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The Heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 14, 2010

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley has been studying heroes and heroism for many years.  With tomorrow being the birthday of former civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Monday the national observance of Martin Luther King Day, Farley offers his take on the heroism of Dr. King:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you ask a sample of Americans who their top heroes are, expect Martin Luther King, Jr. to be consistently on the list, usually near the top. Dr. King was a public figure who gave his life for a noble cause, out on the world’s stage, inspiring millions, a sophisticated highly educated orator and leader with high ‘public intelligence.’ He was driven by a single unswerving vision—making civil rights a reality. However, and wherever, he could help that to happen, he did. It was a complex strategy in a complex society driven by a simple idea.

“We have heard reams of superlatives about King, but why do we so consistently see him as one of our top heroes? There’s a lot of competition for that position in our American and world history, and among those still with us. How does he fare against others we identify as heroes? What kind of hero is he against the backdrop of all the other humans that have been seen as heroic?

“I have proposed that there are three broad categories of hero:  1) Situational Heroes; 2) Life-Long Heroes; 3) 911 Heroes. Situational Heroes are those individuals who respond to a specific situation with heroic behavior, and may never be heard of again, e.g., jumping into the river to save the drowning person. Life-Long Heroes are those whose entire life is a testament to heroism, e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa. 911 Heroes are those whose very career or occupation frequently requires heroism as a job description, e.g., firefighters, police, EMT personnel and military.

“To understand heroism, and King , better, we can place him in a framework called the ‘Five D’ Concept. This involves five dimensions in the understanding of heroism. The ‘Five D’s’ are:

* Determinants: These are the personal qualities or traits we often look for in our heroes. Six traits we have noted are 1) courage and strength, 2) kind, loving and generous, 3) skill, expertise and intelligence, 4) honesty, 5) affection (directed toward the hero), and 6) risk-taking or adventurous. King meets most, if not all, of these qualities, though honesty might be a problem for some, given his alleged infidelity.

* Domain: Most heroes come out of the broad domain of politics and public life. King meets this characteristic of heroes.

* Depth: How deep is a person’s heroism, as shown by how much we feel he/she is like other great heroes. So, do we see King as similar to such great heroes as, for example, Gandhi or Mother Teresa? King does well in all such comparisons.

* Distance: Is a hero close to us, such as parents, or distant from us, such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or Julius Caesar? King is relatively distant for most of us but not the long past, and given the video and audio that is available of him, he remains quite vital and close to many people.

* Database: How and where do we learn about our heroes? Television, radio, school, books, magazines, the Internet, etc?  King has been covered in all of these and this has reinforced the sense of his heroic stature.

“So to summarize, King shows us most of the traits we often look for in our heroes; he was in the domain from which many heroes arise, he seems to have depth of heroism linking him with other great heroes, he remains relatively close to us in time and depiction, and there is no shortage of information reinforcing his heroism. He was also a Life-Long hero whose life was much defined by heroic personal determinants. He meets most of the qualities we often look for in our heroes. Will he last over time in the pantheon of great heroes? I believe yes, better than most American names that arise in discussions of our heroes, and particularly I feel because of his depth of heroism and his personal determinants.”

Frank Farley is a Laura H. Carnell Professor at Temple and a former President of the American Psychological Association.  Dr. Farley can be reached at 215/668-7581 or


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