The PR Wisdom Of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Updated)
Like many professional communicators, I’ve long considered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of natural public relations instincts and admired his speeches and sermons as models of artful and persuasive communications. The celebrated “I Have A Dream” address can still give me chills.
But King’s life and writings offer more inspiration for professional persuaders than even his most famous speech. Check out this post from 2014 about “the greatest MLK speeches you never heard.”
King was known to be influenced by Gandhi, but according to biographer Taylor Branch, he relied upon a range of figures for inspiration, from pacifist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to evangelist Billy Graham. To really understand Dr. King’s communications genius, consider some of the less-celebrated but rousing quotes and wisdom from the man himself.
Here are my favorite excerpts from King’s speeches that may be of interest to communicators. Some are amazingly prescient.
As a motivator, MLK was second to none. He often invoked the Bible, great writers like Tolstoy, and poets like James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant. His remarks were crafted and delivered to lift up his flock and bring out the best in them, even in the darkest moments of the civil rights struggle.
One particularly stirring address was “Our God Is Marching On” after the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. King’s speeches often used the evangelical techniques of alliteration and rhythmic repetition to build excitement. This one is also known as the “How Long? Not Long” speech and is distinguished by repeated urges to the crowd to “March on!” and the repetitive chants of “How long? Not long!”
“I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ … How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And in later speeches, the familiar and uplifting:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (Los Angeles, 1967)
On globalism. King raised eyebrows by speaking out against the Vietnam conflict, but his speeches may be newly relevant (or controversial) in today’s geopolitical arena.
“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn is not just.” (“Why I Am Opposed To The War in Vietnam”, 1967)
On leadership. King clearly led by example, but his words were often inspiring.
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” (Domestic Impact of the War, 1967)
This comment on technology and ethics could have been made in our time. Mark Zuckerberg, are you listening?
“We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture; we have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology and for this reason we find ourselves caught up with many problems. Through our scientific genius we made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood, and so we’ve ended up with guided missiles and misguided men.” (Sermon at Temple Israel in Hollywood, 1965)
On technology. It amazes me today that King had plenty to say about science and technology some 50 years ago. He criticized those who see religion and science as mutually exclusive in “A Tough Mind And A Tender Heart.”
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.”
For me, his words on personal activism are particularly poignant. In the famous letter surreptitiously written and smuggled out of the Alabama jail where he was held in solitary confinement, King decried the “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance” of white moderates. His words may have even more resonance today.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)