The oldest son of a Baptist minister, King graduated from Atlanta’s Morehouse College at nineteen, received a divinity degree from a theological seminary, and earned a doctorate at Boston University in 1955. During his student years, he searched for ways to emancipate African Americans from the bondage of segregation and became interested in the potential of Christian love to effect social change. King’s search ended when he attended a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi, who led India’s nationalist movement against British rule. Gandhi was not interested in defeating the British, but in redeeming them through love.
The reconciliation of power and love, which Gandhi called satyagraha, provided a philosophical basis for his strategy of nonviolent resistance to unjust laws. King equated Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha with agape, the Greek word for Christian love. He left the lecture convinced that the liberation of African Americans could be achieved through nonviolent resistance predicated upon the power of brotherly love.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was formally ordained at the age of nineteen, in the church over which his father presided, thus officially beginning his public-speaking career. Within ten years, he had secured a position as pastor of a Montgomery, Alabama, church and had established himself as a civil rights leader by leading a boycott against the Montgomery public transportation system. After the successful conclusion of the boycott, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council, in the hope of harnessing the momentum of the movement to further the cause of racial equality.
Supported by a network of churches and civil rights organizations, King became the most vocal opponent to segregation, and thus became a lightning rod for criticism and accolades. On August 28, 1963, King led a march on Washington, D.C., at which he delivered his best-known speech, “I Have a Dream.” The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Also during 1963 and 1964, King was arrested four times on charges such as parading without a permit, trespassing, and contempt of court. One of King’s most powerful works, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” was composed while he was incarcerated during this time, and several other pieces were occasioned by the arrests and subsequent confinements.
The focus of most of King’s writings was upon the necessity for all citizens to effect necessary social changes by using a system of passive resistance and economic empowerment. The tenets of his strategy were outlined in such speeches as “The Power of Nonviolence” (1957) and “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience” (1961). In addresses such as “A Time to Break Silence” (1967), he spoke of the need for Americans to examine their beliefs about race and culture, with respect not only to conflicts within the United States but also in international relations, such as those with Vietnam.
King’s later works, such as Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, show King’s reluctant recognition that the struggle for racial equality would be a long-term battle. Although he believed that civil rights would eventually be equally afforded to all Americans, he warned of the dangers of complacency and backsliding. In his final address (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”), given on April 3, 1968, he urged supporters of civil rights to continue the struggle in his absence. The next day, he was shot to death.
Influenced chiefly by the Indian liberator Mahatma Gandhi and the southern black evangelical tradition, King combined nonviolent activism and Christian theology in his ethic of social change. He maintained throughout his public career that he was not seeking to change only laws but also attitudes, so that people of all races and classes could live in the Beloved Community, a concept borrowed from Social Gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch. Central to King’s philosophy was an ethic of love drawn largely from traditional Christian morality and combined with a strong reformist mission. King openly challenged the acquiescence of both blacks and whites. It was time for change, he believed, because the status quo was perpetuating wrong behavior that was harming all races, but meaningful change would come only by ethical means. “Returning hate for hate,” he affirmed, “multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that.”