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Martin Luther King Isn't The Greatest Leader of All Time | A Pragmatic Argument for More Progressive Leadership

Updated on January 20, 2015
King was a great man, but we as progressive have the responsibility of thinking critically about his leadership efficacy.
King was a great man, but we as progressive have the responsibility of thinking critically about his leadership efficacy. | Source

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a great leader. But not the greatest.

I should get two things out of the way before I start the long climb back out of the hole I'm about to dig for myself. First, I think Martin Luther King was am important and brilliant figure, and that he was one of the most important agents of change for the sake of progress in the 20th century. Second, I will admit that I am a priviliged if experienced and informed member of the majority, and as a person who has never experienced the pyschology of the oppressed class on a long term or deep basis, I can only talk from my intellectual and academic perspective. I've talked about this before; I'm not going to argue with you about it here.

Is MLK a Good Model for Progressive Leadership?

(let us know why in the comments!)

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But getting that all out of the way, there is something I need to say: Martin Luther King wasn't the kind of leader the progressive movement now holds him up to be, and is not a good model for progressive leadership overall.

While travelling in Atlanta recently, I was lucky enough to spend time in the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Reverend king preached some of his most memorable sermons. While standing by the nearby grave of Doctor King, I was profoundly inspired. But I was struck by the canonization of King, and the effects of King's status as a hero of progressives the world over. As progressive leaders, we should remember to think critically about King as a leader and agent of change. King was a great man; just not great leader for progress. Here is why.

Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Reverend King Preached

Visiting the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta was a powerful experience, but we owe it to Dr. King to think critically.
Visiting the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta was a powerful experience, but we owe it to Dr. King to think critically. | Source

Being a Progressive Means Evolving.

Being an effective progressive leader means changing, growing, and evolving to respond to different challenges. Effective because this kind of adaptable style has proven more powerful in improving the situations of those the civil rights movement fights for; progressive because the nature of a movement for progress is so entwined with the fact that effective progressive organizations change. MLK, Jr. was not a true progressive by this metric.

Did MLK, Jr. Evolve Quickly Enough as a Leader?

(explain your vote in the comments below)

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King's tactics of populace style non-violent organizing were effective in the mid and late 1950s, when imagery from the bus boycott stirred the nation. And they still produced results, though had some problematic shortcomings, in the early 1960s, in the marches that would lead to the Civil Rights legislation famously signed by President Johnson. But by the mid 60's, as America became more entrenched in Vietnam and violence erupted around the country and world, MLK's tactical approach did not change to meet the most important civil rights challenges of the moment.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant leader, but not a very progressive one, at least in relation to the internal dynamics of the groups he led and the stagnant nature of his leadership tactics. A truly great progressive leader would have adopted faster and evolved more quickly in the face of an evolving struggle.

MLK's leadership style remained highly centralized throughout the mid 1960s, and did not evolve in a progressive manner.
MLK's leadership style remained highly centralized throughout the mid 1960s, and did not evolve in a progressive manner. | Source

Being a Progressive Means Revolutionary Politics.

Being a true agent of progress means pushing the boundaries; creating a progressive world means taking a revolutionary, forward thinking, paradox breaking position for change. Once these ideals are laid out, there is nothing wrong with programmatic negotiations, as long as a revolutionary vision is defined and maintained.

Was MLK revolutionary enough in his politics?

(explain your answer in the comments!)

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While Martin Luther King, Jr. became more progressive along these lines in the last year and a half or two of his life, he spent most of his time on the national stage pushing relatively tame and center of the aisle politics. When he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech, there were a large handful of more progressive speakers sharing the stage with Mr. King that day, who had more revolutionary and appropriate visions that would lead to faster and more meaningful change. However, MLK's prominence and status as the "figure head" of the Civil Right's Movement means that his vision is the one that won out legislatively and held the whim of popular opinion. If MLK had been a true progressive in the early and mid 1960s, and incorporated some of the revolutionary ideas of progressives like Abarnathy and Carmichael, the Civil Rights legislation that followed his lead would have been more progressive and effective in creating real change.

The Civil Rights legislation, brokered in large part by MLK and LBJ, could have been more effective if King started from a more revolutionary vision.
The Civil Rights legislation, brokered in large part by MLK and LBJ, could have been more effective if King started from a more revolutionary vision. | Source

MLK Isn't a Good Model for Progressive Leadership.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an effective leader in his own right, but as a true agent of progress King was lacking in some important areas. He should have evolved his thinking and tactics faster as the world changed rapidly around him. He should have espoused a more truly revolutionary and therefore progressive agenda. The fact that he didn't meet these progressive standards does not mean that his legacy should be disregarded, but does suggest that King isn't a good model for progressive leadership.

MLK was a brilliant leader, but not a truly progressive one until the end of his life.

One unfortunate thing about Martin Luther King day, as well as the predominant narrative during times of historical reflection like Black History Month, is that by canonizing MLK us progressives at once forget the good and always necessary progressive work of thinking critically about King's efficacy and legacy, and simultaneously create a leadership model that isn't in the real service of change. Again, MLK did have some impressive accomplishments to his name, but think about what King COULD have accomplished as a true agent of progress.

If King had adapted his leadership style more quickly in the early 1960s, he could have participated in robust coalition building that would have led to a more consistent Civil Rights progress after his passing. The Civil Rights Movement was slow to democratize and work closely with inter-sectional allies, two areas that would have made the movement more effective as a whole and could have been led by King if he was a more progressive leader. Additionally, if King had adapted more revolutionary politics earlier in his time on the national stage, the resulting highly negotiated Civil Rights legislation of the LBJ era would have been more progressive and effective on the whole. MLK did embrace some more revolutionary politics later in life, but if he had been a truly progressive leader and done so earlier, the middle ground of programmatic compromise would have shifted to the left as a result.

Overall, if Martin Luther King, Jr. had been a more progressive leader, he would have been a more effective one. Often progressives are labeled as idealistic and unwilling to compromise, but my argument for progressive leadership is ultimately a pragmatic one: by adopting revolutionary politics as a founding vision, a leader like King gives themselves more room to meet in a more progress oriented and change evoking middle ground.

How Should Progressives Lead?

If MLK isn't a good model for progressive leaders, then where should progressives turn for a leadership ideal? What are the essential tenants of progressive leadership?

The memoirs of a TRULY revolutionary leader.

Progressive leaders adept their tactics and ideology quickly as the situations they face evolve. By doing so, progressive leaders insure that their goals and means are responsive to reality.

Progressive leaders aren't afraid to compromise, but do so with revolutionary politics as a starting point. By defining and pursuing a revolutionary agenda, progressive leaders create a more left leaning programmatic "middle ground," resulting in more progressive political end results.

Progressive leaders most of all must remain on the forefront of the cause of liberation; when leader's become entrenched in past battles and obsessed with obsolete goals and ideologies, rather than continually evolving with revolutionary politics in mind, they discredit the cause of true progress and change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant man, but it is time that we as progressives turn to different leaders and role models to help us define what makes a leader a truly progressive agent of change.

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    • Cassidy Kakin profile image
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      Cassidy Michael Kakin 2 years ago from San Jose, California

      ^I do recognize his efficacy, and acknowledge throughout that he was a great man. However, I think that if he had a more progressive mindset, and especially approached the Civil Rights legislation with a more progressive agenda, he would have accomplished even more.

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      ConnieTreloar 2 years ago from North Carolina

      MLK has been the most effective leader for Civil Rights, bar none. Progressives will never be satisfied that a leader has gone left enough. Sadly, his life was cut short before he could evolve and be more "revolutionary". That being said, I enjoyed the article.