MLK’s I Have A Dream Speech – A Lesson for Leaders
Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
MLK’s speech – originally entitled “Normalcy, Never Again” – is considered a masterpiece of rhetoric, drawing on phrases from and references to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Bible.
A speech viewed by historians as one of the best – if not the best – speeches of the 20th Century almost never happened.
The behind-the-scenes stories associated with that speech provide three powerful lessons for today’s leaders.
- Stand up and speak – President Kennedy had proposed civil rights legislation to bring an end to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender and religion. King, a Christian minister, had delivered sermons in his home state of Georgia and later traveled to other states to preach, speak out and lead nonviolent protest marches to call attention to issues of oppression. “The ultimate measure of a man,” said King, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Lesson for leaders: Leadership is not doing what’s easy or popular. It’s doing – and saying – what‘s right and necessary.
- Choose your moment –The “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation and was staged on the mall in America’s capital between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. MLK was the next to last speaker and by all accounts, the crowd of more than 250,000 people had grown listless as the sun, Washington’s notorious humidity and 87-degree (F) temperature began to take its toll. “There was …an air of subtle depression, of wistful apathy,” wrote Norman Mailer. There also was an air of expectation. What would Dr. King say? King worked through the night on his speech and he appealed to Americans to provide freedom and justice to all people, calling these principles a “promissory note” on which America has defaulted. He said that “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” and “we’ve come to cash this check” by marching in Washington, D.C.
Lesson for leaders: History, imagery, context and content are huge levers that leaders should pull to achieve emotional and intellectual buy-in.
- Speak from the heart – King’s advisers recommended that he not use references to “dreams” because, Wyatt Walker told him, “It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.” But as King began to conclude his speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” To his aides’ chagrin, Martin Luther King set his prepared text aside and began speaking from his heart. And it’s this portion of the speech, of course, that we all remember.
Lesson for leaders: Preparation is vital. Personal conviction carries the day.
“A genuine leader,” said Martin Luther King, “is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
What legacy will you leave as a leader?