Martin Luther King, Jr.— American Prophet

From the lecture series: The American Mind

By Allen C. Guelzo, PhD, Gettysburg College

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s success stemmed from formidable oratory skills sharpened at the pulpit coupled with an intellectual and theological prowess that guided his actions to a stunning victory for civil rights in America.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd.
(Image: By Rowland Scherman – US National Archives and Records Administration/Public domain)

Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in a preacher’s home in Georgia. He went to Morehouse College, an all-black college in Atlanta, where he decided to follow in the family footsteps and studied at Crozier Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951. From there, he took the unusual step of entering a PhD program in theology at Boston University.

King’s Intellectual Precedents

There, King’s first intellectual love was Walter Rauschenbusch, and from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, King learned that any valid religious commitment had to incorporate a concern for the social welfare of people in the here and now.

This is a transcript from the video series American Mind. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

But King eventually found Rauschenbusch lacking in hard-headedness and too optimistic about the prospects for social progress. King wrote, “I felt that he had fallen victim to the 19th 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.”

That skepticism led King next to Reinhold Niebuhr, who had also been an admirer of the Social Gospel, but who also abandoned it for its patronizing “do goodiness”. Niebuhr was a reminder for King of the need to address injustice as a moral evil, not just political maladjustment, and King was particularly jolted by Niebuhr’s sharp criticism of Mohandas Gandhi.

Studio photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi, London, 1931.
Mahatma Gandhi’s successful non-violence campaign against British rule in India was a tremendous inspiration to King in his efforts to combat social inequality in the United States. (Image: By Elliott & Fry/Public domain)

Gandhi had become something of a cultural hero to King during his seminary days. In Gandhi’s struggles to undermine British colonial rule in India in the 1920s and 1930s, Gandhi fashioned a unique strategy for subverting the British will to rule. Gandhi saw no point in imitating the hosts of earlier Indian nationalists who had raised armies and insurrections and then annihilated themselves against the solid rock of British imperial force. Instead, trained as a lawyer, Gandhi used the British legal system against itself. Gandhi deplored violence. Instead, he simply disobeyed British laws and then allowed the British to make fools of themselves in the eyes of the world for applying the full force of those laws to obviously defenseless resisters who wanted nothing except to control their own destinies.

Niebuhr, however, thought that Gandhi had merely been lucky in his enemies and had gotten away with passive resistance to British colonial rule largely because the British were too properly decent to treat Gandhi with the savagery that others might not have hesitated to use. Gandhi, in other words, had succeeded without violence because he had no immediate need for it. But at its root, Niebuhr believed that nonviolent resistance was still resistance, and still liable to be as filled with a self-consuming hatred as militant confrontation.

Learn more about how Gandhi connected with audiences through speech

A Recipe for Nonviolence

King revolted at Niebuhr’s attempt to reduce nonviolent resistance and violent resistance to the same moral level. But Niebuhr taught him a valuable lesson all the same—that a nonviolent resistance conducted in the spirit of hate was as empty of real meaning and justice as the most bloody insurrection.

“Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate,” King insisted. It was “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 inflictor 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.” By the time King had finished his doctoral studies at Boston University, he had become convinced “that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.”

King, however, had no particular plans to put any of this to work. “At this time,” King said, “I had merely an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, with no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation.” The situation, however, came looking for King.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

photo of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr. took a position as minister.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where King took a position as minister. (Image: By Carol M. Highsmith/ United States Library of Congress)

In April 1954, he received a call to become the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and in September, he moved into the parsonage. It was not an easy decision. King had recently married, and both he had his wife, Coretta, were uncertain about returning to the South and the regime of Jim Crow. But the South was in ferment. The Second World War was a matter of recent memory, and it was difficult for Americans any longer to reconcile a crusade to destroy Nazi racism with Jim Crow racism at home. Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball in 1947, followed a year later by an executive order from President Truman desegregating the armed forces, and in 1954 by the Supreme Court’s overturning of segregated schooling in Brown versus Board of Education.

