Martin Luther King Jr: The weight of leadership

As we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is an opportune moment to reflect not only on the monumental achievements of this iconic figure but also on the profound humanity behind his leadership. Dr. King, revered for his unwavering commitment to justice and equality, was also a man who bore the immense weight of leadership. By delving deeper into his life, we are faced with an aspect often overshadowed by the great man’s public persona – his battles with mental health, particularly depression.

This blog will uncover the emotional and psychological challenges accompanying Dr. King’s role as the United States’ most influential civil rights leader. In doing so, it will seek to understand the intricacies of mental health challenges, even in the most revered figures, and reinforce the importance of universal treatment and support.

A giant of history

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of history’s greatest figures, an enduring symbol of peace, perseverance and change. Dr. King’s role in the American Civil Rights Movement was nothing short of monumental, galvanising a generation to stand up against racial injustice and inequality and orchestrating some of the most pivotal moments in the fight for civil rights. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington to his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, he was a fearless leader and the embodiment of hope and resilience.

Today, he is revered by millions around the globe, not only as a trailblazer in the fight for civil rights but as a timeless beacon of wisdom and humanity. King’s influence extends far beyond the borders of the United States with his teachings and philosophy of nonviolent resistance, inspiring countless movements for justice and equality worldwide.

Click on the image to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

Early mental health struggles

Dr. King’s mental health challenges can be traced back to his early years, with two events, both involving his beloved grandmother, Jennie Williams, having a particular impact on the young boy. The first incident occurred when Martin was still a child, and his brother inadvertently knocked his grandmother unconscious while sliding down a bannister. Believing her to be dead, Martin jumped out of a second-story window, but he was luckily unscathed and rose up, relieved to find her alive and well.

The second came in May 1941, when the 12-year-old Martin went to watch a parade against his parents’ wishes while they were out of town attending a church event. Upon returning home, he discovered that the same grandmother had suffered a heart attack and died. Overwhelmed with guilt and believing that his disobedience had contributed to her death, he again jumped from a second-story window of his family home. While this episode is widely agreed also to have been a genuine suicide attempt, the young boy fortunately survived the fall without serious injury.

These incredibly reactive episodes as well as various reports of the young King’s emotional responses to the inequalities he saw around him show that he was a sensitive boy. While this likely laid the foundations for the deep empathy and profound emotional intelligence that would later become hallmarks of his leadership, it perhaps also points to an underlying
vulnerability that may have made Dr. King more susceptible to the emotional tolls he faced later in life.


King family photo. Dr. King is front row on the right with his grandmother, Jennie Williams, directly behind him.

The burden of leadership

But with such a significant role came immense burdens. Leadership is a heavy mantle to bear, particularly in a movement as fraught with danger as the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King faced constant threats to his life and his family’s safety, intense scrutiny from both supporters and adversaries and the unrelenting pressure of being the voice for millions seeking justice and equality.

As his profile rose and the momentum of his cause gathered pace, the mental toll of these leadership challenges intensified. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King spoke of the “valley of despair”, reflecting his emotional burden, even as he inspired others with his vision and determination.

The expectations were high, and the stakes were even higher. Every decision, every speech and every action carried with it the potential to shape the course of history. Within this context, we begin to understand the depth of the challenges he faced, not just as a public figure but as a human being.

Despite his outward composure, many accounts record Dr. King experienced severe depression symptoms, and many contemporary experts agree that he likely suffered from major depressive disorder. Dr. King never received a clinical depression diagnosis, and he carefully concealed the signs of depression from all but his inner circle, concerned that public knowledge would provide fodder for adversaries to undermine both his credibility and the broader civil rights cause.

To put this into context, it has to be remembered that societal attitudes towards mental illness in 1960s America were often incredibly judgemental and stigmatising. Unfortunately, this stigma remains a significant barrier for many seeking mental health treatment today, and that is a problem that needs societal action if we are to ensure people get the help they need.

Strength in the face of adversity

To understand the sheer force of opposition that Dr. King faced, two events highlight the incredible challenges he faced while at the same time coping with depression and the weight of his responsibilities.

1. Attempted assassination

The first is an early attempt on his life that often gets forgotten. It occurred on September 20, 1958, a whole decade before his assassination, at a book signing in Harlem, New York. King was there to promote his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” which detailed the Montgomery Bus Boycott when a mentally ill African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry. She approached King while he was signing copies of his book.

Curry asked King if he was indeed Martin Luther King Jr. After he confirmed his identity, she said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and then stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. The blade came to rest near his aorta, and Dr. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital for emergency surgery.

Dr. King survived the attack, and in a display of his commitment to nonviolence and forgiveness, he expressed no ill will towards Curry. He publicly stated that he harboured no resentment towards her and hoped she would receive the help she needed.

While this response was consistent with his philosophy of nonviolent resistance and forgiveness, the attempt meant that on top of everything else, Dr. King now had unquestionable confirmation that his life was under constant threat. The mental burden of this over the following decade must have been enormous, with those years tragically culminating in his eventual assassination.


Izola Ware Curry and Dr. King. The letter opener can be seen protruding from his chest

2. The suicide letter

The well-documented FBI surveillance and threats against Dr. King had long been a source of immense strain, with the persistent invasion of his privacy and the demands of being under constant watch exacerbating his depression and anxiety. This ultimately culminated in the sending of what became known as the “suicide letter”, a grim episode in American history that reflected the extreme measures the FBI took during its campaign.

The suicide letter was part of the FBI’s covert operation, COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Programme), aimed at surveilling, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organisations and figures, including Dr. King. It was crafted by the FBI and is believed to have been authored by William C. Sullivan, then an assistant director of the Bureau. It was composed as if written by a disillusioned civil rights activist and, in an accusatory and derogatory tone, implied knowledge of extramarital affairs and suggested that King was unworthy of his leadership role.

It is not known whether the FBI knew about Dr. King’s previous suicide attempts but statements such as “You know what you have to do” and “There is only one thing left for you to do” were widely interpreted as veiled encouragement for King to take his own life to avoid public embarrassment and scandal.

The letter was anonymously sent to Dr. King in November 1964, along with a tape recording that purportedly contained evidence of his extramarital affairs. This was just days before King was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, a moment when he was under intense public and media scrutiny.

While there is limited detailed public information about Dr. King’s immediate reaction to the letter, it can be surmised that such an aggressive and personal attack must have had a significant emotional and psychological impact on him. And yet, once again, Dr. King continued unwaveringly in his leadership, demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of such opposition.



The “Suicide Letter”, 1964

The mental health legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

As we honour Martin Luther King Jr. on this day, we are reminded of his monumental role in the Civil Rights Movement and his human side. Dr. King’s ability to continue his mission amidst personal mental health struggles exemplifies his incredible personal strength and teaches us that these challenges do not diminish one’s capabilities or worth. His life encourages a more compassionate and empathetic approach towards mental health, acknowledging and addressing the complexities involved in both our external and internal battles.

However, Dr. King’s experiences also underscore the need for mental health support for those in leadership roles or with major responsibilities. While Dr. King bore his cross courageously, there is no doubt it took a toll, and there is evidence suggesting that those close to him attempted to get him mental health treatment shortly before his assassination. It is not only leaders, however, who need access to support but everyone who is struggling, with Dr King himself once saying:


“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.”

If you are in need of support or treatment for depression or any other mental health issue, reach out to UKAT today. Our team of experienced professionals can help you manage your condition and build a brighter, healthier future.