Martin Luther King, Jr. is a key historical figure in the fight for equality of blacks in America who first landed there in 1619. His unwavering commitment to civil rights earned him a Nobel peace prize at the age of 35. He was assassinated at the age of 39 in Memphis.

Born January 15th, 1929, King was named Michael King Jr. at birth. This error was made by the doctor who believed that his father’s name was Michael as he was fondly called Mike. At the age of 5, his name was officially changed to Martin.

To date, King’s birthday is still celebrated by the United States of America on the third Monday in January annually. Malcolm X was also a pivotal figure in the civil right movement during this same period.

There are articles on this blog on life lessons of several successful leaders. These individuals include Kobe Bryant, Phil Knight, Lee Iacocca, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Mahatma Gandhi. Furthermore, I have summarised the greatest life stories from these successful leaders in one blog post. Feel free to click through all the previous links to enjoy content of this nature.

Stephen B Oates documented the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Let the Trumpet Sound.

The following are the greatest lessons that I have gleaned from the life of this incredible leader. These lessons are supported in some instances with quotations.

Discovered his Purpose Early in Life

King discovered his calling at a very young age after winning an oratorical contest in Georgia while in the eleventh grade.

On his bus ride back to Atlanta accompanied by his teacher, some white passengers entered the bus. There were no more seats available for them.

The white bus driver ordered him and his teacher to give up their seats but King refused. He eventually conceded and stood in the aisle of the bus all the way home.

That was the experience that shaped King’s destiny. King described this incident and stated:

“That night will never leave my mind, It was the angriest I have ever been in my life” (p. 16).

Mentored by Mahatma Gandhi

King’s civil rights philosophy was rooted in the work of Gandhi. In fact, all his protests and marches were carried out in the spirit of non-violence which was based on Gandhi’s teaching.

After attending a lecture at Howard University, Dr. Mordecai W Johnson, lectured on the life and teachings of Gandhi. King was captivated and began studying the life of Gandhi.

King described the lecture as follows:

“message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works” (p. 31-32).

On February 3rd, 1959, King flew from New York to India, where he told reporters in New Delhi that he was a pilgrim. He paid respects to Gandhi by visiting the shrine where he was cremated.

Feared God

King showed that he feared the Lord when he was interviewing for his first pastorship assignment at a church in Dexter, Montgomery.  

He was in deep quandry as to whether he should preach a sermon based on his learnings at University or what God will allow him to speak.

King told himself:

“Keep Martin Luther King in the background and God in the foreground and everything will be all right. Remember you’re a channel of the gospel, not the source” (p. 48).

Mastered the Art of Communication

King was captivated with communication from since a child. He won an oratorical contest while he was in the eleventh grade.

He mastered the skill so well that he was able to influence diverse groups of persons from slaves to university professors.

One of his colleagues in the movement described his communication style as follows:

“He communicated on the emotional level, too, so that you really didn’t have to understand his words to understand what he meant. That’s why the No D.’s and the Ph.D’s could be moved by the same speech. Besides, Doc conveyed the sense that he cared. He wasn’t some disinterested conveyor of crafted sentences. He believed that the right word, emotionally and intellectually charged, could reach the whole person and change the relationships of men” (p. 289).

Demonstrated Calmness

King mastered the art of calmness and was willing to apologise in instances where he lost his cool. He was an optimist which contributed to his calm demeanor as he believed that his current situation was much better than his forebears.

He took retreats which he loved with his team. He took time to stroll the forest in solitude, pray and to meditate.

Followed His Heart

King eventually decided amidst several concerns about the racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama which was worse than Atlanta to accept the role of Pastor.

His decision was not well received by his father who felt that he should have returned to work alongside him in Ebenezer which was a role that one day he was marked to fill. This was a destiny decision as one day he became the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

Financially Astute

During the early period of his marriage to Coretta, King carefully managed the finances of his family which is a trait which he gained from his father.

Professionally, he always maintained due caution when dealing with the finances of various associations which he lead. As the Montgomery Improvement Association grew, large donations poured in for the movement.

King was meticulous in handling the donations and stated:

“I am extremely vulnerable, and it is necessary to be extremely cautious” (p. 99).

Valued Planning

King valued preparation and spent several hours each week ensuring that he was able to deliver his sermons without notes for about 35 to 40 minutes on Sunday.  His weekly routine was:

“At prescribed hours during the week, he closed his office door and devoted himself to his sermon for the next Sunday. On Tuesday he would sketch an outline, on Wednesday do research and decide what illustrations and life situations to use, and on Friday and Saturday write the sermon on lined yellow pages. His breadth of historical references might range from Plato, Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas to Alfred the Great, Thomas Carlyle, James Russell Lowell, Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, Niebuhr, Freud and Gandhi” (p. 56).

