What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Think of America’s Leaders Today?

February 11, 2019 Updated: February 14, 2019


Now that we have passed another Martin Luther King Jr.. Day, filled with tweets, posts, and quotes from this storied leader—many of them coming from our nation’s leaders—I wonder how he would judge our leaders today.

What would he think of President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, or any of those sitting in our nation’s capital?

As importantly, how would he see our nation and its people today? Would he be proud of how far we have come, or would he be saddened by a divide that is arguably as large as it has ever been, save combat?

As a leader, I pondered his words, and as a former military leader, I compared his words, and those parroted by today’s politicians, with their actions, as it is “deeds, not words” that matter. Here are some reflections on King’s most famous quotes.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”

Leaders are always examining what they can do for their people. They can’t focus on the needs of a few, or just a vocal minority. They also can’t just do what they want. They have to be thoughtful, curious, and ever mindful of what is best for them.

As we look at how our political leaders are behaving, do we see people who are truly looking out for those they lead, or are they concerned with self-preservation, ego, and their own special interests? As Americans, are we only worried about what is good and right for ourselves, or are we looking broadly across our community and identifying what might be good for the whole of our population? Are we making an effort to do for others, not just “unto others?”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” 

Wow, this quote certainly raises questions, as we look back only as far as Martin Luther King Jr. weekend itself. Hate was spewed at a bunch of adolescent children for their perceived actions, which many deemed as hateful. Remember another quote about meeting darkness with light and not hate with hate. The actions of our leaders and our community may be disappointing to King. Leaders, and people in general, need to learn to separate actions from the actor. A snapshot in time doesn’t define a person, at that time, nor in perpetuity.

Do our leaders try to create enemies, or transform them into friends? Do Americans meet hate with love in an effort to change minds, or do we attack others to destroy them? We need to remember that no good leader in history ever tried to destroy anything. Leaders only succeed by creating something, something greater than what they oppose. Are we shining a light, or adding to the darkness?

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Today, our leaders, and some of our population, have become very focused on our differences. We identify ourselves by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual preference. While a link to our individuality is important and necessary, it should never overcome our humanity, nor our sense of community. Leaders unite; they don’t divide.

Do we have leaders who see the United States as one community, or do they see a benefit in the bifurcation of our people? As Americans, do we focus so much on our own identities that we disregard the need for others to have theirs? More importantly, did we forget that we are all in this together, and there is no win for anyone without compromise from everyone? Do we require a catastrophe to befall our community before we come together to develop solutions? Are we truly “United” States of America, or have we allowed tribalism to overcome us? Do we feel an American spirit that can transcend individual identities?

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

The success or failure of a leader is what their organization does or fails to do. As we forge ahead into a more connected world, where the sharing of information and ideas can be almost instantaneous, why does it seem we are driven further apart from each other? While Nazis, racists, and xenophobes certainly do exist, have we gotten so far from our American foundation that we believe a differing perspective, from either experience, ignorance, or idea, is tantamount to evil?

Leaders provide a united vision that allows for different courses of action, but gets us to a united purpose. Leaders—even leaders with differing perspectives—need to have the humility to compromise, to move people forward toward achieving a goal. Do our leaders have a vision for a better America in the future, or just what they think a better America looks like today? Do they have humility, curiosity, empathy, and loyalty for the people they lead, or just the people who appeal to them? As people, do we see the road ahead as a joined highway or diverging paths?

Do we have the humility to see another perspective and respect it, even if we don’t agree with it? Can we move together, arm in arm, united in a better future for our children, or are we overcome with our own, individual vision of what “right” looks like?

This isn’t an admonishment of one side or the other. Both right and left, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal all, at times, fall short of King’s vision. They post his quotes, using cognitive dissonance to illustrate why they are “correct.” It is best to believe they have the finest intent (shouldn’t we believe that of almost all people?), but are their actions leadership or pandering?

The issues are complex: immigration, gun control, abortion. None of these topics can be addressed in 140 characters, nor are there absolute answers that will solve them. These are tough issues with no simple solutions. If the answers were easy, they wouldn’t be problems, and they wouldn’t require leadership. These are issues that require leadership: thoughtful leadership, leadership with empathy, leadership with humility, and leadership that has a better vision for tomorrow.

So, as another Martin Luther King Jr. Day has passed, let us not just post quotes that motivate us for a moment. Let us take his words as he intended them, to inspire us for generations. Let us judge the actions of our leadership by them. Let us judge ourselves by them. Let his memory not be in a day, a long weekend, or even a monument. Let his words guide us. Let us use them not only as a memory of how far we have come, but as a vision to our future.

So, how do you think King would see our leaders today? How would he see you? And if you think he wouldn’t like what he saw, how do you think he would create change?

JC Glick is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, where he served as an infantry officer for 20 years, primarily serving in Ranger and Special Operations/Missions units. He now assists leaders in corporations and professional sports create positive cultures in their organizations. He is also the co-author of “A Light in the Darkness, Leadership Development for the Unknown,” currently used in both the NFL and Microsoft; and “Meditations of a Ranger,” with Dr. Alice Atalanta.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

JC Glick