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No. 371:
Martin Luther King

Today, we learn about invention from a preacher. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I went to a special lecture on the Berkeley Campus in 1956. The speaker was a young Baptist minister, hardly older than I. He was 27, and he'd just taken over the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was scholarly and low-key. He spoke on the theoretical and theological roots of the Civil Rights Movement. But this man also knew his subject in practical terms. He'd recently riveted public attention by organizing a boycott of the segregated buses in Montgomery. He was, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.

King gave us all a lesson in teaching. Using the tools of reason, literature, and history, he took us to the heart and meaning of non-violent protest. It was a disciplined performance. He didn't let his mission deflect him from primary Christian imperatives. I still hear him saying to us,

Our aim is as much to deliver the white man from the wrongs of segregation, as it is to deliver the black man. If we forget that, then we've failed.

And we knew he meant it.

Our pursuit of the inventive mind finally brings us to this strange warrior who wielded the weapons of peace. King had the same quality of intellectual detachment as a theoretical physicist. But he also had a genius for communication. He used that genius to wed abstract thought to reality. Like the great engineers, King molded subtle ideas into a better life.

Seven years later, King gathered a quarter-million people before the Washington monument to tell them he had a dream. In that uncanny oration he revealed the mystic part of the mind that did so much for America. Invention is a three-part process. The inventor must dream, he must think, and he must execute, King did all three. He harnessed his dream of racial harmony to powerful abstract and ethical engines. Then his dream rode those engines into a world that was, for the most part, delighted and stunned by what he'd forged.

It's dangerously easy to make Martin Luther King, Jr., into an icon -- to remember only the force of his oratory -- to remember his mission and forget his means. When I fall into that error I go back to that young intellectual at Berkeley. I remember him laying out left-brain means for realizing a right-brain dream. I remember this young man educating the elders in the temple. I still hear him explaining the journey that eventually took him only to the near side of his Jordan River. I remember that this dream-driven man of action was also a great intellectual of our times.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode was rewritten as Episode 3157 in 2018.