“Clothes and manners do not make the man; but, when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” – Abolitionist Henry Beecher Stowe
We often view style as a byproduct of celebrity. From icons of Hollywood’s golden age like the brooding Humphrey Bogart to the larger-than-life persona of Muhammed Ali, men throughout American history have harnessed style to amplify their cultural influence beyond their industry.
Though, we often overlook style’s mark on other areas of society. It also was a weapon wielded, more subtly, by transformative social figures. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., known for his intelligence and eloquence, was a man of understated but poignant taste and an early purveyor of personal branding, who could wear the hell out of a tie.
Dr. King, a “Son of Georgia”, commanded crowds, captured hearts, and minds, and inspired an impassioned national social justice movement. He reflected, in every way, his outspoken advocacy of the economical, educational, spiritual, and social liberation of Black people and communities.
THE ANATOMY OF A REBEL
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s style and mystique was punctuated by three elements:
A Philosophy of Non-Violence: While some civil-rights leaders of his time embraced a less demure approach to achieving equality, Dr. King believed that turning-the-other-cheek was the path to salvation and harmony. His philosophy contrasted the perpetual demonization of Black men in America, too often seen as aggressive, savage, deviant, and volatile. He implored that peace and the fight for equality could coexist.
Artful Oratory Skills: Criticized for his timidness, there was nothing bashful about his thunderous oration. He had a way with words. From his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, to his “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” speech, given the day before his assassination, he was a powerful and emotional communicator, who was skilled at enlisting a multicultural, broad coalition of followers—including students, professors, and other men of faith—fiercely dedicated to his cause.
Timeless (and Adaptive) Fashion: Dr. King’s fashion choices resonate even today. His tailored suits, crisp french cuff shirts, elegant housecoats, and timeless wristwear (such as the 18k gold Rolex Datejust he sported) signaled that he was a man of importance and refinement. Though, underneath there was the beating heart of a rebel, who knew how to wear a fedora; could effortlessly pair cuffed jeans, a work shirt, and oxfords; a timex, and who was frequently photographed in classic Ray-Ban Olympian shades. He even wore the occasional pair of non-prescription eyeglasses, to evoke a distinguished look.
LIBERATED BY STYLE
An underappreciated icon of counter-cultural fashion, Dr. King’s style contributed to disentangling Black men from long held perceptions about Black identity, while maintaining an urgent tone befitting his achievements and activism.
The offensive anti-Black caricatures, with overtly offensive and exaggerated features, that were pervasive—for decades—in American popular culture, undermined the cause for which Dr. King gave his life.
He recognized the danger in discounting these harmful representations, and with a sharp black suit and sharper tongue modeled a mantle that others would later assume. Today, Black directors, writers, producers, and actors are more empowered than ever to challenge these false narratives, as more diverse stories are being told in television, film, and advertising.
Dr. King’s transformative style was in the mold of contemporaries like Sam Cooke, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte, who embodied the emboldened legacy of the modern Black man and Black excellence: to be seen as enlightened, immensely talented, and free to shape their own destiny.
This nuanced liberation of the Black mind (and body) showcases how masterfully Dr. King leveraged the tools of his time to deconstruct the psychological brutalization of the Black body.
AN ENDURING LEGACY
Dr. King personified the hopes and dreams of Black America. He empowered Black girls, boys, women, and men to see what’s possible and to view themselves as more than what the world insisted they be, which was docile and content with the limited freedoms and opportunity they had, and aware that they would always be less-than.
His measured audacity was validation that African-Americans were destined for much more. It’s this very truth that has empowered Black male athletes to use fashion (and their influence) to transcend their sports as fashion icons, social activists, and business leaders. There’s a prevailing sense of viewing one’s identity as layered and one’s humanity as complex.
A trailblazer, Dr. King is arguably the most quotable activist of our time. Likely because his vision of the world is one that America still strives for, but stumbles toward realizing. His words still carry the capacity to inspire, as we continue to grapple with the structural racism and fractures in our ability to empathize with others who might not reflect our lived experience or beliefs.
Dr. King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” Liberation is more holistic than political gain. The numerous policy achievements of this era of the civil rights movement were foundational to the progress we’ve made as a nation, but liberation through changing perception is also powerful.
Dr. King internalized this and, like most rebels, unapologetically championed his cause, in his way. He stood in fervent opposition to the negative stereotypes asserted about Blackness and the forces that continue to sow division. And, Black men are still following his lead, one bespoke suit at a time.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”