Christian History Home > 2000 > Issue 65 > Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
No Christian played a more prominent role in the 20th century's most significant social justice movement.
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"We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all our actions." So spoke the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had just been organized to lead a bus boycott to protest segregated seating in the city buses. The president, and new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist, went on to say that blacks must not hate their white opponents. "Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice, and justice is really love in calculation."
And so began his public role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The movement produced scores of men and women who risked their lives to secure a more just and inclusive society, but the name Martin Luther King, Jr., stands out among them all. As historian Mark Noll put it, "He was beyond question the most important Christian voice in the most important social protest movement after World War II."
He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929 as Michael King, but in 1935 his father changed both of their names to Martin Luther to honor the German Protestant Reformer. The precocious Martin skipped two grades, and by age 15, had passed the entrance exam to the predominantly black Morehouse College. There King felt drawn into pastoral ministry: "My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something," he said. "On the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity."
From Morehouse he moved on to Crozer Theological Seminary (Chester, Pennsylvania) and Boston University, both predominantly white and liberal, where he studied Euro-American philosophers and theologians. King was especially taken with social gospel champion Walter Rauschenbusch, whom King said "had done a great service for the Christian church by insisting that the gospel deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body."
King also admired the nonviolent civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi: "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale." King also believed "Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, and Gandhi furnished the method."
King left Boston in 1953 with his new wife Coretta to pastor at Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. When he took the position, he said, he had not "the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable."
In December 1955, a young Montgomery woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Local pastors rallied the black community for a city-wide bus boycott, named themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association, and unanimously elected King as president.
King immediately implemented his ideas, insisting throughout the boycott on a policy of nonviolence despite the threat of white violence. Even after his home was bombed, King forbade those guarding his home from carrying guns; instead, he told his followers, "Keep moving … with the faith that what we are doing is right, and with the even greater faith that God is with us in the struggle."
Throughout the Montgomery campaign, critics complained about the ordained clergy's involvement in "earthly, temporal matters." King, however, believed "this view of religion … was too confined." He saw his civil rights activity as an extension of his ministry: "The Christian gospel is a two-way road. On the one hand, it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so the soul will have a chance after it is changed."
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