The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy

Martin Luther King

Harry Belafonte as an actor, singer, and civil rights activist. After meeting civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr in the 1950s, the two became good friends and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the movement.

Martin Luther King combined radical thought with political nous and oratorial brilliance. A story, related by Belafonte, shows clearly King’s visionary style of leadership.

In the early 1960s, the US civil rights movement seemed to have run out of steam. Robert Kennedy had just been appointed the new US attorney general. He had a history of having little time for the rights movement. Activists were depressed and demotivated.

At a meeting, King’s followers voiced their despair. He listened for a while and then slammed his hand on the table and shouted “has nobody got anything good to say about Bobby Kennedy?”. There was absolute silence, so King replied “Well then, let’s call this meeting closed. We will resume when somebody has found one thing good to say about Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass”.

He wanted his team to find the positives about Kennedy and he would use them to turn the situation around. He had no time for negativity.

Robert Kennedy, a staunch catholic, had a very close relationship with his bishop and King sensed that this was the one man who could influence Kennedy’s attitude to the civil rights movement. This was the positive that King was looking for and Kennedy’s change of heart was to be momentous.

At the end of the story, Belafonte said “When Bobby Kennedy lay dead on a Los Angeles pavement, there was no greater friend to the civil rights movement. There was no one we owed more of our progress to than that man.”

Whether Belafonte was exaggerating or not, the lesson to take from his story was the message King was trying to pass on “don’t respond to caricature, the left, the right, the progressives, the reactionary. Don’t take people on rumour. Find the light in them because that will further your cause in the long run.”