King, Martin Luther (1929–1968)

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Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He attended Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophical theology. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

King first gained international attention when, after completing his doctoral studies and becoming pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he led the fight to desegregate public transportation in Montgomery. His strategy was nonviolent passive resistance. The faith that underlay that strategy was that white Americans could be persuaded by black suffering and moral argument to agree on the injustice of laws requiring the segregation of the races. The essentials of that faith are eloquently summarized in his frequently reprinted "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," and in his arguably most famous speech, "I Have a Dream." In that letter and speech King stressed his vision of the "beloved community," his vision of the "color-blind society," his conviction that injustice could be cured if exposed to the light of human conscience, and his conviction that every person has a duty to love one's enemies, and to avoid violence.

However, even in these works, King was not as optimistic or as completely reliant on white conscience as many have apparently thought him to be. For example, as his essay on civil disobedience reveals, his strategy of civil disobedience was designed not only to appeal to white conscience, but also to bring economic pressure on merchants. It is therefore a mistake to identify his theory with that of John Rawls, although Rawls himself stated that the two theories are similar.

King's more pessimistic or at least realistic views emerged more clearly in later speeches. Probably he was influenced by nationalists like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture.) Certainly he admitted that he had started seeing his dream turning into a "nightmare," and that most Americans were "unconscious racists." Like Frederick Douglass before him, King concluded that moral suasion alone would not succeed in moving the white political establishment to implement the needed reforms, and that black people and their allies should therefore seek political power, though unlike Douglass he never advocated violence. In King's mature philosophy this new turn coincided with a greater emphasis on the poverty of many black Americans, and the relation of their plight to America's behavior in the international arena. King believed that the injustice of that behavior was being then revealed dramatically by the war in Vietnam and his criticisms of that war, together with his evidently growing sympathies for socialism lost him many allies. King's last speech, "I See the Promised Land," seems to contain premonitions of his assassination on the next day.

Unfortunately, as scholars of King's philosophy have noted, conservatives of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have skillfully misused King's vision of a future color-blind society, especially his longing for a nation in which his four little children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," to oppose color-conscious means like affirmative action for achieving such a nation.

See also Civil Disobedience; Justice; Pacifism; Racism; Rawls, John; Rights; Violence.


works by martin luther king

Stride toward Freedom. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.

Strength to Love. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Why We Can't Wait. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

The Trumpet of Conscience. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

A Testament of Hope, edited by James Melvin Washington. New York: Harper and Row, 1986. An anthology of sermons and essays.

works about martin luther king

Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. New York: Orbis, 1982.

Cone, James H. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare. New York: Orbis Books 1991.

Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Touchstone Books, 2000.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Random House, 1986.

Lewis, David L. King: A Critical Biography. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1970.

Lincoln, C. Eric, ed. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.

Moses, Greg. Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. Foreword by Leonard Harris. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Bernard Boxill (2005)