Most people remember what the cameras captured: King declaring "I have a dream!" in front of 250,000 joyous supporters in the Washington march during a hot and sunny summer day. But there was a crucial trade-off that the cameras missed.
King had planned to end his speech by urging people to "return to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction". However, he hesitated when he reached that line in the speech because it just didn't seem right.
And then he heard a voice behind him. It was the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting nearby.
"Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream," she shouted.
But it also reveals something more about King's genius: his ability to listen.
King was a different kind of leader
Calling King a great listener is not the typical compliment people pay him as the country celebrates the holiday in his honor. Instead, commentators invoke images of King as a lone hero behind a podium, giving speech after speech that changed history.
However, many of the most crucial moments in King's life were not planned. They only came after he heard the encouragement and encouragement from others.
His exhortation "I have a dream", his opposition to the Vietnam War and his decision to embrace nonviolence – all of this was partly because he was such a willing listener.
At a time when many glorify strong politicians or imperious CEOs, King offers a different kind of role model for a leader, says Jerald Podair, a professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, who wrote a biography of one of King's closest advisers, Bayard Rustin.
"He could have said to Mahalia Jackson: & # 39; Don't interrupt me. I'm Martin Luther King & # 39; but he didn't," says Podair. "This is something that has not been discussed enough. There is something to be said for this type of leadership today that is always willing to listen to other people and other perspectives."
Even King's management style was built on hearing. He surrounded himself with a team of rivals who constantly fought each other at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that King founded.
Several have openly challenged or disagreed with King – and that is exactly what he wanted, says Andrew Young, a former United Nations ambassador who was part of King's inner circle.
"SCLC has always been a battle of egos," said Young in the framework of the documentary on civil rights "Eyes on a Prize". "We were like a team of wild horses. Each had very strong opinions and their own ideas about the path the movement should take, and Dr. King encouraged that. And our meetings were loud and raucous and he sat in silence until we discussed issues and then he usually decided ".
He was like Socrates, willing to probe the opinions of others.
King's willingness to listen has shaped one of his most crucial decisions: becoming a minister.
King did not want to become one. He was the son of a prominent black preacher. The young king did not share his father's belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and was put off by his father's ardent preaching style. He wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor.
King heard Mays convince him that he could serve his people as a minister, says Kevin Willmott, author of "Becoming Martin", a play that analyzes the relationship between the two men.
"He was a good listener," says Willmott, who is also a professor of cinema at the University of Kansas and won an Oscar alongside Spike Lee for writing "BlacKkKlansman". "He was not afraid of other people's opinions. He loved to debate. He won awards in debates."
King has often been compared to an Old Testament prophet like Moses. But this comparison can be misleading. Think more about another ancient Athens hero who loves to question people's assumptions.
"He's more like Socrates," says Franklin, a former president of Morehouse College, who teaches moral leadership at Emory. "He's sitting there. He's asking questions. He's interrogating. He's thinking about it. He's in prayer. He was constantly processing things."
King's ability to listen has shifted to his embrace of nonviolence. When King led his first civil rights campaign in Montgomery, Alabama, he had not yet fully embraced Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy. He feared for the safety of his family due to constant threats in his life and was ready to defend his family.
"That's when Rustin started talking to King about reading about non-violent direct action, which meant there were no weapons," says Podair. "And he heard."
Why even one of King's greatest critics loved him
King's most radical proposal, the 1968 Poor Campaign, also came about because King was willing to listen.
During the last year of his life, King organized an interracial army of poor people who traveled to Washington and occupied the National Mall for six weeks, in an attempt to force political leaders to attack poverty. It was an audacious idea that even scared some of King's closest advisers.
Kennedy told Edelman, who would become head of the Child Defense Fund, that it was time for visible expression for the poor.
"Tell him to bring the poor to Washington," Kennedy told her.
King's most controversial decision was also because he listened.
When King gave a speech in 1967 denouncing the Vietnam War, he outraged much of America. Even civil rights leaders criticized him. Several events forced King to act. He saw a photo shoot in a magazine about Vietnamese children burned by napalm in Vietnam that shook him.
In the documentary "Eyes on a Prize", Carmichael told how he was thrilled to hear King's speech in Vietnam in person. The two men had a contentious relationship. Carmichael rejected non-violence as a way of life and popularized the term "Black Power".
In the documentary, however, Carmichael says he was impressed that King was condemned for being too cautious during the speech.
"One of the reasons I have so much love and respect for King was love for people and, consequently, honesty," says Carmichael. "King was so honest that he was able to publicly criticize himself."
When the king found God at the kitchen table
That humility came, in part, from King's embrace of nonviolence, says Podair, the historian.
"If you engage in direct non-violent actions, you will put your body at risk," he says. "You will probably be beaten, imprisoned and humiliated in one way or another, but you accept that and don't let your ego get in the way and say that I will accept it for the greater good."
King's ability to listen led to one of the most transcendent moments of his life. Some call it "kitchen table conversion".
This occurred in 1956, when he was considering leaving the civil rights movement. He was dozing in his room at around midnight when the phone rang.
"" Listen, no, we take everything we want from you, "hissed the caller." Before next week, you will regret coming to Montgomery. "
King hung up and went to the kitchen to heat a pot of coffee. He had been receiving death threats for weeks since he accepted an order to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was afraid of himself, his wife Coretta and his daughter Yolanda. He wondered how he could resign without looking like a coward.
With his head in his hands, King leaned over the kitchen table and prayed out loud, desperate. He told God that he was weak and had nothing left. Then he heard.
"At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced it before. Almost immediately my fears started to disappear. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."
King might not have been in front of a crowd cheering at Lincoln Memorial that day, had he not already developed the habit of listening throughout his life.
It is always good to remember King's speeches, but we must also remember:
He didn't just talk about his path to greatness.
He heard the way too.