Martin Luther King, Jr., made history, but he was also transformed by his deep family roots in the African-American Baptist church, his formative experiences in his hometown of Atlanta, his theological studies, his varied models of religious and political leadership, and his extensive network of contacts in the peace and social justice movements of his time. Although King was only thirty-nine at the time of his death, his life was remarkable for the ways it reflected and inspired so many of the twentieth century’s major intellectual, cultural, and political developments.
The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, Martin Luther King Jr., named Michael King at birth, was born in Atlanta and spent his first twelve years in the Auburn Avenue home that his parents, the Reverend Michael King and Alberta Williams King, shared with his maternal grandparents, the Reverend Adam Daniel (A. D.) Williams and Jeannie Celeste Williams. After Rev. Williams’ death in 1931, his son-in-law became Ebenezer Baptist Church’s new pastor and gradually established himself as a major figure in state and national Baptist groups. The elder King began referring to himself (and later to his son) as Martin Luther King.
King’s formative experiences not only immersed him in the affairs of Ebenezer but also introduced him to the African-American social gospel tradition exemplified by his father and grandfather, both of whom were leaders of the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Depression-era breadlines heightened King’s awareness of economic inequities, and his father’s leadership of campaigns against racial discrimination in voting and teachers’ salaries provided a model for the younger King’s own politically engaged ministry. He resisted religious emotionalism and as a teenager questioned some facets of Baptist doctrine, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
During his undergraduate years at Atlanta’s Morehouse College from 1944 to 1948, King gradually overcame his initial reluctance to accept his inherited calling. Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays influenced King’s spiritual development, encouraging him to view Christianity as a potential force for progressive social change. Religion professor George Kelsey exposed him to biblical criticism and, according to King’s autobiographical sketch, taught him “that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape” (Papers 1:43). King admired both educators as deeply religious yet also learned men and by the end of his junior year, such academic role models and the example of his father led King to enter the ministry. He described his decision as a response to an “inner urge” calling him to “serve humanity” (Papers 1:363). He was ordained during his final semester at Morehouse, and by this time King had also taken his first steps toward political activism. He had responded to the postwar wave of anti-black violence by proclaiming in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution that African Americans were “entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens” (Papers 1:121). During his senior year King joined the Intercollegiate Council, an interracial student discussion group that met monthly at Atlanta’s Emory University.
After leaving Morehouse, King increased his understanding of liberal Christian thought while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951. Initially uncritical of liberal theology, he gradually moved toward Reinhold Niebuhr’s neoorthodoxy, which emphasized the intractability of social evil. Mentored by local minister, J. Pius Barbour, he reacted skeptically to a presentation on pacifism by Fellowship of Reconciliation leader A. J. Muste. Moreover, by the end of his seminary studies King had become increasingly dissatisfied with the abstract conceptions of God held by some modern theologians and identified himself instead with the theologians who affirmed personalism, or a belief in the personality of God. Even as he continued to question and modify his own religious beliefs, he complied an outstanding academic record and graduated at the top of his class.
In 1951 King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University’s School of Theology, which was dominated by personalist theologians such as Edgar Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. The papers (including his dissertation) that King wrote during his years at Boston displayed little originality, and some contained extensive plagiarism; but his readings enabled him to formulate an eclectic yet coherent theological perspective. By the time he completed his doctoral studies in 1955, King had refined his exceptional ability to draw upon a wide range of theological and philosophical texts to express his views with force and precision. His ability to infuse his oratory with borrowed theological insights became evident in his expanding preaching activities in Boston-area-churches and at Ebenezer, where he assisted his father during school vacations.
During his stay in Boston, King also met and courted Coretta Scott, an Alabama-born Antioch College graduate who was then a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. On 18 June 1953 the two students were married in Marion, Alabama, where Scott’s family lived.
