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."