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King, Martin Luther

Category: Business and political leaders


AUGUST 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail - Martin Luther King, Jr.
IN ANY nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:
  - collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive,
 - negotiation,
 - self-purification, and
 - direct action.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael King Jr., January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.  On October 14, 1964, Dr King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance.

Dr King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honour, and a county in Washington State was also renamed for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.

Why is he on the site?  Dr King would merit a place on this site for his tireless work for the benefit of mankind, but he is of especial interest, as he appears to have had the gift of premonition.

In 1968, Dr King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People's Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.  We have an observation from Alan Vaughan’s book Patterns of Prophecy that not only mentions the other prophecies that were made about his death at the time, but also single out one of Dr King’s speeches as showing prophetic insight.

 As so many sites provide very adequate descriptions of his life as a whole, we have concentrated in the following description on his beliefs and why he took up the baton of non-violent protest.

Beliefs, and spirituality

As a Christian minister, Dr King's main influence was Jesus and the Christian gospels, which he would almost always quote in his religious meetings, speeches at church, and in public discourses. Dr King's faith was strongly based in Jesus' commandment of loving your neighbour as yourself, loving God above all, and loving your enemies, praying for them and blessing them.

Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don't plan to run for any political office. I don't plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I'm doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.

The gospel of non-violence

Key to the whole process that Dr King controlled and instigated was the need for non violence.  He took his cue from Jesus injunction to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus' teaching  in Matthew 26

Matthew 26:52 King James Version (KJV)
52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.

Dr King worked alongside Quakers such as Bayard Rustin to develop non-violent tactics.  His explanations on the purpose and direction that non-violent action should take, are extremely relevant today:

AUGUST 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more
frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people
of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more
bewildering than outright rejection

You may well ask, "Why direct action, why sit ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. …………………….

the idea of the "nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths ...to the majestic heights of understanding" has especial relevance today, it is one of the wonderful universal lessons that Dr King gave us.

Dr King’s Stride Toward Freedom, which includes the chapter Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, elaborates on the theme of nonviolence as a mechanism by which change can be effected.  It shows that value in winning an opponent to friendship, rather than humiliating or defeating him.

The path to understanding

Dr King had spent his teens in Atlanta and had grown up abhorring not only segregation but also the oppressive and barbarous acts that grew out of it. He had passed spots where ‘Negroes had been savagely lynched’, and had watched the Ku Klux Klan on its rides at night.  He had seen police brutality with his own eyes, and watched 'Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts'. One might have thought that all this should have driven him to anger of a quite violent kind.  And indeed he himself said that he came perilously close to resenting all white people.

But there were two aspects of the situation he found himself in that helped him.  The first was the understanding from religion that anger can be channelled, can be directed to fire you to do the right thing – it is a driver, but not to violent action but constructive action.  The second realisation was that it was not just blacks who were suffering from injustice.

“My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” 1 September 1958  New York, N.Y.
Although I came from a home of economic security and relative comfort, I could never get out of my mind the economic insecurity of many of my playmates and the tragic poverty of those living around me. During my late teens I worked two summers, against my father’s wishes - he never wanted my brother and me to work around white people because of the oppressive conditions - in a plant that hired both Negroes and whites. Here I saw economic injustice firsthand, and realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro.  Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.

Dr King went to Atlanta’s Morehouse College as a freshman in 1944. During his student days at Morehouse he read Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience for the first time.  Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, he was so deeply moved that he reread the work several times. This was his first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.

Another extremely influential figure in Dr King’s life was Walter Rauschenbusch, a Christian theologian and Baptist pastor who taught at the Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1892, Rauschenbusch and some friends formed a group called the Brotherhood of the Kingdom. In a pamphlet, Rauschenbusch wrote: "Because the Kingdom of God has been dropped as the primary and comprehensive aim of Christianity, and personal salvation has been substituted for it, therefore men seek to save their own souls and are selfishly indifferent to the evangelization of the world."

“My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” 1 September 1958  New York, N.Y.
Not until I entered Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948, however, did I begin a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil. Although my major interest was in the fields of theology and philosophy, I spent a great deal of time reading the works of the great social philosophers. I came early to Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, which left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me as a result of my early experiences. Of course there were points at which I differed with Rauschenbusch. I felt that he had fallen victim to the nineteenth-century “cult of inevitable progress” which led him to a superficial optimism concerning man’s nature. Moreover, he came perilously close to identifying the Kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system a tendency which should never befall the Church.
But in spite of these shortcomings Rauschenbusch had done a great service for the Christian Church by insisting that the gospel deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body; not only his spiritual well-being but his material well-being. It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried. It well has been said: “A religion that ends with the individual, ends.”


 After reading Rauschenbusch, Dr King turned to a serious study of the social and ethical theories of the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. All of these masters stimulated his thinking and, while finding things to question in each of them, he nevertheless learned a great deal from their study.  During the Christmas holidays of 1949, he decided to spend his spare time reading Karl Marx to try to understand the appeal of communism for many people.  For the first time he carefully scrutinized Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto.  He also read some interpretive works on the thinking of Marx and Lenin. We have provided his conclusions as an observation, as they are absolutely fundamental to the way he acted.

......as a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality-a power that cannot be explained in materialistic terms. History is ultimately guided by spirit, not matter

 But although Dr King entirely rejected Communism he realised it had challenged him-to a growing concern about social justice.  With all of its false assumptions and evil methods, communism grew as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged. Communism in theory emphasized a classless society, and a concern for social justice, though the world knows from sad experience that in practice it created new classes and a new lexicon of injustice.

The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor: he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

 One Sunday afternoon Dr King travelled to Philadelphia to hear a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University.  Dr. Johnson had just returned from a trip to India, and he spoke of the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. His message was so ‘electrifying’ that Dr King left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.  And here we have the ultimate influence on Dr King’s approach, as the books described Gandhi’s campaigns of nonviolent resistance.

“My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” 1 September 1958 


The whole concept of “Satyagraha” (Satyu is truth which equals love, and agruha is force: “Satyagraha,” therefore, means truth-force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my scepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship.  The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social-contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.

 Dr King’s study of Gandhi convinced him that true pacifism is not non-resistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil.  Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigour and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, it is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

Dr King completed his doctoral studies at Boston University where he studied philosophy and theology at Boston University under Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. Both men greatly stimulated his thinking.   Just before Dr. Brightman’s death, he began studying the philosophy of Hegel with him. Although the course was mainly a study of Hegel’s monumental work, Phenomenology of Mind, he spent his spare time reading his Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right.  His analysis of the dialectical process, in spite of its shortcomings, helped him to see that growth comes through struggle:

In 1954, I ended my formal training with all of these relative divergent intellectual forces converging into a positive social philosophy. One of the main tenets of this philosophy was the conviction that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.



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