Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most important and influential leaders of the 20th century
(Mattson, 1999). King’s leadership was extremely effective because of his morality, which was
developed in his life through his parents, church, and actual life experiences. Kohlberg’s moral
development theory is utilized in this paper as a framework to examine the moral development of
King. Several of King’s writings and personal experiences are presented to illustrate his growth
through the three moral stages of Kohlberg’s theory. The moral development of leaders is not
something that occurs quickly, and a Christian’s moral development does not occur as a result of
their own power but God’s power working in them (Ryan, 2012). King’s life illustrates an
important point of moral leadership: a moral leader’s words are powerful because of the example
that they provide in their own life (Scott, 2006). This study furthers the research on moral
leadership by profiling one of the greatest moral leaders of all time.
MLK MORAL LEADERSHIP 3 3
The Moral Leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.
There has been an increased interest in morality and ethics as a result of the persistent
threats of terrorism and the recent economic crisis (Koh, 2012). Additionally, the corporate
scandals that have taken place over the past decade have resulted in questions that need to
examine the meaning of leadership and its moral dimensions (Safty, 2003). The purpose of this
paper is to profile the moral leadership development of Martin Luther King, Jr. in an attempt to
learn about his motivation, how he was able to impact the lives of others, and to explore some of
the dimensions of moral leadership.
Paris (2008) explains, “Out of the segregated crucible of Atlanta’s black ghetto, a young
man emerged with national and international visibility who was destined to lead his people and
nation out of the bitter experience of racial oppression into a new era of freedom” (p. 17). As a
moral leader in the civil rights movement, one of King’s main purposes was to bring America to
the place in which it would be able to recognize its own evil (Selig, 2009). King’s leadership led
to many changes and he had a great influence on the United States, which included Presidents
Kennedy and Johnson (Erskine, 1991). King’s morality was founded on strong moral ethics,
which sustained him through some difficult years of leadership