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Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.
As great a figure as the Noble-prize winning civil rights leader Martin King Luther Jr. may be accounted in the annals of world and American history, and in political, religious, and social rights activism, no man's thought stands alone -- no man's thought springs from simply his own brain in isolation. Every great thinker and leader is part of a larger and complex history of human thought and social influences. Martin King Luther Jr. was a Christian minister and philosopher whose nonviolent philosophy of civil disobedience was profoundly influenced by Biblical, New Testament documents of Jesus and other Christian spiritual writers, as interpreted through the African-American tradition. King also wrote during a time period when the philosophy of the Indian nonviolent leader Gandhi had shown the world how, through nonviolence, the oppressing power's wrongful influence could unintentionally act as a public relations force of liberation, when highlighted to the world in all its injustice.
According to the African-American historian Robert Norrell's chronicle of the civil rights movement, Reaping the Whirlwind, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s first Christian influences came at the dinner table, from his parents in his home in Atlanta, Georgia. He was born the eldest son of Martin Luther King, Sr., a Baptist minister, and Alberta Williams King, and expected to carry on his father's legacy as a minister in the Baptist Church. His father served as pastor of a large Atlanta church called the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, maternal grandfather had founded this church, and Martin Luther King, Jr., was ordained as a Baptist minister at the early age of eighteen. The church was a thriving part of the local community, and formed the social as well as the spiritual nexus of the African-Americans of the area. Political protest and Christianity were both put forth in the pulpit. (Norrell, 1985)
Despite his rich upbringing, however, in this environment, King attended local segregated public schools and entered the all-Black Morehouse College at age fifteen, where he studied theology and sociology until 1948 before moving on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. This fusion of theology and sociology proved influential upon his later thought, such as when in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," he drew parallels between larger forms Christian activism in society and the Christian willingness of the apostles to move out of the confines of Israel, and to strike out into the larger world, seeking to remedy injustice in nonviolent ways that were cohesive with Christian principles and the needs of the people. (Norrell, 1985)
In 1951, King earned a doctoral degree in systematic theology in 1955 in Boston University, a practical and action-oriented way of approaching Biblical texts. His Boston University education also stressed the need to reach people, rather than reflect in contemplation and isolation, something he gently but caustically reproached his fellow ministers for doing in his infamous "Letter." But not only throughout his education, King was exposed to influences that related Christian theology to the struggles of oppressed peoples -- at Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University, he studied the teachings on nonviolent protest of Indian leader Gandhi. (Norrell, 1985)
King was so moved by what he read of Gandhi that in 1959 King visited India and worked out more clearly his understanding of Gandhi's principle of nonviolent persuasion, called satyagraha. During his 1959 visit King is said to have resolved to use satyagraha as his main instrument of social protest. Gandhi wrote according to the principles of satyagraha that all life arose from a unity of being of all peoples -- Black or Indian, King evidently resolved, there was no difference, when different peoples were oppressed, or Hindu or Christian. Gandhi wrote that there was no division between spiritual and practical activity, an idea that became central to King, as King wrote that Christian leaders must strive to heal the sick and feed the poor like Jesus, and live actively to remedy injustice, rather than to rhetorically preach and teach in a Christian way. Gandhi also believed if no individual or group could claim absolute knowledge of the truth, no one should use violence to compel others to act against their different but also sincere understanding of it but use moral righteousness as the most vigorous expressions one's precepts. (Parekh, 1989, p.156)
Interestingly enough, many think that according to his own ecumenical principles, Gandhi himself is likely to have drawn upon much of later Christian thought, such as Jesus' resolution to turn the other cheek on the Sermon on the Mount and the writings of Leo Tolstoy. It is certain that Gandhi read Tolstoy's book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, where the Russian novelist, theologian, and Christian author used the Bible to make a powerful argument against violence as a form of resisting oppression, no matter how overwhelming. (Parekh, 1989, p.156)
In King's final speech, King invoked not simply the words of Christians, but spoke of desiring to see all of human history, from the Greeks, to India, to finally settle upon watching the evolution of his namesake Martin Luther, and then moving on to settle where he had, leading his own African-American people to liberation. He delivered his final speech, not in purely spiritual context, but as a powerful cry in support of the striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968.
There, King said that somehow, all preachers must find it in themselves say with Jesus, that the "spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor," not simply to tend to the needs of the world later on. King knew that even the supposedly greatest previously living Americans, one of whom he called a "vacillating president" by the name of Abraham Lincoln who finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, were not the be all and the end all of American philosophy, but also that Christian philosophy that was preached on Sundays was not the only ways in which minds could be changed -- minds were changed through manifest, demonstrated actions that were coherent with the Sermon on the Mount's advocacy to turn the other cheek as a manifestation of one's moral righteousness.
In his earlier "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" April 16, 1963, where he addressed those whom he called "my dear fellow clergymen," religious "men of genuine goodwill," he stated in no uncertain terms that a man who strove to do good, as he did in his life, must Birmingham beyond his own states' borders because injustice was there, just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns" and "just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world." In other words, charity may begin at home, but it cannot end at home, just as the movement of social activists and Christians cannot be relegated to a single sphere of American life, in the pulpit.
"I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid," he wrote to his fellow clergy. King's explanation of the choice of the date of the Birmingham nonviolent boycott and demonstration shows his balance of the practical and the holy. He explains how he taught African-American activists, drawn from ordinary secular as well as sacred spheres of life, along with other members of the Southern Leadership Council. So they would not react with hatred and violence in their hearts and resist the onslaught of Southern police all were…[continue]
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