To what extent does Martin Luther King's personal authority lend power to his words?
To a great extent, I would suggest that Dr. King's personal authority lends power to his words.
One reason for this is because Dr. King supported his words with action. When Dr. King spoke of concepts such as self- sacrifice, standing up for one's beliefs, and civil disobedience, his words acquired greater power because his personal authority embodied these attributes. This becomes clear when reading his writings such as "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Dr. King's words call for moral action. His imprisonment enhances this:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Dr. King could speak of terms such as injustice with power because of his response to it. He could call upon the Biblical force of Christ or Paul because his personal authority reflects a commitment to this high level of spirituality. When Dr. King talks about how spiritual figures moved to where injustice exists, Dr. King's words acquire power because his actions mirror such language. When he talks of civil disobedience and refusing to embrace violence, his own personal authority lends power to such potent concept because he, himself, follows the force of his words.
Martin Luther King had a great deal of personal authority that lent power and credibility to his words. As head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 in a non-violent way using passive resistance. He never wavered from this practice and did not use violence, even when he and his followers were attacked violently. Therefore, his essays such as "The Power of Non-Violence," written in 1957, discuss the use of non-violence in a practical way that King can support with his personal experience. In this essay, he speaks about the difficulty of applying the use of non-violence to racial segregation. He writes, "We had to use our mass meetings to explain nonviolence to a community of people who had never heard of the philosophy and in many instances were not sympathetic with it." His explanation of how he used non-violence in Montgomery, Alabama, provides credibility to its applicability to difficult social problems.
In his famous "I Have a Dream Speech," delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, he speaks about how the U.S. will have a "rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual," meaning that the country had to advance civil rights to avoid civil unrest. He had the authority and experience to speak to the nation about the state of affairs among African-Americans because he had traveled around the country to see the ways in which African-Americans lacked not only political rights but also economic and educational opportunities. He spoke from experience and a position of moral and personal authority.
Let's rephrase this question to be: "What is King's personal authority and why does it lend power to his words?"
King's personal authority is broad and deep, beginning with his double degrees in Divinity, a B.D. and a Ph.D., and his service as pastor in two Alabama churches and continuing to his roles in two freedom and rights organizations, the NAACP and the SCLC, and culminating with his world-stage roles as author and bold speaker for liberty, equality and freedom for black Americans and, world-wide, for all peoples oppressed and made second-rate.
His personal authority was backed up and given indisputable substantiation by his actions, actions that led to more than twenty arrests for breaking laws restricting freedom, liberty and equality for black Americans (a cause claiming his keenest dedication) and that led to the bombing of his home. King had a prominent role in the 382 day bus boycott that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling against segregation on public buses. He directed the protests against segregation in Birmingham, protests that engaged a world-wide audience, that initiated the "coalition of conscience" and that introduced his famous manifesto for Negro revolution, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." He organized the 250,000 person march on Washington where he delivered his groundbreaking and earth-shaking speech "I Have a Dream."
Now we can ask "Why does King's personal authority lend power to his words?" Now we can answer (1) because his education, background and experience give him credibility and a platform from which to speak, as attested by the five books and the many articles he wrote and as attested by his appointment and election to two powerful organizations advocating for black freedom, equality and liberty and (2) because he literally put his own life and freedom at risk, in jeopardy, with other countless now unremembered black Americans to fight for what was morally and legally theirs to begin with as he protested, challenged the Supreme Court, challenged the White House and the Congresses, wrote, sent his message around the world, and spoke (who will ever forget him speaking "I Have a Dream" having once heard it?) in order to gain freedom, equality and liberty for black Americans.
To what extent does Martin Luther King's personal authority lend power to his words? His personal authority lends power to his words to the full extent of his magnificent mastery of life and right and action and true spirituality (granting that the man had his ignominious weaknesses as well as his magnificent, world-changing strengths).