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

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1935

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.

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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 and were overcoming them as they reached ever higher in their professional training and intellectual perception of the nature of its causes and results. Coretta’s interest in music had led her to Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where she met young King in early 1952. They were married in June of 1953 at her home in Marion, Alabama, with her minister father officiating. Neither expected to become a civil rights activist, but in retrospect both considered their meeting in Boston, their marriage, and their subsequent public careers as providential in shaping them for that role. Rediscovering Precious Values includes information on Coretta’s background and education, her courtship with King, some musical performances, and her role in Montgomery after 1955.

It is important to know that Rediscovering Precious Values includes, like the first volume in the King papers series, extensive editorial contributions. There is a complete listing of the included papers, acknowledgement of financial and other supporters, a substantive introduction that includes candid references to King’s appropriation of the words and ideas of other scholars, as well as positive recognition of his warm and friendly personality and passion for learning, incisive discussion of L. Harold DeWolf and other King academic mentors at Boston University, and well-crafted historical statements on King’s studies in Boston, at Harvard, and elsewhere. The introduction is carefully researched and written, and provides one of the best available analyses and most comprehensive summaries of King’s career in this period. A host of student and professional researchers, compilers, and editors contributed to this compilation of materials gathered from individuals, research centers, and libraries, with the archives at the King Center in Atlanta at its core.

The value and convenience of Rediscovering Precious Values are enhanced by elaborate comprehensive chronology; extensive annotation of sources with dates, origins, titles, and explanatory information; a detailed calendar; and bibliographical references to both published sources and archives.

The first group of documents is devoted to the Boston University period, from October, 1951, to August, 1954, the second to King’s first eighteen months as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Eighty-six of the documents cover the Boston period, and ninety-five the early Montgomery experience.

Many photos of King at various stages of his life, as well as of family and other individuals important in his life, enrich the printed documentation. In them, one sees a developing Martin King—interested in scholarship and ministry and frequently close to ministers, scholars, and a growing circle of family and friends—as well as an often playful, but essentially serious, young man whose face mirrors an inner flame of driving energy.

The choice of title for this volume is revealing, suggesting that King was finding himself during this four-year period, and doing so in the context of recovering some of the seminal influences from his early background. One can also see that the King of 1955 was quite different in some respects from the young man who finished his work at Crozer without having defined himself or his social mission clearly.

In Boston, he absorbed variegated and sometimes bewildering ideas. Original in some respects, King the student was also eclectic and inclined toward carelessness in accounting for his synthesized ideas, and even words. Evidence is given of periodic misunderstanding of the meaning of the scholarly works he studied, and lifting words from published and unpublished works of other scholars, sometimes in multiple stages that must have contributed to the failure to credit the original authors. If this is a fairly common problem in higher education, it is still a significant one. Nor was King the only one at fault. One can see that advisers and readers did not discern this as clearly as they should have.

In many respects, these were exciting and at times frustrating years of maturing for King. He became a father when Coretta gave birth to a daughter on November 17, 1955, early in the Montgomery period. Yolanda Denise King was a source of pride, as well as realism, to her father. He alluded to his being “a proud father” in some of his Montgomery correspondence, and he noted that this new phase required some limitations on his availability as a speaker. Eventually, the Kings would have four children at a time when public demands on his time and privacy, and theirs, steadily increased. In the long run, he was not able to avoid the almost total absorption of his time and energy by the continually growing nonviolent Civil Rights movement. YetRediscovering Precious Values shows that at least for a short period, King could enjoy the typical feelings of a young, new father.

By any meaningful measure, King’s life between 1951 and 1955 was quintessentially a quest for a tangible demonstration of God’s presence in human history, for a satisfying way to integrate his innermost thoughts with the external stimuli of social need, and, above all, a viable Christian reform philosophy. King arrived at several fundamental conclusions that informed his entire subsequent public career, and at the center was the view that Christians should actively struggle for social justice. Old Testament prophets, notably Isaiah and Amos, stirred King’s mind. The notion of imperative Christian social concern and action deeply affected not only his preaching, but his educational experience as well.

Although it is elusive, perspective on his sometimes careless scholarship is essential. While it has been appropriately raised by contemporary scholars as an important issue, it can easily be distorted by the current tendency toward revisionism and hero-bashing. King should not be exempted from critical scholarship, and indeed has not been. Yet it is crucial to see that all scholarly quests, whether by King or Tillich or Wieman or anyone else, inevitably involve borrowing, synthesizing, and appropriating. No one, including Socrates—who never wrote and thus never documented anything, as far as we know—has ever been totally original. In the particular preacher-oriented milieu of King’s youth, marked by constant paraphrasing, quoting without citing sources, absorbing and using ideas was more essential than documenting. King’s sometimes flawed citation of sources is to be noted and taken into consideration. So, too, is the inadequate monitoring by his advisers, as the editors of this volume assert.

King’s goal, which is at least partially clarified by the documents selected for Rediscovering Precious Values, was not simply to write a dissertation or even to earn a doctoral degree. His quest was for answers to his perennial questions about life, love, justice, and social healing. The juncture he had reached by late 1955 did not mark a final resolution of all his uncertainties. It did mean, in a sense that eludes any compilation of written materials, even as well-edited and annotated as these, that Martin Luther King, Jr., had arrived at a philosophy that would not only enable him to become the principal national leader of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement, but also make that role unavoidable as events in Montgomery forced him to decide whether his convictions were personal conclusions or compelling reasons to act in behalf of racial justice.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, December 15, 1994, p. 720.

Chicago Sun-Times. December 23, 1994, p. 27.

San Francisco Chronicle. February 26, 1995, p. 3.

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