“I’m interested in changing the type of system that produces this type of man,” or why Martin Luther King ultimately deserves a day of recognition

Martin Luther King Jr. was responsible for a heck of a lot of good in this world. Here’s a timeline of his accomplishments, here’s another one, here’s his Wiki, and here are two takes on his importance. If you took basic social studies classes or had a field trip to DC at some point in your schooling, you probably know a lot of the above. He was perhaps the most important figure of the 1900s in the United States, and if he wasn’t, he was likely top three or top five no matter how you suss out that list in your own head. He had a ton of amazing quotes, many of which were fairly advanced for the time in which he lived — for example, he said a few times that “all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” and sheesh, don’t you wish U.S. Congress understood that right now — and you can argue that his central messages have been lost over time, but his influence is still great. (Many will point to the Obama 2008 victory as a victory for King, and in some ways it was — but on bigger issues of race and poverty, the U.S. as a whole still has a ways to go in some areas, and I don’t think anyone would tangibly deny that, black President or not.)

King also said “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” which is basically the advice needed on any contentious team — be it a HS English project or a Fortune 100 marketing rollout — world-wide. One of his most powerful moments, though, came after an incident in September 1962. MLK was giving the closing speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when he was attacked on-stage by Roy James, for which James was eventually sentenced to jail. King is often cited for not wanting to press charges, although his quote on the matter is pretty amazing:

“The system that we live under creates people such as this youth,” King wrote in Martin Luther King On Leadership“I am not interested in pressing charges. I’m interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man.”

Think about this for a second: this man got punched in the face (semi-repeatedly) at a conference of, essentially, his peers. If that happened to 100 people in today’s society, probably 99 — or, let’s be honest, probably all 100 — would immediately go into litigation mode, police would be everywhere, all the trimmings. MLK didn’t want to press charges. Instead, he saw it as reflective of a system gone bad — which is what it was. Humans aren’t animals. We operate within some type of broader social construct. James violated that construct. MLK could have used legal methods to dispatch him, because that’s what traditionally humans do when basic social norms are violated. Instead, he wanted to use the experience as a way to more deeply figure out the how and the why, as opposed to simply the what. How many times have you been in a situation at work or in your personal life where all anyone cares about is the what — “OK, what happened? What? What then?” — when you desperately want them to understand the how or the why — the context or the backstory. That’s the part you need to change for anything to stick.

It shouldn’t be incredibly surprising, though — MLK was a visionary leader in that respect, and one often paralleled with Gandhi. He also seemed to broadly get it in terms of the direction the U.S. was headed; here’s part of a speech he made in 1967:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

And indeed, here’s the FY 2010 discretionary spending in America:


One of the saddest things about this day every year is that while we have transformative leaders in today’s society (on both sides of the aisle, and around the world), the problem is that the media game has shifted everything so drastically that it often seems as if the best leaders are competing to have the best soundbites. MLK lived as part of the early TV era, but it always felt like these types of things above — he actually meant them. He could be the pre-eminent example of “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”

Ted Bauer