Martin Luther King's creed of non-violence surprised many Americans. Though conceding that King's methods were effective, black psychologist Kenneth Clark called the philosophy of loving one's enemy "psychologically burdensome." In a 1963 interview, Malcolm X accused King of working "to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack." Nevertheless, King's approach achieved success in Montgomery, Alabama, and other civil rights hot spots.
"Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?"
-- Henry David Thoreau, "On Civil Disobedience" (1849)
Journalist David Halberstam described Martin Luther King as "a black Baptist Brahmin." The son and grandson of Atlanta preachers, King grew up in an environment where much was expected of him -- and he did not disappoint. Young Martin studied at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University, where he completed a Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955.
During his years of study, King found truths in a long list of writers and books, from Henry David Thoreau and his famous essay, "On Civil Disobedience," to Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis. But perhaps the most important sources of his developing philosophy were the Bible and the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.
"Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak unto all the people, that the priests and the prophets and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die."
-- Jeremiah 26:8
"In order to understand Martin Luther King," his friend William Gray said, "you must start with the fact that he was a minister." Raised in the Southern black church, King lived, learned, and preached within the Christian cycle of suffering and redemption. "My Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter," he once said, and he would refer to setbacks as the necessary midnights that would precede a dawn of shining equality and justice.
King took many lessons from Christian teachings. He studied martyrs like Jeremiah, whom he described as "a shining example of the truth that religion should never sanction the status quo." In the famous letter he wrote from the Birmingham Jail, King said he modeled his actions on those of Christian saints who "left their villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns... [as] I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my hometown." And in what would be his final speech, in April 1968, he accepted the reality that he could be killed for his actions, saying, "I may not get there with you... but we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
Perhaps most of all, King relied on New Testament teachings as he developed his philosophy of non-violence and his commitment to social justice. "Love your enemies," King surely read many times in the book of Matthew. "Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
Gandhi and India
"Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed."
-- Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1922
In spring 1950, at age 21, Martin Luther King heard Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, deliver a sermon on Gandhi. Intrigued, King began an intensive study of the Indian leader's philosophy. Especially impressed with Gandhi's Salt March to Dandi in 1930, a non-violent act of civil disobedience, King came to understand the Christian teachings of loving one's enemy and turning the other cheek as philosophies that held powerful potential as social forces for positive change.
Rosa Parks' arrest in December 1955 for refusing to observe public bus segregation laws provided King's first opportunity to test a non-violent approach. He and other black leaders organized a successful year-long boycott of Montgomery's buses that led to a U.S. Supreme Court case and, ultimately, victory.
"The potential and possibilities of non-violence in the movement were beyond anything that we could have ever thought of," recalled civil rights activist Rev. C. T. Vivian. Though King's home was bombed, anonymous phone callers made threats, and King and others were jailed in mass arrests, King steadfastly preached tolerance. "We must use the weapon of love," he told the New York Times. "We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us." He would explain, in a later interview, "This approach certainly doesn't make the white man feel comfortable. It disturbs his conscience."
In 1959, King fulfilled his longtime wish to see India, meeting Gandhi's son and other relatives, and visiting some of the places where Gandhi had lived.
The Limits of Non-Violence
"Dr. King... I say this. Sure we like to be non-violent but we up here in the Los Angeles area will not turn that other cheek."
-- unidentified man after the Watts Riots, Los Angeles, 1965
Martin Luther King's non-violent approach was always a tough sell with some people who were angry at violence against African Americans and intent on protecting themselves or seeking revenge. "The goal of Dr. Martin Luther King is to get Negroes to forgive the people who have brutalized them for 400 years," Malcolm X told an interviewer in 1963. "But the masses of black people in America today don't go for what Martin Luther King is putting down."
Whether or not Malcolm X was truly speaking for the masses, the spring 1965 Selma march was a particular turning point, and the Watts riots later that year solidified the refusal of some black Americans to listen to Dr. King. Civil rights lawyer Harris Wofford recalled, "I began hearing a number of the young militants calling him 'the Lord' derisively." In historian Taylor Branch's view, "he was the natural object of people's frustration. That was part of the price he had to pay for the position that he was in." Within a year of the Watts Riots, a group of African Americans in Oakland, California founded the controversial, militant Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Over thirty-five years after his death, Martin Luther King's legacy lives on. A statue of King decorates the front façade of London's Westminster Abbey, along with statues of nine other 20th century martyrs. Streets and schools across the United States have been renamed after the civil rights leader. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King.
But even more than monuments and holidays, King's legacy is present in worldwide movements for democracy and individual rights. Civil rights leader Andrew Young believes King's "I Have a Dream" speech "made the history not only of the civil rights movement... [but] helped get Nelson Mandela out of jail. It helped bring down the Berlin Wall. It inspired students in China to organize in Tiananmen Square. The shipyard workers in Poland. Everywhere in the world people saw that, and were inspired, and everybody in the world to this day identifies with... Martin Luther King's expression of the American dream."