Although he considered pursuing an academic career, King decided in 1954 to accept an offer to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In December 1955, when Montgomery black leaders, such as Jo Ann Robinson, E. D. Nixon, and Ralph Abernathy formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to protest the arrest of NAACP official Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, they selected King to head the new group. In his role as the primary spokesman of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, King utilized the leadership abilities he had gained from his religious background and academic training to forge a distinctive protest strategy that involved the mobilization of black churches and skillful appeals for white support. With the encouragement of Bayard Rustin, Glenn Smiley, William Stuart Nelson and other veteran pacifists, King also became a firm advocate of Mohandas Gandhi’s precepts of nonviolence, which he combined with Christian social gospel ideas.
After the United States Supreme Court outlawed Alabama bus segregation laws in Browder v. Gayle in late 1956, King sought to expand the nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South. In 1957 he joined with C. K. Steele, Fred Shuttlesworth and T .J. Jemison in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King as president to coordinate civil rights activities throughout the region. Publication of Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) further contributed to King’s rapid emergence as a national civil rights leader. Even as he expanded his influence, however, King acted cautiously. Rather than immediately seeking to stimulate mass desegregation protests in the South, King stressed the goal of achieving black voting rights when he addressed an audience at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.
King’s rise to fame was not without personal consequences. In 1958 King was the victim of his first assassination attempt. Although his house had been bombed several times during the Montgomery bus boycott, it was while signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom that Izola Ware Curry stabbed him with a letter opener. Surgery to remove it was successful, but King had to recuperate for several months, giving up all protest activity.
One of the key aspects of King’s leadership was his ability to establish support from many types of organizations including labor unions, peace organizations, southern reform organizations, and religious groups. As early as 1956, labor unions, such as the United Packinghouse Workers and the United Auto Workers contributed to the MIA and peace activists such as Homer Jack alerted their associates to the activities of the MIA. Activists from southern organizations such as Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School and Anne Braden’s Southern Conference Education Fund were in frequent contact with King. In addition, his extensive ties to the National Baptist Convention provided support from churches all over the nation; and his advisor, Stanley Levison insured broad support from Jewish groups.
King’s recognition of the link between segregation and colonialism resulted in alliances with groups fighting oppression outside the U.S., especially in Africa. In March 1957, King traveled to Ghana at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah to attend the nation’s independence ceremony. Shortly after returning from Ghana King joined the American Committee on Africa agreeing to serve as vice chairman of an International Sponsoring Committee for a day of protest against South Africa’s apartheid government. Later at a SCLC sponsored event honoring Kenyan labor leader Tom Mboya, King further articulated the connections between the African-American freedom struggle and those abroad: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” (Papers 5:204).
During 1959 he increased his understanding of Gandhian ideas during a month-long visit to India sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. With Coretta and MIA historian Lawrence D. Reddick in tow, King meet with many Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Writing after his return, King stated, “I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” (Papers 5:233).
Early the following year he moved his family, which now included two children,Yolanda and Martin Luther King, III, to Atlanta in order to be nearer SCLC headquarters in that city and to become co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church. (The Kings’ third child, Dexter, was born in 1961; their fourth, Bernice, was born in 1963.) Soon after King’s arrival in Atlanta, the southern civil rights movement gained new impetus from the student-led lunch counter sit-in movement that spread throughout the region during 1960. The sit-ins brought into existence a new protest group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would often push King toward greater militancy. King came in contact with students, especially those from Nashville such as John Lewis, James Bevel and Diane Nash who had been trained in nonviolent tactics by James Lawson. In October 1960 King’s arrest during a student-initiated protest in Atlanta became an issue in the national presidential campaign when Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy called Coretta King to express his concern. The successful efforts of Kennedy supporters to secure King’s release contributed to the Democratic candidate’s narrow victory over Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
King’s decision to move to Atlanta was partly caused by SCLC’s lack of success during the late 1950s. Associate director Ella Baker had complained that the SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship suffered from lack of attention from King. SCLC leaders hoped that with King now in Atlanta, programming would be improved. The hiring of Wyatt T. Walker as executive director in 1960 was also seen as a step toward bringing efficiency to the organization, while the addition of Dorothy Cotton and Andrew Young to the staff infused new leadership after SCLC took over the administration of the Citizenship Education program pioneered by Septima Clark. Attorney Clarence Jones also began to assist King and SCLC with legal matters and to act as King’s advisor.
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