“I have a dream” is how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted his momentous speech in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and that phrase resonates strongly. His address was the centerpiece of the historic March on Washington, which involved over 200,000 people. In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy had addressed the nation, underscoring the importance of his administration’s proposed civil rights legislation.
King’s efforts were part of a massive current of historic change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Early in the 20th century, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union. These leaders and others built the American civil rights movement.
King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd politician.
We honor King not because he was a perfect man, but rather for personal courage as catalyst for the civil rights revolution. Initially, he was reluctant to assume leadership beyond his local community, concerned about physical safety. He took on the job nonetheless, persevering until his assassination April 4, 1968.
Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, we tend to idealize the leader. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying the complexity of the human spirit can easily diminish the person described. The leader actually seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased. Second, oversimplifying past times limits our own capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for our future.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which preached racial integration and nonviolent tactics, became challenged by a range of radical groups. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe faction, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.