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People & Ideas: Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The son and grandson of preachers, Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in Atlanta's prominent Ebenezer Baptist Church. King attended Morehouse College and went on to study theology at Crozer Seminary and Boston University. As a graduate student, King wrestled with the work of major theologians and philosophers, trying to reconcile their thinking with the realities of injustice, the role of the black church and the potential for social change.

The Social Gospel articulated by Walter Rauschenbusch gave King a theological foundation for social activism and for working for the Kingdom of God on earth. But the Christian concept of brotherly love, with its injunctions to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies," did not appear to King to be an effective means of achieving social change. If love couldn't work, what would?

While he was searching for answers, King attended a lecture on the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, presented by Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, the president of Howard University. Johnson explained how Gandhi had forged Soul Force, or satyagraha -- the force of love and truth combined -- into a mighty vehicle for social change. Johnson argued that the moral power of Gandhian nonviolence could improve race relations in America, too. King was electrified by this possibility. He promptly bought six books on Gandhi, who had studied Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, in turn, had studied the Bhagavad Gita and the Hindu texts the Upanishads. Gandhi took Thoreau's theory and gave it practical application -- "strikes, boycotts, and protest marches all conducted nonviolently, and all predicated on love for the oppressor and a belief in divine justice." Gandhi's goal was not to defeat the British, but to redeem them through love. King became convinced that Gandhi had found the way for an oppressed minority to struggle against social injustice. King's eclectic yet coherent synthesis of theology and social action would provide him with a solid foundation in the tumultuous years ahead.

At age 26, King assumed the pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. A little more than six months later, a local activist and member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person; she was arrested. Black leaders called for a bus boycott and prevailed upon King to assume leadership of a newly formed group, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King was reluctant, then agreed. But death threats kept coming. King felt he simply could not continue.

Then one night as he sat alone in his kitchen, King believed that he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him, urging him to stand up for justice. King vowed to fight on. Three days later, his house was firebombed. King refused to give in to violence, proclaiming, "We still have the attitude of love." In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's segregated buses were illegal.

King continued to push for change. In 1963 he was arrested and sent to jail for participating in a march in Birmingham, Ala. The Rev. Billy Graham told The New York Times that his "good personal friend" Dr. King would be well advised to "put on the brakes a bit."

King thought otherwise. From his jail cell, he wrote a letter in response to white ministers who accused him of causing trouble and stirring up violence. Drawing on his years of theological study and thinking, King wrote a profound reflection upon Christianity and the imperative for social justice and social change. Smuggled out of jail, the letter was widely published as a "Letter From Birmingham Jail." When King's followers marched on the jail, the violent police response persuaded President John F. Kennedy to finally propose a new civil rights act.

But the fight continued. On Aug. 28, 1963, a throng of 250,000 civil rights activists -- sharecroppers, teachers, lawyers, entertainers, clerics, rabbis, actors and singers -- gathered on the Washington Mall. The leaders took their places at the foot of the memorial dedicated to the life and work of Abraham Lincoln. King spoke last. In language suffused with the cadence of Scripture, King claimed that the nation had failed to honor the promises made by the Founding Fathers and the principles set forth in the nation's founding documents.

Then King shifted rhetorical gears, moving from the judgmental prophet to the biblical visionary: "I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream."Heset forth his vision of America as a land of equality and social justice, ending with the words: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Across the Mall, the White House listened. Within a year, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

But King still came under fire. Malcolm X, the incendiary orator of the Nation of Islam, denounced King and claimed that African Americans had the right to gain their freedom "by any means necessary," including violence. Stokely Carmichael, the spokesman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), urged more radical action. King held fast to nonviolence: "I will never change in my basic idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the Negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral."

King became absorbed in both protest of the Vietnam War and in the Poor People's Campaign, which was intended to address questions of economic injustice. Other leaders in the civil rights movement did not support him, but King persisted. On April 3, 1968, he went to Memphis, Tenn., to deliver a speech in support of striking black sanitation workers. Drawing on the story of Exodus so central to the experience of the black church, King preached as a modern-day Moses who had talked with God:

He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Martin Luther King was assassinated the following day. He was 39 years old.

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Published October 11, 2010

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