Martin Luther King Jr.: Putting Words To The Dream

The civil rights leader stressed black earning power, never losing sight of the economic underpinnings of his cause
As part of its anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles of the greatest innovators of the past 75 years. Some made their mark in science or technology; others in management, finance, marketing, or government. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation.

Martin Luther KIng
It was January, 1956, and a crowd of angry black men, women, and children milled outside Martin Luther King Jr.'s smoldering house in Montgomery, Ala. Many brandished broken soda bottles, .38-caliber guns, or knives, hungry for revenge after white extremists had hurled homemade bombs through a window, endangering King's wife and 10-week-old baby. The humiliation of back-of-the-bus oppression and a nation's searing hostility had pushed them to the doorstep of violence. King faced the fiery throng, shaken but calm, and urged restraint. "I want you to love your enemies," he told them, persuading the crowd to reject violence that night. "We must meet hate with love."

Like no other leader, King was able to give America's conscience a voice. He demanded a better nation -- one committed to breaking the back of racism without shedding blood. Of course, King did not invent nonviolent protest. He studied Gandhi's methods and borrowed from the teachings of Jesus. But during the incendiary '50s and '60s, King's genius was to adapt the lessons of civil disobedience to America's core values of justice and fairness. His eloquence, combined with an irresistible sense of righteousness, helped harness a people's fury and turn it into action. "The miracle of Martin Luther King was that he not only understood the morality of nonviolent social change but also made it work," says Andrew J. Young Jr., former Atlanta mayor, diplomat, and a King confidante.

King was a patriot, too. The black freedom struggle, he argued using references to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was nothing less than a way to an improved democratic republic. Such values touched white America: It became hard to disagree with his message. He was, says biographer Taylor Branch, "a modern founding father."

A third-generation Baptist minister, King was born into a comfortable Atlanta home in 1929. He showed a sharp intelligence and entered Morehouse College without finishing high school. Before earning a doctorate in theology in 1955 he became the 20th pastor of Montgomery's historic Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was there that King's words began to shape how the nation grasped its racial crisis.

King never lost sight of the economic underpinnings of his cause. Gandhi's "salt march" to the sea in 1930 to protest the British monopoly of salt production in India served as King's inspiration for the 1963 March on Washington. The preacher adapted nonviolent protest to include various forms of economic withdrawal. By refusing to ride buses and purchase cars and groceries from retailers hostile to blacks, King forced businesses to recognize black purchasing power. Until then, they felt they could disregard black consumers and still thrive. King stressed black earning power. His boycotts taught companies that discrimination equals slimmer profits. "We don't need any bricks and bottles....We just need to go around to these stores and say... God sent us by here to say that you're not treating His children right," King preached the night before he was assassinated in 1968. By then, Wall Street was hiring its first black bankers, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act. The changes Martin Luther King helped set in motion ripple through America today -- still a work in progress.

By Roger O. Crockett

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.