As blacks gained economic footholds in the American middle class, they parlayed that into political clout.

Not all change for American blacks was being imposed from the top down. Between 1940 and 1960, the percentage of blacks in middle-class jobs rose from less than 10% to 23%. Average black earnings rose between 1940 and 1950 by 75%, and black life expectancy, always the most subtle barometer of improved living, increased by 10.5 years. As blacks gained economic footholds in the American middle class, they parlayed that into political clout. Less than 100,000 Southern blacks voted in the 1940 presidential election. By 1956, 1.25 million Southern blacks were registered to vote and blacks won seats on the city councils of Nashville and the old Confederate capital of Richmond. In Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy back in 1861, King’s own Dexter Avenue church was regarded as “a sort of silk-stocking church catering only to” this new black middle class, and the black merchant community was chafing at the bonds of Jim Crow.

Learn more about how colonists rationalized slaveholding

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

photo of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1955. (Image: By Unknown author – USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306/Public domain)

On December 1, 1955, a Montgomery department store worker and secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, named Rosa Parks, took a seat on a municipal bus that, by Montgomery ordinance, could only be used by a black person if there were no other whites on the bus who needed it. As more whites boarded the bus, the driver asked four blacks, including Parks, to get up and move to the back of the bus. Parks refused and the driver had her arrested for violating the segregation ordinance. Four days later, the NAACP and the Montgomery Improvement Association announced a boycott of Montgomery’s busses and turned to the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to lead it.

Once in charge, however, King’s gift for oratory and his determination to manage the boycott in the image of Gandhian nonviolence made him a national hero.

This was not because King had demonstrated any particular flair for leadership. He had joined the local NAACP chapter when he arrived in Montgomery, and he encouraged his parishioners to register and vote. But the selection fell on King partly because of the prestige of his church, and partly, as he acknowledged, because he was too new in Montgomery to have alienated the various factions within the black community. Once in charge, however, King’s gift for oratory and his determination to manage the boycott in the image of Gandhian nonviolence made him a national hero.

The Threshold of a New Dawn

Mug shot of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s willingness to be arrested for breaking unjust laws was key in seizing the moral high ground and forcing political change. (Image: By Birmingham AL police dept/Public domain)

To the image of hero was nearly added, all too quickly, that of martyr. On January 30th a stick of dynamite blew off the front porch of his parsonage, but King quickly used the contrast between the violence of the explosion and the nonviolence of the boycott to claim the moral high ground. “There are those,” he said, “who would try to make of this a hate campaign. This is not war between the white and the Negro but a conflict between justice and injustice. If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight. We are always on the threshold of a new dawn.”

Learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech 

After 381 days, and a federal court ruling, the boycott ended and King boarded a Montgomery bus and sat in the front seat. The next decade, from 1955 to 1964, belonged to Martin Luther King, as he led one nonviolent protest after another—Selma, Birmingham, the March on Washington in August of 1963—all culminating in the passage of the landmark federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Common Questions About Martin Luther King Jr.’s Success

Q: What is Martin Luther King Jr. most famous for?

Martin Luther King Jr. won a Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent civil rights work.

Q: What was Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual employment?

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist Minister and leader/organizer of the American Civil Rights movement.

Q: Why was Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech so successful?

As a speech, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was delivered with utmost clarity and power. It was poetic and gave a much needed message of hope and cooperation before a teetering nation divided on color. Additionally, it was delivered to around 200,000 people in Washington, DC, putting much pressure on LBJ to pass civil rights laws.

Q: What did Martin Luther King Jr. accomplish?

Martin Luther King Jr. was notable for many acts including the Montgomery Bus Boycott spearhead, creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to non-violently advance civil rights, and his appearance and support of the Memphis Sanitation Worker Strike. King was himself largely to thank for getting three bills passed: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

This article was updated on November 13, 2020

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