I was at the gym this week on Martin Luther King’s birthday when a short audio of a speech by Dr. King was played on the radio. A woman standing near to me carefully remarked with political correctness, “You know, he was a great orator.” After a moment I responded, “He was a great man.” I thought to myself, Hitler was great orator, so what! Being able to stir others with words is not by itself an accomplishment. Sure, Dr. King’s great speeches didn’t hurt the cause, but his dream was about a whole lot more than just words. He had a vision of an ideal that represented the best part of human nature, and he had the courage to be a nonconformist, an agent of change who challenged a rigid status quo and fostered change by example.
In the spring of 1968, while I was an idealistic student trying to figure out what to do with myself, Dr. King was assassinated by a man representing the Hitler side of human nature. To be sure, neither Martin Luther King nor his cause was universally popular in 1968. Even today, more than four decades later, both man and cause are still maligned by some. But Dr. King persisted with the dream during his lifetime and the dream has lived on. Back in 1968, my idealism was shaken by the hatred and violence. Dr. King’s assassination, after all, was one of several in an already tumultuous decade. The message from the dark side seemed to be “Conform or we shoot you.”
In the spring of 1968, out of the desire to do something positive, I took a break from college to join VISTA, Volunteers in Service To America, a government program for confused idealists like me that was created to help break the cycle of poverty in depressed areas of the US. Perhaps it was fate that my training for VISTA landed me in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King’s home city. It was there that I received what is probably my most valuable management training ever (see VISTA trainer Matt Timm’s advice quoted in Random Access Memories.)
In fact, I lived in Atlanta during the training in 1968 only three blocks from Dr. King’s home. It’s hard to describe the escalated racial tension and anger that existed following the assassination, but being a lone white face in that racially segregated community was a life-changing experience. I got a glimpse of how it feels to be hated and mistrusted just because of your skin color. Particularly in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death, I had to be escorted everywhere for my protection. You could say that I had “gone to Gemba” – the real place – to grasp the problem. Living in Dr. King’s community even for a short time was more valuable than the formal orientation that VISTA provided.
As a change leader, Martin Luther King not only ‘had a dream’, but also was able to share that dream in a fashion that touched others – and ultimately changed the world for the better. For me there is a sad irony that his death was the impetus for my personal desire to change the world, even if only in a small way.