ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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!)

See results

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)

See results

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!)

See results

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.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Cassidy Kakin profile imageAUTHOR

      Cassidy Michael Kakin 

      5 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.

    • profile image


      5 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.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)