Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., His Emotions and Beliefs Moved a Country

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., His Emotions and Beliefs Moved a Country

Today, we celebrate the achievements of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a moral and spiritual leader who became a giant of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. Also known as MLK, Dr. King became justly celebrated as one of the greatest orators in American history, giving powerful speeches on human rights that galvanized people of all races to action.

Trained as a Baptist minister, Dr. King turned his outrage about injustice into fuel for change. Between 1957 and 1968, he logged six million miles of travel, speaking out for civil rights, freedom, and dignity for all. For his activism and leadership on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize at the tender age of 35.

It is not only the content of Dr. King’s speeches, but also the thread of emotional intelligence they demonstrate throughout, and, MLK’s emotional intelligent delivery, that continue to inspire us today.

Take, for instance, the “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1963, Dr. King delivered this most momentous of all his speeches to a crowd of 250,000 Americans on the Washington Mall; they had assembled there for the March on Washington, a political rally calling for civil and economic rights for African Americans. After offering some prepared remarks, Dr. King set his notes aside and began an impassioned finale:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.


And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.


I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”


…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

This cry for equality, wrapped in a moral vision for all, was spoken with an intensity that remains forever emblazoned in the minds of Americans.

In naming and harnessing his own emotions, in expressing them with such powerful eloquence, in connecting strongly with the emotions of his listeners, and in convincing them to empathize with others, Dr. King demonstrated emotional intelligence decades before the concept had a name.

On this MLK Day, how to honor Dr. King’s life and work? One way is to harness your own emotional intelligence and turn it outward to do good in the world, as he did.

  • Know your own passion. What ideas and what kinds of activism fill you with strong, energetic emotions? These emotions may be pointing you toward your life’s work. Whether it’s introducing someone else to a hobby you adore or fighting a global injustice, no life-giving cause is too small if you’re passionate about it.
  • Put your passion to work. What might you do to embrace those emotions? Perhaps you’ll decide to volunteer with newborns or the elderly, teach someone to read, or plant a spot of greenery where none was before. Perhaps you’ll take a class to learn more about your passion, or look for ways to change your career path in favor of work that gives you energy.
  • Communicate the powerful feelings that drive you. Very few of us are as eloquent as Dr. King was, but passion and joy can shine through our words or deeds nonetheless. Expressing your passion may inspire other people to join you in whatever cause speaks to you, whatever change in the world compels you.

We at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have a dream, one we think Dr. King would have supported wholeheartedly. Our dream is that every American understand that emotions matter and that the power of our emotions can be used for our own good and the good of others. Our dream is that all kids learn to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions, so that every child and adult can discover their purpose and express their fullest potential. Then, we can all use emotion the way MLK did, inspiring others in large and small ways to make our world a better place.

Robin Stern, Ph.D.  Associate Director

Diana Divecha, Ph.D. Research Affiliate