Martin Luther King, Jr.: Charismatic Leadership
in a Mass Struggle
The legislation to establish Martin Luther King,
Jr.'s birthday as a federal holiday provided official recognition
of King's greatness, but it remains the responsibility of those
of us who study and carry on King's work to define his historical
significance. Rather than engaging in officially approved nostalgia,
our remembrance of King should reflect the reality of his complex
and multifaceted life. Biographers, theologians, political scientists,
sociologists, social psychologists, and historians have given us
a sizable literature of King's place in the Afro-American protest
tradition, his role in the modern black freedom struggle, and his
eclectic ideas regarding nonviolent activism. Although King scholars
may benefit from and may stimulate the popular interest in King
generated by the national holiday, many will find themselves uneasy
participants in annual observances to honor an innocuous, carefully
cultivated image of King as a black heroic figure.
The King depicted in serious scholarly works is
far too interesting to be encased in such a didactic legend. King
was a controversial leader who challenged authority and who once
applauded what he called "creative maladjusted nonconformity."
He should not be transformed into a simplistic image -designed to
offend no one -a black counterpart to the static, heroic myths that
have embalmed George Washington as the Father of His Country and
Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.
One aspect of the emerging King myth has been the
depiction of him in the mass media, not only as the preeminent leader
of the civil rights movement, but also as the initiator and sole
indispensable element in the southern black struggles of the 1950s
and 1960s. As in other historical myths, a Great Man is seen as
the decisive factor in the process of social change, and the unique
qualities of a leader are used to explain major historical events.
The King myth departs from historical reality because it attributes
too much to King's exceptional qualities as a leader and too little
to the impersonal, large-scale social factors that made it possible
for King to display his singular abilities on a national stage.
Because the myth emphasizes the individual at the expense of the
black movement, it not only exaggerates King's historical importance
but also distorts his actual, considerable contribution to the movement.
A major example of this distortion has been the
tendency to see King as a charismatic figure who single-handedly
directed the course of the civil rights movement through the force
of his oratory. The charismatic label, however, does not adequately
define King's role in the southern black struggle. The term charisma
has traditionally been used to describe the godlike, magical
qualities possessed by certain leaders. Connotations of the term
have changed, of course, over the years. In our more secular age,
it has lost many of its religious connotations and now refers to
a wide range of leadership styles that involve the capacity to inspire
- usually through oratory- emotional bonds between leaders and followers.
Arguing that King was not a charismatic leader, in the broadest
sense of the term, becomes somewhat akin to arguing that he was
not a Christian, but emphasis on King's charisma obscures other
important aspects of his role in the black movement. To be sure,
King's oratory was exceptional and many people saw King as a divinely
inspired leader, but King did not receive and did not want the kind
of unquestioning support that is often associated with charismatic
leaders. Movement activists instead saw him as the most prominent
among many outstanding movement strategists, tacticians, ideologues,
and institutional leaders.
King undoubtedly recognized that charisma was
one of many leadership qualities at his disposal, but he also recognized
that charisma was not a sufficient basis for leadership in a modern
political movement enlisting numerous self-reliant leaders. Moreover,
he rejected aspects of the charismatic model that conflicted with
his sense of his own limitations. Rather than exhibiting unwavering
confidence in his power and wisdom, King was a leader full of self-doubts,
keenly aware of his own limitations and human weaknesses. He was
at times reluctant to take on the responsibilities suddenly and
unexpectedly thrust upon him. During the Montgomery bus boycott,
for example, when he worried about threats to his life and to the
lives of his wife and child, he was overcome with fear rather than
confident and secure in his leadership role. He was able to carry
on only after acquiring an enduring understanding of his dependence
on a personal God who promised never to leave him alone.
Moreover, emphasis on King's charisma conveys
the misleading notion of a movement held together by spellbinding
speeches and blind faith rather than by a complex blend of rational
and emotional bonds. King's charisma did not place him above criticism.
