There were many times during Martin Luther King Jr.’s life that he showed great leadership.
There’s a specific day, however and a single speech, during which he dramatically grabbed hold of that kind of leadership role for the first time.
The world knows that his most famous speech was “I Have a Dream” in Washington in August 1963. But the moment where he set himself as a people’s leader was almost eight years earlier: Dec. 5, 1955.
King was just 26 then, unknown, and literally had only 15 minutes to prepare. If he were alive today, King would be 92, but he was only 39 when he died. So, his story is really a young man’s story throughout.
Born in 1929, grew up in Atlanta. Enrolled at Morehouse College at age 15. He graduated at 19, and earned a second bachelor’s degree in divinity, then started a doctoral program in theology at Boston University.
While still finishing his doctorate, moved to Montgomery, Ala., in 1954 to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
All of which meant that King was still in his 20s, a pastor for only a year, when Rosa Parks, was arrested in that city for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
Over the next few days, as support for a boycott of the Montgomery buses brewed, King was elected president of the group that formed to organize it.
“The advantage of having Dr. King as president,” Parks later said, “was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies.”
King became president of the brand-new Montgomery Improvement Association at 6 p.m., and then had to give a speech, as its new leader, in front of a huge crowd at 7.
King rushed home to tell his wife, realizing he was left with only 20 minutes to write his speech and added later that he lost five of those minutes having a panic attack.
Five thousand people turned out at the church. King’s speech wasn’t filmed, but his wife, Coretta Scott King, thought to record an audio version.
Already, he’s structuring his speech with calls-and-responses and speaking with poetry.
Remember, that it’s basically King’s first public civil rights speech and it lasted almost exactly 15 minutes.
Srinivasan Sankar, Foxboro