Martin Luther King called for leaders with ‘sound integrity’

Two weeks ago, the 117th Congress was sworn in. In two days, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will take the oath of office and become the 46th president of the United States. Between these two pivotal moments, with our nation’s leaders entering office during turbulent times, it is fitting to reflect on what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—a leader among leaders, whose legacy we celebrate today—had to say about leadership.

Among the many gifts Dr. King bequeathed to our nation was a moral compass of words, and among them these words, no less relevant now than when he first spoke them1:

May I stress the need for courageous, intelligent, and dedicated leadership…. Leaders of sound integrity. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with justice. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause. God give us leaders. A time like this demands great souls with pure hearts and ready hands. Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill. Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy. Leaders who possess opinions and a will. Leaders who will not lie. Leaders who can stand before the demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking. Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.2 This is one of the great needs of the hour, but as we move on all over this nation we will need dedicated, courageous, and intelligent leaders.

May our leaders—may we all—echo Dr. King’s legacy on his birthday and beyond as we move forward.


1. Excerpted from “Desegregation and the Future,” address delivered at the Annual Luncheon of the National Committee for Rural Schools in New York City, December 15, 1956 [best guess]. Complete transcript and notes available online at the website of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

2. The King Institute editors note that “in these four sentences King paraphrases the poem ‘Wanted’ (1872) by Josiah Gilbert Holland.” (Josiah Holland was a Lincoln biographer and friend to Emily Dickinson.)