leaders and power brokers of the richest nation on earth.

What we need now to bring our country back and restore the vitality of our nation is caring and compassionate leadership; leadership that understands and is willing to meet the needs of the people by readily responding to them and not just the needs of a privileged few.

Too many leaders today in our world are myopic, self-centered and selfish. We live in a world where corporate CEOs get severance packages that border on the obscene while common workers struggle to get by. We have seen too many examples of the type of leadership that believes that greed and avarice are absolutely and always good; where resources that could be given to the people are stymied and stonewalled, hoarded and hidden from those who most need them.

That we would warehouse food and then dump it into the ocean when people are still hungry is emblematic of a nation in deep moral crisis. That we would have a nation in which two percent of the population control or own nearly 90 percent of all its resources is a problem of sensitive caring leadership. That we would live in a world where the top one percent controls forty percent of global assets and the top ten percent control 85 percent of global assets is evidence of deep moral crisis? Good leadership means making sure that the vast but shrinking resources of our planet are equitably distributed globally. Even if the rich gave most of their money away they would still have more than enough money and power to re grow their resources and maintain economic hegemony. Moral crisis occurs when we no longer can imagine or feel the other man’s pain and do nothing to relieve it. It occurs in the words of Mother Teresa when we do not understand that ultimately we all belong to each other.

That we in 2007 still have to argue and debate the merits of affirmative action is evidence of moral failure and an insult to the memory of Dr. King and all those individuals, black, white and other, who have fought for freedom, justice and equality in the history of our beloved America. That we could still live in a world, where the basic needs of citizens are denied and manipulated in parlor games of power politrics demonstrates a moral failure of leadership. The problem my friends is leadership; moral leadership, caring, sensitive empathic leaders who are concerned for the entirely of humanity and not just the needs of themselves or their own tribe.

Where have all the moral leaders gone? Where is the sensitivity, the concern for all Americans, for every man, woman and child. What happened to the concept of the village where every man looked out for the next man and there was a sense of community solitary had exemplified a concern for every living soul? Who speaks for the little man, the common man and woman? Must leadership of the buyout and the sell out, putting greed above need be the order of the day? Does anybody care any more or are we now only out for ourselves?

The strength of Dr. King’s leadership was his compassion and continuing concern for those in need. Too much of the I got mine with someone else’s help, but you’d better get yours on your own,” mentality permeates our communities and our country. With this type of leadership, the crisis in our country will only deepen, the gap between rich and poor, have and have not will only widen; the great pestilence of indifference and the great plague of apathy will only broaden. Even Jesus in deciding to lead the people looked on them as sheep without a shepherd and then took up his cross. If you take the elevator of success to the top floor ride it back down and help some one else ride it up to where you are.

Dr. King was a leader who never lost touch with the needs of his people, never lost compassion for them and never stopped working to positively change their plight and condition. Like Jesus, he would give you shirt and his back if you had a need. He knew that America could never actualize its true potential and become an even greater nation until all of its citizens had equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

III. Develop a Moral Vision that Will Inspire to Service the People You Lead.”

This country seems to have lost its vision of liberty and justice for all, ands still seems to have a hard time in opening the doors that provide each man and woman the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. King’s dream was the foundation of a greater vision of a new America. For Dr. King it was a vision that heralded a new heaven and a new earth; a world in which all poverty, disease, hatred, war and division are forever abolished. This vision was rooted in the biblical images of the Kingdom of God and the Promised Land. It is a place of harmony, love, truth and justice; a true community where everyone can realize and actualize his true gifts and use them in service to the larger community.

In this vision, everybody is a person. Everybody is a child of God worthy of respect. The superficial categories of race and class that divide, excoriate and alienate people from each other have no place in this dream. There is no more discrimination, racism, sexism, ageism and other isms that keep men in their warring camps and preventing them from truly reaching common ground.

As a leader, Dr. King had a moral vision of a new America; where truth and justice would prevail, where right and wrong were not determined by scales of moral relativity or distributed on the basis of race and class, but on truth. It means that a new heaven on earth would finally prevail, where the promises of freedom would finally be realized by every man woman and child regardless of race, religion, age, class or gender. He worked hard to bring that vision to reality and never lost sight of its shining splendor.

This vision was not only rooted in the Bible but also put undergirded by this nation’s three great documents of freedom: the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The ideals of these great documents had their origin in the Magna Carta which was also inspired by the Holy Bible. These documents contained some of the provisions of this new vision or dream of America.

Great Leaders have moral vision. From the beginning of history the greatest leaders are inspired by a larger moral vision that would make this nation and world a better place in which to live. A hallmark of Dr. King’s leadership is that he fought to keep that vision and dream alive and would go through fire and water to bring it to pass.

