On the 50th anniversary of his death, we reflect on the leadership qualities that defined an icon
INSPIRATIONAL SPEAKER Rhetoricians have long cited King’s partly improvised “I have a dream” speech during the 1963 march on Washington as a masterclass in leadership oratory, thanks in no small part to its memorable anaphora (starting successive lines with the same phrase). King delivered this and other epochal speeches in his trademark Baptist style, enhancing his messianic magnetism during the burgeoning TV age.
ATTENTIVE STUDENT King’s philosophy of peaceful protest came from a learned place: he had worked alongside Quakers, who preach pacifism, and had read Henry Thoreau’s treatises on civil disobedience. A 1959 visit to India to study Mahatma Gandhi and his principles of satyagraha (“loyalty to the truth”) shaped King’s view that “non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle”.
EMPATHETIC ADVOCATE When King strode arm in arm with protestors during 1965’s freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, he demonstrated a high emotional intelligence quotient. He showed it again when he moved his family into a dingy Chicago apartment for six months to highlight housing inequalities. Such empathetic expressions of “soft power” rallied support for the civil rights movement.
FEARLESS ROLE MODEL In 1958 he was nearly stabbed to death at a book-signing session. He publicly forgave his mentally ill assailant. Four years later, when he was assaulted at a hotel by a white nationalist, King’s response was to calmly drop his hands “like a newborn baby”. Such acts strengthened his cause and ensured that he continues to be cited as a role model by leaders ranging from Barack Obama to Pope Francis.