Understood the Importance of Reading

King was an avid reader even as a young boy and he studied the work of authors and orators.

King asserted that his:

“greatest talent, strongest tradition, and most constant interest was the eloquent statement of ideas” (p. 16).

Showed Courage

King was courageous even in instances when he was extremely nervous and under pressure. The day he was elected as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association he had about twenty minutes to prepare his first speech to an audience at a mass meeting.

Despite his fears, he prayed to God for guidance and strength.  He was able to deliver an arousing presentation for 16 minutes which was a summation of all that he had learnt and read at the age of 26.

Comments on his delivery of the speech included the following quotation below:

“ This was the time that the people were brought face to face with the type of man who that Martin Luther King was – not only the people who came to the mass meeting, but those who nominated him, too. That was the great awakening. It was astonishing, the man spoke with so much force” (p.72).

He was Self-Reflective

King believed in self-reflecting and wanted to dedicate a day each week to meditation and fasting. However, due to the demands of his schedule he was unsuccessful at achieving same.

During the early period of his presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association, there were several rumours that started about him concerning him misappropriating the funds of the association which tested his strength under these circumstances. He was willing to walk away from the role of President of the Association, however his associates convinced him of their faith in his ability to lead.

Displayed Commitment

King was dedicated to civil rights having rejected many other opportunities. One such opportunity was a Chief Lecturer role offered through Sol Hurok Agency to lecture around the world.  The salary offer was $100,000. One writer described his decision in this instance as “committed irrevocably to the movement” (p. 206).

 Valued Hardwork

King was a very hard worker. In the year 1964 he was awarded Time Man of the Year being the first American black person to receive this honour. The previous year he served for 20 hours each day, travelled approximately 275,000 miles and delivered 350 speeches.

He was a Dreamer

King was a dreamer and guided the civil rights based on his dream of freedom for blacks. He dreamt of the end of racial segregation where blacks and whites can live together in harmony and where blacks can receive equal rights as their white counterparts. His most famous “I have a dream” speech explains this.

Acted in spite of Criticisms

One of the most controversial decisions that King made was the use of children in a protest called ‘D Day’ in Birmingham. The police arrested 900 students that day. The following day there was called Double D Day where the firemen turned their hoses on the marchers as well as the police unleashed German police dogs into the crowd.

This resulted in massive injuries and the arrest of 250 persons. The demonstrations in Birmingham caused in the imprisonment of more than 3000 persons and the jails were all filled.  The actions of the authorities in Birmingham were condemned by the world which began negotiations with King.

Abernathy, one of King’s key supporters in the movement described the decision to use children as “an act of wisdom, divinely inspired” (p. 238).

Aware of Past Mistakes

King got involved in civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia which had a population of 56,000 persons. However, there was a federal injunction handed down by the District Judge J. Robert Elliott against all forms of civil disobedience. King chose to honour the injunction though it was unjust and unconstitutional which resulted in a loss of momentum for the movement. King later regretted this decision.

Faced Tough Assignments

King had led the movement successfully in the South like in Montgomery and Birmingham and wanted to expand the movement into northern states such as Chicago. However, his partners and advisers had objections to extending the movement to Chicago.

Chicago at that time was further advanced than the other southern cities like Birmingham.  In addition, the Mayor was more sophisticated and had alliances within the black communities.

Despite the concerns about the toughness of the assignment, King trusted his gut and proceeded to take on task of fighting for equality for the blacks in Chicago.

Prepared to Die to Fulfill his Purpose

As a result of King’s commitment to the fight for civil rights, his life was always under threat. Despite this, he was willing to die fulfilling his calling as oppose to taking a back seat.  During the period of bus protests in Montgomery, members of his congregation were saddened. However, his prayer was that if anyone should die, then he was willing to pay give his life for the fight for freedom.

His prayer stated:

“I hope no one will have to die as a result of our struggle in Montgomery. Certainly, I don’t want to die. But if anyone has to die, let it be me.”

Final Thoughts

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dedication and commitment to civil rights will always remain a pivotal part of the history of America. Let The Trumpet Sound was a phenomenal read with so many memorable nuggets which are applicable to career and personal development. I will end this post with one of King’s quotations which we should apply to our careers.

This quote states:

 “Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better” (p.105).

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18 Practical Lessons From The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr,

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