Isaiah 40: 4-5 “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain….”
This is a painting I did of Martin Luther King over the past week. This is based on a Charles Moore photograph of Dr. King being arrested in Sept 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama.
His right arm is being forcefully wrenched behind his back. At the same time, he is being shoved from behind, so that his body is being pushed forward onto the countertop. He is being held down by force – like a common criminal.
He later said they nearly broke his arm and that they kicked him as they pushed him into the jail cell. Think of it – this great leader – this revered and respected minister, this courageous champion of justice – being kicked into a jail cell.
Here is what I see in the picture. I see a man whose bravery and courage are profound. I see a man whose superior intellect and character count for almost nothing in the moment because HIS ADVERSARIES HAVE HIM IN THEIR PHYSICAL CONTROL.
But despite that, his eyes are clear and he seems almost ethereal. He is “beyond the moment” because his vision, which he shared so eloquently on the Capital Mall four short years later, was already what drove him. The struggle for freedom from oppression – the struggle for equality – had crystalized in him. The movement was gaining momentum but it needed a clear leader – as it always does. Dr. King stepped forward knowing it could mean death. But it is as he said:
“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”.
So, he had found his cause and the cause had found its leader.
Realize that this is taking place in a time when a black man who is considered a “trouble maker” in the Deep South was putting his body, indeed his life, in danger at every turn. If he went to jail, there was a likelihood of being beaten – at a minimum. If you went in to the jail on a Friday, your exit could very well have been to the morgue over the weekend.
The charge? Loitering.
It was 5 years later, in August of 1963, that he gave the greatest speech given in my lifetime. I was 9 years old and watched it on the Evening News.
I remember the “I have a dream” speech vividly. I remember how impactful it was as his voice alternated in a mesmerizing sing-song, strengthening its emphasis with each “chorus”. I remember his voice booming “And I have a dream that…” over and over. I remember his vision that his own “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”. And I remember thinking that is exactly how it should be – no question about it.
But as good as those points were, the one that struck me to the core as both a righteous principle and counterintuitive fact, was when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That one line was so profound that it lifted me to another sphere and I felt connected to something eternal. The idea is revolutionary – the concept that the “Lies” cannot and do not outlive the “Truth” was then, and still is, a revelation to me. It is a statement about the ultimate victory of light over darkness. I never forgot it.
Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights work provides a tremendous illustration of the characteristics of great leaders. They include:
- Eloquence in Expressing the Vision
- Certainty in the Worthiness of the Endeavor
- Courage and Determination in The Face of Profound Resistance
- Incredible Personal Commitment to the Cause, No Matter the Cost
- A Willingness to Walk at the Front of the Line- to Do Nothing Less Than He Was Asking of His Followers
Driving change is no easy task, whether you are trying to change the world or just take your company or your team in a new direction. Dr. King provided us all with one of the best examples of all time of what it means to be a courageous leader.
And as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I think it’s worth it to take a minute and internalize just how impactful his leadership was.
It changed us all. It made us better. And, ultimately, it changed the world.