The one thing about Martin Luther King Jr.'s greatness everyone keeps missing
Updated 5:00 PM ET, Mon January 20, 2020
(CNN)The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was barreling toward the climax of his greatest speech when he made a split-second decision that would seal his place in history.
Most people recall what the cameras caught: King declaring "I have a dream!" before 250,000 jubilant supporters at the March on Washington during a muggy, sun-splashed summer day. But there was one crucial exchange that the cameras didn't catch.
King had planned to cap his speech by exhorting people "to go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction." Yet he hesitated when he got to that line in the speech because it just didn't feel right.
And then he heard a voice from behind him. It was the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting nearby.
"Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream," she shouted.
We know what happened next. King launched into his classic, "I have a Dream" closing. That ad-libbed moment is often cited by historians as an example of King's improvisatory genius as an orator.
But it also reveals something else about King's genius: His ability to listen.
King was a different type of leader
Calling King a great listener isn't the typical praise that people shower on him as the country celebrates the holiday in his honor. Instead, commentators invoke images of King as a solitary hero behind a podium, delivering speech after speech that changed history.
Yet many of the most pivotal moments in King's life weren't planned. They only came after he listened to the prodding and encouragement of others.
His "I Have a Dream" exhortation, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his decision to embrace nonviolence -- all these came in part because he was such a willing listener.
At a time when many glorify strongman politicians or imperious CEOs, King offers a different kind of role model for a leader, says Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin who has written a biography of one of King's closest advisors, Bayard Rustin.
"He could have said to Mahalia Jackson, 'Don't interrupt me. I'm Martin Luther King,' but he didn't," Podair says. "That's something that hasn't been talked about enough. There's something to be said for that kind of leadership today that's always willing to listen to other people and other perspectives."
Even King's management style was built on listening. He surrounded himself with a team of rivals who constantly battled one another in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group King co-founded.
Several openly challenged or disagreed with King -- and that's exactly what he wanted, says Andrew Young, the former United Nations Ambassador who was part of King's inner circle.
"The SCLC was always a battle of egos," Young said in the landmark "Eyes on a Prize" civil rights documentary. "We were like a team of wild horses. Each one had very strong opinions and their own ideas about the way the movement should go, and Dr. King encouraged that. And our meetings were loud and raucous and he sat quietly sat by until we fought issues out, and then he would usually decide."
He was like Socrates in his willingness to probe others' opinions
King's willingness to listen shaped one of his most crucial decisions, to become a minister.
King didn't want to become one. He was the son of a prominent black preacher. The youthful King didn't share his father's belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and was put off by his father's fiery preaching style. He wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor.
But then he listened to one of his most important mentors, the Rev. Benjamin Mays. Mays was the president of Morehouse, the historically black men's college in Atlanta, which King first attended when he was 15. Mays became King's mentor. He was an progressive minister who had traveled to India to meet Mohandas Gandhi, who pioneered nonviolent protest.
King listened as Mays convinced him that he could serve his people as a minister, says Kevin Willmott, author of "Becoming Martin," a play that looks at the relationship between the two men.
"He was a good listener," says Willmott, who is also a film professor at the University of Kansas and won an Oscar alongside Spike Lee for writing "BlacKkKlansman." "He wasn't afraid of other people's opinions. He loved to debate. He won awards in debates. ''
King has often been compared to an Old Testament prophet like Moses. But that comparison can be misleading. Think more of another ancient hero from Athens who loves to question people's assumptions.
"Even the uses of the Moses metaphor, where King had this vision on high and he told the advisors what to do and off they went, is wrong," says Robert M. Franklin Jr., a professor at Emory University and author of the forthcoming book, "Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination."
"He's more like Socrates," says Franklin, a former president of Morehouse College who teaches moral leadership at Emory. "He's sitting there. He's asking questions. He's interrogating. He's thinking it through. He's in prayer. He was constantly processing things."
King's ability to listen carried over into his embrace of nonviolence. When King led his first civil rights campaign in Montgomery, Alabama, he had not yet fully embraced Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy. He feared for his family's safety due to constant threats on his life, and he was ready to defend his family.
Bayard Rustin, a civil rights organizer who had long experience with nonviolence, traveled to Montgomery and was surprised to see King's home was so full of guns that someone almost sat on a gun that was resting in a chair.
Rustin took King aside and explained to him that if he was going to be nonviolent he couldn't go armed. That was the moment that King adopted nonviolence as a way of life, and not just a reference in a speech, says Podair, who recounts the incident in his book, "Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer."
"That's when Rustin started talking to King about reading about nonviolent direct action, which meant no guns," Podair says. "And he listened."
Why even one of King's biggest critics loved him
King's most radical proposal, the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, also came about because King was willing to listen.
During the last year of his life, King organized an interracial army of poor people that traveled to Washington and occupied the National Mall for six weeks in an attempt to force political leaders to attack poverty. It was an audacious idea that even scared some of King's closest advisors.