Indeed, he was never able to gain mass support for his notion of
nonviolent struggle as a way of life, rather than simply a tactic.
Instead of viewing himself as the embodiment of widely held Afro-American
racial values, he willingly risked his popularity among blacks through
his steadfast advocacy of nonviolent strategies to achieve radical
He was a profound and provocative public speaker
as well as an emotionally powerful one. Only those unfamiliar with
the Afro-American clergy would assume that his oratorical skills
were unique, but King set himself apart from other black preachers
through his use of traditional black Christian idiom to advocate
unconventional political ideas. Early in his life King became disillusioned
with the unbridled emotionalism associated with his father's religious
fundamentalism, and, as a thirteen-year-old, he questioned the bodily
resurrection of Jesus in his Sunday school class. His subsequent
search for an intellectually satisfying religious faith conflicted
with the emphasis on emotional expressiveness that pervades evangelical
religion. His preaching manner was rooted in the traditions of the
black church, while his subject matter, which often reflected his
wide-ranging philosophical interests, distinguished him from other
preachers who relied on rhetorical devices that manipulated the
emotions of listeners. King used charisma as a tool for mobilizing
black communities, but he always used it in the context of other
forms of intellectual and political leadership suited to a movement
containing many strong leaders.
Recently, scholars have begun to examine the black
struggle as a locally based mass movement, rather than simply a
reform movement led by national civil rights leaders. The new orientation
in scholarship indicates that King's role was different from that
suggested in King-centered biographies and journalistic accounts.
King was certainly not the only significant leader of the civil
rights movement, for sustained protest movements arose in many southern
communities in which King had little or no direct involvement.
In Montgomery, for example, local black leaders
such as E. D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, and Jo Ann Robinson started the
bus boycott before King became the leader of the Montgomery Improvement
Association. Thus, although King inspired blacks in Montgomery and
black residents recognized that they were fortunate to have such
a spokesperson, talented local leaders other than King played decisive
roles in initiating and sustaining the boycott movement.
Similarly, the black students who initiated the
1960 lunch counter sit-ins admired King, but they did not wait for
him to act before launching their own movement. The sit-in leaders
who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
became increasingly critical of King's leadership style, linking
it to the feelings of dependency that often characterize the followers
of charismatic leaders. The essence of SNCC's approach to community
organizing was to instill in local residents the confidence that
they could lead their own struggles. A SNCC organizer failed if
local residents became dependent on his or her presence; as the
organizers put it, their job was to work themselves out of a job.
Though King influenced the struggles that took place in the Black
Belt regions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, those movements
were also guided by self-reliant local leaders who occasionally
called on King's oratorical skills to galvanize black protestors
at mass meetings while refusing to depend on his presence.
If King had never lived, the black struggle would
have followed a course of development similar to the one it did.
The Montgomery bus boycott would have occurred, because King did
not initiate it. Black students probably would have rebelled -even
without King as a role model -for they had sources of tactical and
ideological inspiration besides King. Mass activism in southern
cities and voting rights efforts in the deep South were outgrowths
of large-scale social and political forces, rather than simply consequences
of the actions of a single leader. Though perhaps not as quickly
and certainly not as peacefully nor with as universal a significance,
the black movement would probably have achieved its major legislative
victories without King's leadership, for the southern Jim Crow system
was a regional anachronism, and the forces that undermined it were
To what extent, then, did King's presence affect
the movement? Answering that question requires us to look beyond
the usual portrayal of the black struggle. Rather than seeing an
amorphous mass of discontented blacks acting out strategies determined
by a small group of leaders, we would recognize King as a major
example of the local black leadership that emerged as black communities
mobilized for sustained struggles. If not as dominant a figure as
sometimes portrayed, the historical King was nevertheless a remarkable
leader who acquired the respect and support of self-confident, grass-roots
leaders, some of whom possessed charismatic qualities of their own.