What we need more than ever in our nation is a return to that moral vision of a greater America; an America that sees every citizen as worthy recipients of its constitutional promises and works diligently to bring to them freedom, justice and equality. Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere. Without Vision the people Perish. When people are included in and cared for in that moral vision, they will work to bring it into reality.

IV. Possess Moral Courage: develop a Plan of Action and Act Decisively on Behalf of the People.

We need a master plan to revitalize our nation that requires leaders with moral courage on all levels of society. Moral courage is the power to act with courage in face of formidable odds; to do the right thing even when the majority stand against it; to be willing to sacrifice all that we have to see that truth, justice can be realized in every sphere of human existence.

Moral courage requires that the leader must sometimes stand alone. Henry David Thoreau said, “One of the side of God constitutes a majority.” There are many lonely days and many sleepless nights. Moral courage means risking friendships, relationships and at times limb and life itself.

Dr. King said the moral arch of the universe always bends towards justice. Moral courage requires the temerity and fortitude to stand for justice, speak for justice and work for justice. Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that love can be actualized on the personal level. The closest approximation to love on the social level is justice.

Dr. King not only had compassion and moral vision, but the moral courage to develop and implement an action plan, on behalf of the people he lead.

Anyone can dream, but to work to bring that dream into reality requires moral courage. We must not leave out planning and implementation of the vision for if we fail to plan we plan to fail. Kwame Nkrumah once said, “We need men who think as men of action and act as men of thought.”

A trademark of Dr. King’s leadership was his capacity to effect a strategic plan in the various Civil Rights campaigns. What worked in Birmingham did not work in Albany. What was effective with Bull Connor was not effective with Laurie Pritchett. Constant planning and implementation was a hallmark of the movement. The word of God says we must not only be hearers of the word but doers of the word. The Civil Rights Struggle could not have achieved all that it did without effective planning and implementation of strategies of non-violence.

To think, plan and act for positive social change requires moral courage. It means sacrifice and struggle; it means giving one’s all that all might have all in the words of the poet Tennyson. It means being willing to sacrifice and go the second mile. It means braving many dangers, toils and snares, going through hard times, rough times and lonely times for the cause. Not only did Martin King have moral courage but all those individuals who put something of value on the line by supporting the movement had moral courage. The people had moral courage; the bakers, butchers, barbers and beauticians, the maids, janitors, butlers and seamstresses, the doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, and teachers, the parents and children, day laborers and field hands, the stokers of steamers and factory workers and others all had moral courage because they were willing to even sacrifice their lives for a higher cause. They saw his example and were greatly inspired. He saw their example and was greatly inspired.

Freedom is not free. To brave death threats, to be stabbed, to have your house bombed; to put yourself, your followers and family at risk calls for extraordinary physical and moral courage and Dr. King had them.

Moral courage is a rare and sublime quality. It sometimes means parting company with friends and family for a higher cause and a greater truth. It can be found in the words of a Martin Luther or a Martin Luther King, a Paul Robeson or a Marian Anderson, “Here I Stand for I can do nothing else.”

This what we need today; moral vision and moral courage, a concern for the needs of all of these but most particularly the least of these. These are few of the leadership qualities of Martin Luther King Jr, and these are the leadership qualities we so desperately need in our world today; Men and women and who will speak the truth and meet the needs, and serve the people and prepare themselves to meet the tests of time. What we need are stalwart men and women who are not bound by filial allegiances or restricted by the bonds of race or boundaries of class.

Moral leadership is what we need. We need it in the White house. We need it in the School house. We need it in the church house and we need it in the counting house. We need it in the big house and we need it in the small house. We need it on Main Street and we need it on back street. We need in the church and we need it in the Halls of government. We need it in public and we need it private. We need in Corporations and we need it in small businesses.

Without it, we cannot move forward. With it we can accomplish even greater things through the help of almighty.

Prepare to lead-Value preparation. Never lose compassion for the people. Develop a moral vision that will inspire their participation and possess the moral courage to develop and plan of action and act decisively. These are some of the hallmarks of the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we move into the future let us go forth with the same zeal and compassion, the same vision and courage that make for a better America for all of the people.

2 responses to “Leadership Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  1. Dorothy Merchant Avatar
    Dorothy Merchant

    Dr Stewart continues to revitalize the heart of the civil rights movement, spear headed by Dr. Martin Luther King. His scholarly omniscient poetic discourse draws the reader into a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm for change; one person at a time, one community at a time, one nation at a time, one world at a time. He carries a monumental baton but still is running his lap of this heroic race in the face of blatant blistering boulders of fire from indifference, ignorance, and international Darwinism. We should all pray that he clones himself.

    1. cfstewart Avatar

      Dear Dorothy:

      Again, I appreciate your timely and insightful responses to these positions. It is refreshing to know Christians like yourself who embody the rational judgment, spirituality and clear thinking that we need today. Thank you again so much.

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