The late Warren G. Bennis, a pioneer in the contemporary field of leadership studies, once stated, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Using that as a standard, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a good leader. What made him a great leader was his ability to make others better as they helped him pursue his dream. Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains, “A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.” Dr. King wanted all of us to be better versions of ourselves. At the same time, the Reverend King instilled hope in those who only knew despair. As George Washington Carver, the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century, once remarked, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” In Dr. King’s famous, “I have dream” speech, he declared, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. … Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Although Dr. King’s dream of justice and prosperity was the focus of the civil rights movement, his vision was of a better America for people of all races, colors, creeds, and religions. It’s a dream whose edges have begun to darken as democracy faces an existential crisis from political extremists. Surely, Dr. King would have been saddened to watch insurrectionists, in an effort to overturn an election, attack the Capitol Building a little over a year ago. As we face another election year, we should remember the words Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963. In part he said:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
Although Georgia and Mississippi have not become the oases of freedom and justice Dr. King envisioned, amazing progress has been made. Dr. King would undoubtedly have been pleased to see a black man, Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, representing Georgia in the United States Senate. Senator Warnock, served as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the same church where Dr. King once served. And Dr. King might have been surprised, when three years after his assassination, Ole Miss recruited its first two black football players — Ben Williams and James Reed. Sadly, Mr. Williams passed away in 2020 at the age of 65. Ole Miss has honored these men by naming the entrance to its practice facility and athletics center the Williams-Reed Football Foyer. Thanks to athletics in the south, people of all colors now routinely “sit down together at the table of brotherhood (and sisterhood).” Nevertheless, some of Dr. King’s goals have yet to be achieved. Poverty and lack of opportunities still plague minority communities across the land. Dr. King’s “I have dream” speech continued:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Dreams and visions can be powerful tools when used correctly. The late astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who died tragically when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, once stated, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.” Dr. King had the vision, the courage, and the perseverance. He once stated, “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Extremists of all stripes would do well to remember those words of wisdom. For his vision, his leadership, and his inspiration, this day has been set aside to honor the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the dreams he embraced.