As human beings, all of us have dreams, longings, desires, hopes, and expectations for what we want out of life. And depending on the substance of those dreams, they have the power to shape the future trajectory of our lives. Like many of us, this leader had aspirations to see the achievement of his personal dreams—his was to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors—to live an honorable and noble life of quiet service as a minister that would make a difference to those entrusted to his care. Yet, destiny had bigger plans for this leader. In this leader’s case, he became inspired, and was compelled by a dream that transcended every expectation he could have for himself.
“Come what may...” this leader was determined to hurl his own and only life into the fulfillment of this dream. Whether in life, or by death, he felt called to inspire the world to this higher pursuit. On August 28, 1963, this Inspirational Leader uttered four simple words that forever changed the course of human history. When the words, “I have a dream...” were uttered from his mouth, all those who heard felt inspired because it was a vision that was so large, so unfathomable, so out of reach, that it demanded the participation of us all. Some dreams do not have a high price tag, and can be achieved rather easily, not requiring a collective effort. The fulfillment of this dream would require the highest forms of payment possible—human blood was shed for this dream—even before this leader’s time, many had already been humiliated, scorned, beaten, enslaved, disgraced, raped, and even killed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. both lived and died for this dream. While he lived, he personally suffered defeat, prejudice, and imprisonment. He paid the steepest price that any human being could possibly pay by being made a martyr for the dream. This dream was not just a calling for one individual, but a calling for the entire human race. The path of humanity would be different because this Inspirational Leader understood that when he said those four words, he knew very well that the emphasis was not on “I have” but on “a dream.” This Inspirational Leader did not use his power to set forth his own agenda. He was simply the vision caster and the messenger whose role was to inspire us to be a part of this journey. Without this Inspirational Leader, many would still not be experiencing the full freedoms of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Dr. King is referred to as a human rights icon, and he is heralded as one of the greatest orators in American history. He is the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. While he lived, he was a channel of inspiration—through him, many adopted the fight for civil rights as their own. Through his assassination, he inspired others to fight even harder. The United States of America would not be where we are today had Dr. King not communicated the dream that compelled him. What Dr. King stood for still inspires today, because his was not a dream that was simply manufactured or produced from within himself. It was a dream that people engaged in because this leader captured the human heart and mind by connecting us to what all felt deep inside to be true, and to be right. He awakened the conscience of America and the world by inspiring others to proclaim the dream by his leadership.
When we think about leaders who have inspired us, a natural question that emerges in evaluating such a leader is, “What makes this leader so inspiring?” The common ground shared by all Inspirational Leaders is that their inspiration stems from being inspired themselves. In other words, it takes an inspired person to inspire others. By inspiration, we are not speaking of a mere case of warm, fuzzy feelings. We are speaking of the kind of inspiration which compels a person to irrevocable devotion. Absolute commitment to a cause is not something that can be manufactured—it is not something that one pulls off by faking it. Absolute commitment is a pledge of allegiance to live and die for something. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” These words are a statement to the undeniable commitment of a leader who was inspired to the depths of his soul. When a leader is willing to die for a cause, it is said that they can be an unstoppable force.
The cause King championed was of the highest noble pursuit. King was fully aware that there were those who had sacrificed their lives before him. For King, he stood on the shoulders of giants who had prevailed with non-violent protests—not just during his time, or even from the prior generation. His model was Christ who also stood silent before his accusers, committed to the point of death. Initially, King was reluctant to lead, he never sought to become the leader of the Civil Rights movement, and he had many doubts when he first was chosen to lead the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He meekly said, “If you think I can render service, then I will.” His resolve was truly tested when he was thrown in jail for the first time at the tender age of 26 on a trumped up traffic violation charge. His confidence was shaken. He was sure that he would be lynched. Late at night soon after being released he picked up the phone to hear, “Listen... we tired of you and your mess. If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we are gonna blow your brains out and blow your house up.”
These moments were defining for King. Was he just a charismatic orator who could wax eloquently, or was he a man who would be willing to put his life on the line? Faced with this deep crisis of confidence, he found himself praying, “Please Lord help me... I can’t do it alone.” In the midst of his anguish, King felt quietly assured and comforted as he sensed that he was never alone. The voice of Christ was clear to him, saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth.” From then on, King maintained his resolve to devote his entire life to the Civil Rights cause, using non-violence. He was faithful to the very end when he was suddenly martyred on April 4th 1968. The voice of Christ allowed him to give voice—to advocate—for unity in the cause. The harassment, the hate, and the violence directed toward them could not squelch their resolve. The world rallied in support of the cause because he called others to only do what he himself was willing to do—in both life and death, he was absolutely committed.
