Understanding Martin Luther King Jr. through the Eyes of Psychology
Updated: Sep 16
Martin Luther King Jr was a leader who practiced nonviolent resistance in the face of brutal opposition. While many of you may have heard some of his stories, some may be less familiar.
Here is a quick rundown of his most prominent accomplishments:
- In 1955, King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 385-day-long protest where black Americans refused to ride public buses. The protest ended with a court ruling that ended racial segregation on Montgomery public transit.
The protest launched King – then 26 years old – into the public eye as the leader for the Civil Rights Movement.
- In 1957, he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The organization provided a united front for nonviolent opposition against racial oppression and injustice of all forms.
- In 1963, King began the Birmingham Campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. He provoked mass arrests and created a situation so crisis packed that it inevitably opened the door to negotiation.
- In the very same year, King made his famous seventeen-minute “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The demonstration was attended by more than 250,000 people.
- In 1964, The Civil Rights Act was signed into law and the King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance.
- In 1965, The Voting Rights Act was signed into law. This secured the right to vote for racial minorities, especially in the southern United States.
- In 1967, The Poor People’s Campaign was launched. The Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial effort and sought to lessen poverty of all races in the United States – including African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans.
- In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when he was 39 years old.
But a man’s life cannot be remembered through bullet points alone. Between the most important events mentioned and unmentioned, King breathed, worried, cried, laughed and, of course, marched. Here is an attempt to understand Martin Luther King Jr.'s personality through the glass of psychology. He had an Advocate (INFJ) personality type. Let's see a brief about it.
• He was an INTROVERT.
Even though a lot of his actions were outward-facing, it is the way of a personality like his to take direction and inspiration from their inner calling. For King, his calling was to draw attention to classism and racism in the United States – no matter how unpopular it made him. Keeping that in mind, King wasn’t a big collaborator, he was a leader who inspired and worked to share his inner thoughts and ideas with others – guiding them to follow his dream rather than following others.
• He was INTUITIVE, who preferred Novelty over stability.
He focused on hidden meanings and future possibilities. King did not compromise on his ideas about the future and what it should look like.
Martin Luther King possessed a foresight that was not only considered unpopular during his time but radical. He believed in the unity of the races and classes, and they should and could be unified through nonviolent means. Even during the most difficult times in his life, King would say, “I still have faith in the future".
• He was EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT.
King connected with people in a way that very few leaders could. He harnessed his own emotions to deliver speeches that inspired and lit a fire in others. As Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence says, King was successful in connecting strongly with the emotions of his listeners, and in convincing them to empathize with others, King demonstrated emotional intelligence decades before the concept had a name.
With his emotions, and his ability to use those emotions, he transformed anger into actions.
• He was METHODICAL.
It could be said that out of all of King’s personality traits, his diligence to his cause was perhaps the most impressive. Here is a man who spent over half of his life organizing, monitoring, and planning campaigns against a world filled with many obstacles.
Not only did he plan but he made it so that each of his campaigns had the greatest impact possible. From childhood, King had a vivid idea of what he thought the world should look like. He reached out to all his resources to accomplish his goal. He was also a man who disliked deviancy from a plan, or people who were deviants.
An Advocate to a Protagonist, when compared, one need only look towards another influential Diplomat – Barack Obama. Barack Obama presents strongly as a protagonist and it’s easy to see the difference between the two men through their speeches. Obama adds humor to his speeches as he understands that, for some, a dash of humor is needed to connect to people’s need to laugh to feel hopeful.
King, on the other hand, never made light of his situation – perhaps because there was no room for humor. Arguably, the fight he was trying to win was a matter of life and death, not just change. As a result, he took everything seriously. He took himself very seriously. And, in true Advocate fashion, he thought that it was his fault for not having done enough. King placed a heavy burden on himself and did not share it with others.
Martin Luther King Jr., even, in the end, was a man who always sought to make life better for the world. He never bowed to external pressure and remained true to his beliefs about justice. It’s for these reasons that even decades after his death, we continue to celebrate the man he was and the symbol of peace he became.