Five Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement

January 18, 2016
Drew Dellinger

1. If you want to change the world, change the worldview.
To get to the root of our current ecological and social crises, we have to look at the structures of consciousness -- the stories, myths, narratives, and paradigms -- that shape the modern world and inhabit our minds. Racism, patriarchy, oppression and ecological destruction can be seen as dysfunctional "stories" made tragically real. To heal the culture, we need to heal our cosmologyour worldview or cultural story. As my teacher, Thomas Berry, often said (drawing on Jung), "The dream drives the action." The dream of a society drives and guides its actions. Tapping into the electric currents of our national psyche, Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement transformed the country by dreaming and embodying a new cultural narrative.

2. To build a movement, use the power of dream, story, and action.
As Dr. King showed the world on August 28, 1963, few things are as powerful as a compelling dream. When we dream, we access creativity and wisdom larger than ourselves. Our dream-visions of the future act as magnetic attractors. King and the movement also used the power of story to dramatic effect. King's oratory worked toward dismantling the narratives of white supremacy, wove the freedom struggle into the nation's sacred history, and used the multidimensional role of the preacher to re-story our society. While dream and story are foundational, the genius of the movement was its emphasis on action. As King said, "Nonviolent direct action will continue to be a significant source of power until it is made irrelevant by the presence of justice."

3. Everyone can be a leader.
The civil rights revolution is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Students and sharecroppers, seamstresses and senior citizens, preachers, workers, and countless others courageously led the country toward democracy. Months before Rosa Parks and Dr. King stepped onto history's stage, there were two teenagers -- Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith -- who defied segregation on Montgomery's buses. Their courage inspired Parks and the city's black community. Women, especially -- such as Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Dorothy Height, Jo Ann Robinson, Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer --  made the movement happen. To build a mass movement, activate the leadership inherent in everyone.

4. Connect the issues.
In the last years of his life, which I call his mountaintop period, King expanded his prophetic vision, articulating the connections between racism, war, and poverty. At great cost to himself and his organization, he bridged the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement and the peace movement, and excoriated the madness and brutality of the Vietnam War. To those who harshly criticized him for mixing peace and civil rights, King responded that he was "deeply saddened," because it meant that they had "never really known me, my commitment, or my calling." After visiting Joan Baez, who was in jail for draft-resistance activities, King told her supporters, "I see these two struggles as one struggle."

5. Widen the circle.
In his final months King called for all of us to "planetize the movement" and "develop a world perspective." In his majestic "Christmas Eve Sermon on Peace," King said, "It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated." On the last day of his life King told a trusted aide, "In the next campaign," their nonviolent movement would "take it international."

The spirit of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement continues in today's global movements for ecology and social justice. The transformation that is underway requires courage, compassion, discernment, and creativity. These lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement can offer guidance to the next generation through the perilous present and into a just and sustainable future.


Drew Dellinger is a speaker, poet, writer, and teacher. He is founder of Planetize the Movement and author oflove letter to the milky way. See

Source Citation: Dellinger, Drew. 2011. Five Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.