Study Guide

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume II

by Martin Luther King Jr.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume II Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

If the first volume of the Martin Luther King, Jr., papers was a victory over unexpected setbacks, the second is a significant source of momentum for the projected long-range series, expected to number more than a dozen volumes by the early twenty-first century. Established in 1984 by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, the ambitious King papers series is under the general editorship of Clayborne Carson, and involves the efforts of many scholars, writers, and a wide range of contributors and sponsors.

The 181 principal documents in Rediscovering Precious Values span the period from the summer of 1951, when young King was finishing his doctoral degree at the University of Boston’s School of Theology and embarking on his first pastorate; to November of 1955, just before the beginning of the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that launched his public career. Martin Luther King, Jr., a native of Atlanta and the son of a distinguished pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church there, had reached a significant juncture in his life by 1951, after years of searching for a clear sense of vocation and an ideological basis for integrating his religious faith with a sound premise for social reform. Thus, these papers are invaluable for revealing some of the processes by which King arrived at his distinctive nonviolent ethos.

Rediscovering Precious Value is limited in providing insight into King’s inner personality and motivations. Collectively, on the other hand, the documents illuminate salient features of King’s personality, his determination to fulfill his early childhood dream of being exceptionally educated, his devotion to higher learning and tendency to borrow heavily from the thoughts of others, and the mixture of hesitancy and excitement he felt upon becoming the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The Boston materials include a variety of sources, among them letters, papers prepared for classes, and even grade reports.

The Montgomery materials are mostly letters, including many dealing with local matters and several related to the completion of King’s doctoral work in Boston. Several of King’s sermons and speeches are included, as well as a highly informative excerpt from his doctoral dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Now an important part of the troublesome plagiarism problem disclosed by Carson and others in preparing the King papers series, this excerpt will help other scholars in their quest for the real King. The Boston and Montgomery periods, in this respect and others, overlap in their historical significance.

Montgomery, the capital of the old Confederacy, rather surprisingly became the pivotal center of the incipient Southern nonviolence movement of which King was the principal leader, as well as the nurturing environment for his nonviolent philosophy. Andrew J. Young once said that Rosa Parks, a local African American seamstress and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist, thrust greatness upon Martin Luther King, Jr. Her refusal to yield her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, led to the 381-day bus boycott that not only contributed powerfully to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated Montgom-ery’s transit system but also served as a catalyst in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rediscovering Precious Values covers the four formative years that further enabled King to meet the challenge of greatness and emerge as a pivotal figure in civil and human rights reform in the United States.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, philosophy, and indeed his career as a reform activist, had complex origins. Resting on the seminal roots of Southern black religious experience, King’s social philosophy also was strongly influenced by Gandhian nonviolence and its success in contributing to India’s national independence from Britain after World War II. Another factor was King’s impressive educational odyssey, which led him from the formative days as an early-entrance student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was president, to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and to the doctoral studies at Boston University that are partially documented in this volume.

The Boston years were a genuine watershed. There King met his future wife, Coretta Scott, another black Southerner. An aspiring singer, Coretta Scott was from Marion, Alabama. While Atlanta and Marion were light years apart in size and social composition, both of these talented young people had experienced the effects of racial prejudice...

(The entire section is 1935 words.)