The gifted political leader is often portrayed as having the ability to say anything, to anyone, in anyplace, in anyway, in order to sway the masses. Some leaders have such charisma, and are so gifted with their words, that arguing for one position or the opposing view point on the turn of a dime is just business as usual. These leaders have one goal in mind—to amass followers—no matter what it takes, and no matter how it is done. Superficially, King could be looked upon as having this kind of talent—for he was mesmerizing. Crowds were deeply stirred and riveted by what came across as spellbinding performances whenever he stood to speak. Yet, if we were to come to this conclusion about King, we would be flat out wrong in our assessment.
As an outside observer, what stands out are those brilliant moments which are remembered for the ages. Everyone who hears the name Martin Luther King, Jr. thinks of the famous phrase, “I have a dream,” for this was a moment that has been forever etched on the tablets of the hearts of Americans. Most fail to realize, however, that moments like this one, among other notable moments in King’s leadership come from a deep reservoir of a leader’s life. There is a difference between leadership moments, and the leader’s journey. The speech delivered that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was one moment—a single day. Prior to that day was a journey of twenty-six years of being made fun of as a child, socially ostracized, and even beaten, and scorned—and from that day to the time he was martyred are five years of an intense battle for the civil liberties of a people who were looked upon as a lower class.
For King, his message was tied deeply to his entire life journey—his calling was discovered as he toiled to discover his identity. His life was the complex union of heritage, religion, mentors, the times, personal choices, and life experiences. For King, in his quest to define himself, and to understand what his contribution would be, he sought to be an “advocate” (from the Latin: ad voc—literally, to add voice)—he was in search of something to voice. For King, his choice for the ministry had to mean much more than simply following a familiar path—(his father desired for him to be a minister)—Martin Luther King, Sr. had aspirations for King, Jr. long before the young Martin ever knew that one could even make any choices in life. King’s former name was Michael King, Jr. and his father had both of them renamed to Martin Luther King, after the great Reformer, Martin Luther. His father not only wanted his son to be like him but also wanted the both of them to be messengers for God.
In the midst of all this shaping and molding, it was important that King found his own identity; that he found his own inspiration—his own path. In those days, being a black minister made for a comfortable and stable life, but this was not enough of a reason to become a minister. His calling needed to be authentic, to be something that emerged from deep within rather than placed upon him by the outside. Once King stepped into his own, he could no longer settle for the comforts of a peace-making minister who quietly taught what he learned from philosophers and theologians. What he learned from the North while in seminary needed to be integrated with his life in the South. He could not forget his experiences as a child where he was forced to be silent while he and his black neighbors were humiliated by whites in his hometown. For King, to remain silent, meant that he was not following the will of God. King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” His calling was to give voice, and he found what mattered—he could now speak from the very depths of his soul, and not simply run through the motions of a good preacher that preached safe messages each Sunday morning.
Each of us at various times in our lives have been inspired—we have felt lifted, motivated, energized, strengthened, renewed, or challenged—even if it was just momentary. Moments of inspiration can be enormously powerful, but it takes much more than a single moment to give birth to a calling. Callings may be conceived during a moment of inspiration, but they are perceived and become certain only after the pain of labor, tears, growth, and development. Inspirational moments are like jolts of enthusiasm, but when the enthusiasm has been silenced, what remains is what matters.
