There is probably no other American figure that epitomizes the qualities of leadership and self-sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds more than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we celebrate his life on the day set aside to honor him, let’s look back at some of the most important events in his life. From them, there are plenty of lessons we can apply in our own lives – both personal and professional.
#1: Knowing What’s Possible Comes From Asking “Why Not?”
It’s easy to see archival footage of Dr. King’s stirring speeches or the stark black and white images of him in thought and forget that no man is born wise and with all the answers. In reality, Dr. King used his many interactions and experiences with people from all different walks of life to inform his worldview.
Prior to entering Morehouse College in 1944, the then 15-year-old King left the South for the first time to work on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. This experience proved revelatory, and he noted in letters to his parents that he never knew that “… a person of my race could eat anywhere.” By being exposed to different ways of living, his perspective that segregation was something more than just an annoying fact of life was forever changed. The experience would stay with him through his schooling and ultimately influence his decision to enter the struggle for civil rights.
Beyond seeking out different ways of living, Dr. King stretched his perspective by searching out answers from other people who had been engaged in similar struggles. After studying the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi during Seminary, and well after his successful role in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Dr. King traveled to India to learn even more about the practice and techniques of non-violent social change.
What can we learn from this? The answers to our problems are often only available after we learn from others – other people, other cultures, other places – what the right question is. Dr. King exemplified the benefit of always pushing past what is to what could be.
#2: Change Is Constant – It’s Your Reaction That Matters
Just because Dr. King was mostly an agent for great social change doesn’t mean that change came easily for him. Rising to leadership in an often fractured coalition of church and social organizations led to a number of shifts and changes that he could have never anticipated.
In 1963, the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held in Washington D.C. While Dr. King was initially opposed to the original, more confrontational idea of the march, he still agreed to participate. Looking past his fears that the large public march would hamper the passage of civil rights legislation, he wound up crafting one of the most electrifying and impactful messages of the struggle – no doubt winning over ignorant, but open minds, that would have otherwise remained closed.
This is just one instance where Dr. King was thrown off course or ran into conflict with an ever changing movement that he was a player in. By adjusting to the latest development, always maintaining dignity and composure, and reacting in a way that would contribute rather than detract, he navigated over near insurmountable obstacles on the road to freedom.
#3: Something In Your Way? Sometimes You Have to Go Around Instead of Through
We all know that the cornerstone of Dr. King’s approach to the civil rights struggle was non-violent civil disobedience, but what does that actually mean? Likewise, we’re all aware of the tale of Rosa Parks, who was arrested after refusing to move to the back of the bus. But how does one arrest result in a non-violent movement? Time and pressure.
The resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott, began in late 1955 and lasted an astounding 385 days. During that time, King’s organization arranged carpools to shuttle boycotters to and from work and church and encouraged black cab drivers to discount their fares to match the typical bus fare of the day. The boycott took over a year, but effectively crippled Montgomery’s economy through sheer collective will, and the resulting pressure resulted in the 1956 federal district court decision that desegregated Alabama’s bus system.
Though it might have been more satisfying to preach direct action and even advocate violence, as some of his contemporaries did, by taking the more indirect approach of demonstrating a collective will and buying power he was able to effect long-lasting change instead of harsh reprisal.
Understanding this very simple, yet very difficult to carry out, principle made Dr. King and his followers more powerful than any riot.
#4: When Faced With Setbacks, Will You Stop or Move Forward?
Dr. King was arrested upwards of 20 times, his home bombed, and he was subject to a near constant stream of harassment and violence. Despite this, he used every setback and threat as an opportunity to reflect and act.
In 1963, following racially-motivated church bombings in the city, Dr. King shifted his focus on Birmingham. Leading demonstrations that resulted in police brutality against the non-violent protesters, King quickly realized that he’d be arrested in an attempt to break the movement. Conceding to arrest, and after one horrible evening in solitary confinement, he spent the nine days of his imprisonment crafting the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Instead of wallowing in the unjust arrest, or being frightened into giving up his cause, Dr. King’s 20-page response became a populist battle cry against injustice. Turning on phrases like “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” Dr. King parlayed his own personal setback into a greater motivator for an entire social cause. What’s even more exceptional is how he continued to move forward, despite having to do so against a constant tide of opposition.
#5: No Man Is An Island – You’ve Gotta Have Friends
Though he is remembered as a shining star and motivating force in the ‘60s civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was never alone in the struggle.
By effectively harnessing student organizations, church groups, and a considerable network of politicians and celebrities sympathetic to the cause, Dr. King was able to transform a sense of injustice into an actual movement. From forming bonds with the family of Gandhi to understand the principles of non-violence, to his willingness to soften his messages out of respect to President John F. Kennedy, he demonstrated how one can use their connections and learn from them to further their goals.
So What Can You Learn?
Beyond the lasting impact of Dr. King’s contribution to our society, his methods and reactions linger as important lessons that can be applied in any challenging situation. From confronting difficult relationships with peers to challenging accepted social norms to even overcoming personal tragedy, his is a living legacy of lessons that each of us can apply in our own lives.