Posted by: morgan1965 | August 28, 2013

Martin Luther King , Jr.: A Dynamic Moral Leader

Today, August 28, 2013 is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. This site was a fitting location, because it was President Abraham Lincoln who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves who were located in those states that were in rebellion at that time during the Civil War.

The “I Have a Dream” speech is freighted with deep meaning for all Americans, both then and now. It set forth both King’s lament and his vision for America. It was a speech tinged with hope and possibility. Although the speech was not immediately celebrated as a great speech, over time it has claimed its rightful place in our history and our future as a nation.

The speech has inspired school children and it has encouraged folk from all walks of life, not only in America, but around the world. In this blog, however, I want to turn our attention to the words of introduction as Dr. King was presented to the teeming crowds of Americans on site, and the countless million who watched the event on television. So, I want to remember the man who was characterized as the moral leader of our nation

It was A. Phillip Randolph, one of the “march” organizers, who served as the master of ceremonies. It was his task to introduce Dr. King, and he chose to use only a few words to accomplish the task. In introducing Dr. King, A. Phillip
Randolph said: “At this time, I have the honor to present to you the moral leader of our nation. I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther Jing, Jr.”

Perhaps he could have characterized Dr. King as the “the great civil rights leader,” or “a drum major for justice,” or a social prophet,” or “the minister of nonviolence,” or some other title. No, Randolph chose to introduce him as “the moral leader of our nation.”

Why would Randolph refer to Dr. King as “the moral leader of our nation?” Let me posit some thoughts about this question. There is a quote from Mikhail Bakunin that helps to gain some perspective: “Freedom, morality, and the human dignity of the individual consists precisely in this; that he does good not because he is forced to do so, but because he freely conceives it, wants it, and loves it.”

First, Dr. King was thoroughly engaged in the struggle for freedom, freedom not only for African Americans, but freedom for all Americans. He titled his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.” As a disciple of Jesus Christ, he was willing to sacrifice his life for freedom. Second, Dr. King set forth a high moral standard for participants in the civil rights movement. (1) Love was the regulating ideal. King believed that he must turn the other cheek in the face of violence. He taught, like Jesus, the moral leader of all time, that folk should love their enemy. (2) Nonviolence was the order of the day for all civil rights demonstrations. Third, from a theological/philosophical point of view, King espoused a philosophy of personalism which acknowledged the worth of every human being. Without a doubt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the moral leader of America at that time.

Dr. King was a principled leader, and his principles set high moral standards for the nation. He called for peace in Vietnam and peace in the streets of America. He taught the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He demanded justice in the face of unjust laws. He conducted himself as a leader who believed in the teachings of Jesus and accepted a practical theology of love.

A question that confronts us today on this fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington is this: Who are the moral leaders of our nation today? To be sure, there are moral leaders who labor faithfully in their community, off the national stage of drama.

In India, Mahatma Gandhi proved to be a significant moral leader who practiced nonviolence in the struggle for freedom from British rule. Also, in India Mother Teresa became a moral leader as she served the poor and advocated for justice. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela took center stage as a moral leader in the era of apartheid. In Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a moral leader in the opposition to the tyranny of the Nazi regime. In America, Abraham Lincoln emerged on the stage as a moral leader in the midst of a bloody civil war that debated the legitimacy of slavery among other things.

Who are our moral leaders today?

Can a nation survive and sustain itself without any moral leaders who lead from the vantage point of the national stage?

As I ponder this question, the prophet Joel reminds me that God’s Spirit is poured out upon us [Joel 2:28]:

“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all my flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
And your young men shall see visions.”

Today we thank God for Martin Luther King, Jr. who shared his dream with a divided nation in a culture of racism and segregation.

Think about it!


  1. Thank you very much, Bishop Lyght. My siblings and I were discussing this very same question this past week-end. Those born in the early years of the 20th Century held a shared world view about “the Negro’s” place in the world and what had to be done to claim his/her equal, civil, and human rights. I think that Cornel West is correct: so many of our “leaders” today have succombed to the powerful market forces and the focus is on acquiring individual material wealth rather than being fully and authentically engaged on “the struggle”. Jesse, Jr. is a prime example. I don’t think that we will see the likes of another MLK, Jr. or Fannie Lou Hamer or others of their moral constitution for a very long time.

  2. Thank you Bishop for this thoughtful reflection which links the celebration of the legacy of the march with the question of moral leadership on the national stage today. As I watched, President Obama speak today, one sentence resonated with me. “Ordinary people who love this country can change it.”

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