The Civil Rights movement may have taken place almost 60 years ago, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words endure. As the United States continues to pursue the ideal of equality for all, MLK’s lessons on standing up for justice are relevant now more than ever.
MLK’s impact is mostly seen in the context of civil rights and social justice. But, the principles he espoused apply more broadly — including to your business.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., take note of these eight valuable lessons from his role in the Civil Rights movement.
1. Know Your Company’s Purpose
Starting a business is effortless nowadays; you can even open an eCommerce shop in 10 minutes or less! But starting a company is not the same as starting a successful business — about one out of five start-ups fail within the first year.
If you want your business to last and make an impact, you have to know your reason for existing.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most famous speeches in American history. It continues to resonate because he eloquently told the crowd what his dream for the future was. He vividly described a vision that helps us understand what he was fighting for and why it was important.
Your purpose may not be as lofty or far-reaching as MLK’s, but you can take a cue from his passion for what he hoped to accomplish and apply it to your own business. Develop a clear mission statement and post it on your website’s about page, so the world knows what you stand for.
2. Make Your Dreams a Reality
MLK’s words inspired generations of oppressed people to dream. Everyone can dream — no matter what their skin color, gender, sexuality, class, or place of birth is.
In America, it is still harder for some people to make their dreams a reality than others. But even an uphill climb toward your goals will have to begin with those first few steps.
Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. never started taking steps to make his dreams a reality. If he had not led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the Civil Rights Movement might not have gained the same traction or momentum that eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The stakes of running your business will never be as high as those of the Civil Rights Movement. But when you consider the seemingly insurmountable odds the movement’s leaders faced, you can see how powerfully motivating a dream can be.
But if you want to realize a dream, you have to act. Thousands of great ideas are lost each day when scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs don’t take action to make them come to life.
3. Have Faith in Your Dreams
Dr. King once said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” MLK’s dream of racial equality wasn’t just met with skepticism; it was met with beatings, fire hoses, and faces twisted and spitting with rage.
But in the face of violence, he continued to fight for what he knew was right. If you had only a dash of the bravery and strategy MLK demonstrated in pursuit of his dream, just imagine what you could accomplish.
Don’t let negativity, skepticism, or rejection derail you.
4. Challenge the Status Quo
Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in a deeply racist American culture. It is so entrenched in the U.S.’s culture that we are still combating it to this day. But in an era when segregation was the law, Dr. King dared to challenge the status quo.
In most cases, you won’t have to break the law to challenge the status quo of your business or industry. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas and break away from the pack. If you have a different, better solution to a problem, implement it.
Take time to evaluate long-standing practices or policies to determine if they actually serve the needs of the company and your customers. In the spirit of MLK’s fight for racial justice, specifically examine policies that may be discriminatory — even if the bias is unintentional.
5. Serve the People
Dr. King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
Sure, you want your business to make a profit. But if you neglect the human element of your labor force and customer base, your business loses its soul. If you don’t care about others, they won’t care about you.
Earn your customers’ loyalty with good customer service and ethical business practices. Treat your employees with respect, listen to their needs, and offer fair pay and safe working conditions.
Not only will your business benefit from a lower turnover rate of customers and employees, but it’s also the right thing to do.
6. Build a Large Following
Dr. King delivered his famous speech to 250,000 people who attended the March on Washington for civil rights. In 1963 it was a lot harder to gather a large following, but Dr. King’s message drew people from all over the country.
Now, we have technology and tools to make communication easier. There’s no reason not to get your message out.
MLK was one of the greatest leaders in American history, and his example can teach us how to be better leaders ourselves.
Make your message exciting and easy for people to follow. Convey your innovative vision. Don’t just post content — craft stories that speak to the soul.
Engage with people and listen to what they have to say. Make them feel valued, and they are more likely to follow you.
7. Change Can Happen Fast
The Montgomery bus boycott took place almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War. But less than a decade later, the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Despite the lingering impact of racism in the U.S. today, the Civil Rights Movement created a tremendous amount of change in a relatively short period.
Be prepared for the ebbs and flows of your business. Know that things can change quickly, both for your business and the world.
8. But Success Does Not Happen Overnight
A decade may seem like a short time — but only compared to the grander timeline of Black oppression in America. The first enslaved Africans came to America’s shores in 1619, and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 demonstrated that the fight for liberation and justice rages on.
Dr. King started his fight for equality long before the Montgomery bus boycott, and he continued after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. He knew that the work wasn’t finished, and his fellow civil rights leaders carried on after his assassination in 1966.
Success is a journey, and it can be long and difficult. Hard work and the ability to bounce back from failures are necessary if you want to achieve your goals.
Dr. King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Learn from the wisdom and bravery of MLK as you work towards fulfilling your own dreams.
If your business has benefitted from the lessons Dr. King taught us, consider donating to an organization that continues his fight for racial justice, including the Southern Poverty Law Center or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.