Directing attention to the other leaders who initiated and emerged
from those struggles should not detract from our conception of King's
historical significance; such movement-oriented research reveals
King as a leader who stood out in a forest of tall trees.
King's major public speeches - particularly the
"I Have a Dream" speech - have received much attention, but his
exemplary qualities were also displayed in countless strategy sessions
with other activists and in meetings with government officials.
King's success as a leader was based on his intellectual and moral
cogency and his skill as a conciliator among movement activists
who refused to be simply King's "followers" or "lieutenants."
The success of the black movement required the
mobilization of black communities as well as the transformation
of attitudes in the surrounding society, and King's wide range of
skills and attributes prepared him to meet the internal as well
as the external demands of the movement. King understood the black
world from a privileged position, having grown up in a stable family
within a major black urban community; yet he also learned how to
speak persuasively to the surrounding white world. Alone among the
major civil rights leaders of his time, King could not only articulate
black concerns to white audiences, but could also mobilize blacks
through his day-to-day involvement in black community institutions
and through his access to the regional institutional network of
the black church. His advocacy of nonviolent activism gave the black
movement invaluable positive press coverage, but his effectiveness
as a protest leader derived mainly from his ability to mobilize
black community resources.
Analyses of the southern movement that emphasize
its nonrational aspects and expressive functions over its political
character explain the black struggle as an emotional outburst by
discontented blacks, rather than recognizing that the movement's
strength and durability came from its mobilization of black community
institutions, financial resources, and grass-roots leaders. The
values of southern blacks were profoundly and permanently transformed
not only by King, but also by involvement in sustained protest activity
and community-organizing efforts, through thousands of mass meetings,
workshops, citizenship classes, freedom schools, and informal discussions.
Rather than merely accepting guidance from above, southern blacks
were resocialized as a result of their movement experiences.
Although the literature of the black struggle has
traditionally paid little attention to the intellectual content
of black politics, movement activists of the 1960s made a profound,
though often ignored, contribution to political thinking. King may
have been born with rare potential, but his most significant leadership
attributes were related to his immersion in, and contribution to,
the intellectual ferment that has always been an essential part
of Afro-American freedom struggles. Those who have written about
King have too often assumed that his most important ideas were derived
from outside the black struggle-from his academic training, his
philosophical readings, or his acquaintance with Gandhian ideas.
Scholars are only beginning to recognize the extent to which his
attitudes and those of many other activists, white and black, were
transformed through their involvement in a movement in which ideas
disseminated from the bottom up as well as from the top down.
Although my assessment of King's role in the black
struggles of his time reduces him to human scale, it also increases
the possibility that others may recognize his qualities in themselves.
Idolizing King lessens one's ability to exhibit some of his best
attributes or, worse, encourages one to become a debunker, emphasizing
King's flaws in order to lessen the inclination to exhibit his virtues.
King himself undoubtedly feared that some who admired him would
place too much faith in his ability to offer guidance and to overcome
resistance, for he often publicly acknowledged his own limitations
and mortality. Near the end of his life, King expressed his certainty
that black people would reach the Promised Land whether or not he
was with them. His faith was based on an awareness of the qualities
that he knew he shared with all people. 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 King's life did not require charisma or other superhuman
If King 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 King, for he recognized
the extent to which he was a product of the movement that called
him to leadership.
The notion that appearances by Great Men (or Great
Women) are necessary preconditions for the emergence of major movements
for social changes reflects not only a poor understanding of history,
but also a pessimistic view of the possibilities for future social
change. Waiting for the Messiah is a human weakness that is unlikely
to be rewarded more than once in a millennium. Studies of King's
life offer support for an alternative optimistic belief that ordinary
people can collectively improve their lives. Such studies demonstrate
the capacity of social movements to transform participants for the
better and to create leaders worthy of their followers.
"Martin Luther King Jr.: Charismatic Leadership in a Mass
Struggle." Journal of American History 74, (September