As I sit down and take the first sip of my morning cup of coffee, I realize that today, January 18, 2021, we celebrate the life of the one and only Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I can’t help but think about the current situation and wonder what Dr. King would think about it. How would he carry himself? What would he say to those that have leveraged the power of hate speech? How would he lead us into better times?
It is no secret that the United States of America is emerging from one of the most divisive presidential terms of modern history. The effects of this are still very present in everyone’s mind and body. The biggest challenge we face as a country is finding common ground and moving forward without falling into a dismissive sense of “unity.” In this blog, I’ll discuss some of the characteristics of MLK’s leadership that are still relevant and can serve as a roadmap to navigate today’s landscape.
A leader of all people, Dr. King never chose fear in the face of oppression, uncertainty, ignorance, persecution, and violence. Instead, he constantly chose courage and determination when fighting for civil rights during one of the most agitated decades of American history, the 1960s. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Dr. King didn’t feel fear. He was, indeed, still very much human. It means that Dr. King refused to let fear dictate the course of his actions. Even when faced with constant turmoil, he refused to allow prison, violence, or the threat of death distract his end mission. Instead, he stood beside his goal of achieving rights for ALL through the consistent strategy of nonviolent protests.
To learn more about everything Dr. King experienced and how it affected him, I decided to watch the newest documentary titled “MLK/FBI.” You can watch the trailer here: MLK/FBI – Official Trailer | HD | IFC Films. As I watched the documentary, the only thing that kept popping in my head was the question of How? Even when confronted with constant violence, how did he manage to keep his poise and remain loyal to his nonviolent strategy? I realized that Dr. King had three characteristics that set him apart from contemporary leaders: integrity, determination, and love in his heart. These characteristics grounded him, even during some of the most contentious times in history.
Facing the reality of the unhealed wound of racism in America means having the courage to revisit history. I’ve highlighted five characteristics of Dr. King’s leadership that are worth simulating.
- Choose the high road: Love Over Fear.
- At the height of his activism, Dr. King was disliked by over half of Americans. He was persecuted and constantly faced with the fear of death. However, instead of becoming the turmoil surrounding him, he took the high road and stood firm in his stance for peaceful protest by leading from a place of love instead of fear.
- The power of a common goal and strategy
- Dr. King’s vision of civil rights for all was about ending poverty and ensuring educational equity. Staying true to the idea of a more diverse America allowed him to attract people from multiple backgrounds without compromising his movement’s integrity. He knew that violence was self-defeating and would play into the scheme of the opposition.
- Perceptual ability
“We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together… you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must change.” – MLK.
- His message, although radical to some, showed Dr. Kings’ incredible perceptual ability. He could see the connection between the most pressing issues of the time without personalizing them but instead giving them the structure needed to fight them.
- Active Role Vs. Passive Role
- The real work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is not about passivity. His nonviolent protest legacy has often been taken out of context to dismiss recent popular sentiments on systemic racism. Nonviolent protest is less about passivity and more about active participation in attaining real, lasting change.
- The power of non-conformity
- In uncertain times, it is easy to fall into the comfort of conformity. Dr. King’s legacy provides a blueprint for how we combat inequality today. We must continue to show up to have the uncomfortable yet necessary conversations to move us forward. It is fair to say that conformity is no longer an option.
This next stage in history is about showing up for each other. Individual healing is intrinsically connected to collective healing. Creating a sustainable future for all is a matter that concerns everyone. Therefore, we must take concrete steps to unlearn the attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from achieving this. The culture of denial that has permeated our institutions ended in 2020, and we must persist by challenging prejudice and systemic racism wherever we find it, including ourselves.