For King, his calling did not come to him overnight through an audible voice from the Divine. But, rather in the silent prisons of a cool dark cell, where all hope seemed to be lost, he caught small glimpses of the light. It was here that he began to understand that all the collective moments of inspiration, and the perspiration of travailing through life were the volumes of life’s revelation to him. His raison d’être became clear to him in silence. In these moments of solitude, the tumultuous threats and debilitating distractions were put to death. It was here, that the internal voice, speaking of what mattered could cut through to be the clarion call of his life.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the center of the Confederate south, Martin was locked up for peacefully marching, and was criticized in the local newspaper by moderate white Christian church ministers calling him an extremist. The moderate whites urged seeking redress in the courts, and criticized King and his “outsiders” for “inciting” violence from Bull Connors, the “nigger hating” police chief, with his fire hoses and dogs. Incredulous, when reading that newspaper given to him with the criticism, King started writing from his isolated jail cell. What started as a response on the newspaper, lead to a request for more paper, and eventually turned into King’s twenty-six page testament, “A Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” In part, King replied, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It is in silence, that King understood that he could no longer be silent about the message, for it was no longer just a message to be delivered, it was his calling. All Inspirational Leaders have a calling to “not be silent”—to stand up, and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. The irony is that for many leaders, they discovered this calling when they were forced into silence. King stands among a host of others who fought for their cause from behind bars. Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Apostle Paul, were all leaders who were forced into silence, yet in each of their cases, what was meant to destroy was the very fuel to emblazon a fiery conviction which could not be contained—within the stillness of silence is where all other competing thoughts, voices, and distractions were quieted so that the their calling could be made certain. It was not until all was silenced, that what needed to be voiced was finally heard.
Throughout history, leaders have been portrayed as having extraordinary qualities. They are an elite group of high performing individuals—appointed carefully to make decisions which bear lasting consequences. Accessibility to the ivory towers where they deliberate is prohibited. From behind closed doors, a few determine the fate of many; and these tight knit groups are highly selective in those who can participate. Each member has fought their way, to beat out contenders, to earn the right to be at the table of leadership. Unfortunately, this way of leading permeates a message of exclusivity rather than inclusivity to followers. It conveys that we are to be competitive rather than collaborative—breeding an unspoken tendency to be suspicious of others rather than to seek to work together.
Inspirational Leaders are different. They seek to build bridges, to involve, integrate, and include others. They are collaborative by nature, and see others as potential partners rather than potential threats or competitors. Such was the case for King—he desired to embrace all people, irrespective of whether they were considered a friend or foe by the Black Community. King heeded the words of Christ, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This stood against the grain of his contemporaries such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael who urged confrontation and had a message of hate and rage toward the White Community. King’s ways also stood against the grain of the counsel of the older conservative Black population who urged him to go through legal channels. His path was not to go through proper passages. Rather than attempting to argue a position, he appealed to the heart. His way was not a calculated, impersonal approach down the cool trail toward the mind. It was a Inspirational, personal appeal aimed straight at the soul and conscience of America.
King’s vision was not simply to be shown respect. He was not simply fighting for rights, and he was not seeking equality to be on the same footing, but rather, his aim was for reconciliation and redemption. His tactics were to meet the oppressor’s violence with “forgiving love.” He sought for a relationship. His dream was to be the “white man’s brother...” and he longed for a day, “where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” For most, the idea of embracing another is something we do willingly when we think of embracing those we love—for they are lovable to us. King took it much further by embracing the unlovable. For King, the fight for civil rights was not merely the pursuit of freedom for the Black Community. It was a desire for all of God’s children to be free. The fight was not between Black and White—it was a fight between humanity and hatred— the goal was for all of us to no longer be enslaved by anger, but to be embraced by love.
History has shown time and time again that leaders can often fall prey to the illusions of privilege. The leader rises to the top, where they are supported and served by all those who surround them. What once started out as a privilege to serve followers becomes an entitlement to receive various privileges for being the leader. The story is no longer about the cause, or the people, but it becomes about them. When this occurs, the leader’s journey is no longer about the collective story of humanity. Rather, it becomes a story that is centered on the leader.
King’s most notable moment could have been the spotlight for him, but instead the focus was on the message and not the messenger. U.S. Representative John Lewis said, “Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.” King’s aim was to draw attention to the dream, and not on him. His longing was for the dream to not just be his own dream, but that it would be the dream of humanity.
King connected his story to the story of his predecessors who had gone before him. His speech was eclectic—drawing from the words of Moses who lead his people to the Promised Land; he used the words of Jesus, and the apostle Peter, making this moment a rebirth of faith. He used the words of the founding fathers: Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams who had written the Declaration of Independence. He used the words of the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. He used the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi, whose insights made a profound statement on the minds of world citizens. He connected his dream to the American dream.
Though his words were inspiring, it was the content of the dream that resonated far more than the eloquence of his oration. King’s dream was a story that transcended the place from where he cast the vision. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King’s proclamation set the stage for the participation of all in leading the nation’s future. If it were not for King’s leadership to bring people together, the world as we know it would not be. The story of freedom rings true today because of this Inspirational Leader—who faithfully did his part in the story of us all. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!