King’s rhetorical skills were honed early in his professional life, as a seminary student in 1948. Born in 1929, King was the son of a reverend and sought to follow in his father’s footsteps. During his education, King soon began to realize the power of rhetoric and its ability to influence popular opinion. King became the pastor of his own church in 1954, when he was just 25 years old, where he began his professional practice leading a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama (Ling, 2015). At the same time, he also began studying toward a doctoral degree in theology and began to show signs of political activism. While working toward his degree, King became familiarized with the activism of Mahatma Gandhi in India, who preached a form of civil disobedience and nonviolence in protest of the Indian caste system. King recognized similar injustices being faced by African-Americans in the United States, and began to look for ways to protest social injustices being faced by all minorities.
King’s rise toward becoming a civil rights icon began in earnest in 1955. In December of that year, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for not relinquishing her seat on a public bus to a white woman. During this time, segregation was mandated throughout the south, and the recent desegregation of public schools the year before had made the issue of segregation a particularly volatile political issue. King helped organize a boycott of the Montgomery public bus system, which lasted over a year. During this boycott, and due to the visibility of King during numerous protests, he formed his first political enemies as well: his house was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan, and he was eventually arrested during one of the protests. However, his arrest culminated in a court ruling that effectively ended racial segregation on the bus system, which gained him nationwide recognition as one of the preeminent leaders of the civil rights movement (Ling, 2015).
Due to his work as a pastor, King was able to reach out to other Christian leaders, including white Christians such as Billy Graham, in support of civil rights. King’s message was one of positivity and nonviolence, in much the same manner as Mahatma Gandhi’s approach. King believed that violence would derail the civil rights movement, which was not a universally accepted idea throughout African-American communities. King also recognized that a message of hostility would only deepen the racial divide (Washington, 2006). Instead, King advocated for tolerance and equality above all else; he did not advocate submission nor confrontation during protests, but rather for a policy of civil disobedience. King’s strategy in this regard was that civil disobedience would be the best way to garner support of the American public. To this end, his strategy worked: television reports showing nonviolent protestors being aggressively arrested or attacked by law enforcement, including images of peaceful protestors being blasted with water cannons, made many Americans of all ethnicities sympathize with his political message.
King’s most iconic moment came during the March on Washington, which was a civil rights protest that saw approximately 250,000 protesters peacefully demonstrate in front of the Washington Monument (Washington, 2006). Held one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation was made by President Abraham Lincoln during the waning days of the Civil War, the March on Washington featured one of King’s most famous speeches, known as I have a dream, which called for a future in which individuals were judged solely by their character, rather than by the color of their skin (King III, 2008). The speech garnered widespread national attention, and has been attributed to being the catalyst for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which effectively ended segregation and legal discrimination against persons of color. King was tragically assassinated four year later in 1968, at thirty-nine years old (Ling, 2015).
King’s leadership skills were largely influential in ending systemic racism as a matter of American policy, and his legacy of progressivism and advocacy of social justice continue to be celebrated and recognized today. His leadership skills can be seen in his ability to both write and deliver public speeches that swayed many to support the civil rights movement. His ability to organize and inspire others, such as during the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, helped publicize his cause and give the civil rights movement national attention. Additionally, his message of peace and nonviolence, even when confronted by others who used violence, helped the civil rights movement gain support by many white Americans, which was essential for meaningful legislation to be enacted. Thus, Martin Luther King, Jr., can be considered one of the United States’ most celebrated and influential leaders, as he was able to shift cultural acceptance of segregation and other racist policies toward a progressive and socially just future.
King III, M. L., & King, C. S. (2008). The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Newmarket Press.
Ling, P. J. (2015). Martin Luther King, Jr. Routledge.
Washington, J. M. (1986). The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. HarperOne.