4 Little-Known Reasons Martin Luther King Was An Amazing Leader, Human

You already knew that today is the 85th birthday celebration of Martin Luther King. But you didn't know the anger, humor, and depth of insight in the man himself.

Martin Luther King Jr. seems more legend than man.

But if we peer into Dr. King's life, we can see that he was more and less than myth: a person with interior complexity and exterior grace beyond what a textbook can tell you. So let's get to know his intense, hilarious, and prescient sides below.

He worked with his anger

MLK was a person, which means he had a range of emotions, just like the rest of us. But, as we've mentioned before, the highest functioning people exercise what psychologists call emotional agility, where you notice an emotion like anger when it arises and then choose a response—rather than suppressing it or getting overwhelmed.

From his autobiography, we can see that Dr. King developed emotional agility from a young age. Like in this anecdote from 1943:

When I was 14, I traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley (to) participate in an oratorical contest.  We were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn't move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood up in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.

As Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa observes, King had to tame his anger in order to become a "messenger of peaceful struggle." King worked hard to maintain his nonviolence and admonished himself when he didn't. A telling example comes from the negotiations to close the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in late 1955. He saw that the talks were headed toward a stalemate, as whites weren't giving up their segregation privileges.

Coming home with a "heavy heart" and a "terrible sense of guilt," King recalled his own angry, indignant moments in his autobiography. He continued:

I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem. 'You must not harbor anger,' I admonished myself. 'You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger. You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.'"

he was a systems thinker

People who like to talk about innovation are given to bandying about the phrase systems thinking, or understanding how individual elements within a broader system interact with one another.

The holism in King's nonviolence was a type of systems thinking. He saw how the racist relates to racism. As Wadhwa notes, King came face-to-face with it in September of 1962. For as he was giving a speech, a white member of a Nazi party jumped onstage and repeatedly punched him in the face. Security took him away—and King didn't press charges.

"The system that we live under creates people such as this youth," King wrote in Martin Luther King On Leadership. "I am not interested in pressing charges. I'm interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man."

That high-context insight also informed King's opposition to the Vietnam War. Beyond its cost in lives, King argued that foreign interventionism had an economic cost, since war spending took funds away from social programs. As he proclaimed in a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

He wanted to occupy DC

Late in his cut-short life, Dr. King shifted his focus from race to poverty. In 1968, five years after his "I Have A Dream" speech, King sought to launch a Poor People's Campaign with the goal of bringing about a mandatory income for all Americans. King sought to press the issue with a tent city.

As Mark Engler at The Nation explains it:

In King's vision of the campaign, thousands of Americans who had been abandoned by the economy would create a tent city on the National Mall, demand action from Congress, and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience until their voices were heard.

Sounds an awful lot like Occupy Wall Street, doesn't it?

He was funny

Dr. King's good humor was shown with how quick he was on his feet. Fast Company's own Miles Kohrman unearthed audio of a question-and-answer session that King had after giving a speech at the New School. If you give a listen, you'll hear how he cracks the room up:

To end, we must note that a giggling Martin Luther King is just about the best thing. Here's him with his pal Harry Belafonte:

And then he said...

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, everyone.

[Photo by Tom Hollyman | Getty Images]

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6 Comments

  • One of your best articles Drake, more like this one. One nitpick - the following quote appeared out-of-place, far too early in the text, and was distracting "I'M INTERESTED IN CHANGING THE KIND OF SYSTEM THAT PRODUCES THIS KIND OF MAN"

    Good original writing and synthesis, and NOT just "h/t" stuff

  • Jay Hochstetler

    Great article on all except trying to compare occupy Wall Street with anything Dr. King did. Dr. King was a great man, thinker, and change master. Most of Occupy Wall Street was a bunch of anarchists who really didn't care about the poor - they just wanted anarchy. Don't cheapen Dr. King with such comparisons.

  • Mahendra Kabra

    Mahatma Gandhi & Dr.M.L.King are the idols who showed the great path of humanity to the world. The question is why the humans misbehave? I think the cause lies in food. Humans only consume "civilized" ? cooked food..which is temptating. After all it's " become what you eat"

  • Catia Neves

    I am from Portugal, but i believe that Martin Luther King was a men of the world. I've read several articles about him, and most of all i glad to realize that he was 'human'. A trully amazing human being that lived his life struglling, crying, but also laughing... and most of all, inspiring people.

    Congrats for this amazing article. :)