In PART ONE, the individuals and events that influenced King’s childhood and adolescence were addressed.
In PART TWO, Martin Luther King’s rise to inspire and lead the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
By 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived up to his royal last name. His speeches were legendary and he had created an interracial movement for black civil rights in America.
Like the biblical Moses, King led his people through a new wilderness of social change that challenged old paradigms. It was in these moments that Martin leaned upon his influences, individuals who had walked a similar path and spoke into his life.
One of King’s influences was the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer founded Germany’s “Confessing Church”--a Protestant group that openly resisted Hitler and the Nazi regime. Ironically, Bonhoeffer’s social justice was influenced by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.—the black preacher of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, NY.
During his seminary years, Bonhoeffer lived in New York City and was exposed, for the first time, to black culture. He eventually joined, participated, served and preached at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Powell was his mentor.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany deeply moved by the black church in America, especially its ability to navigate hardship and persecution.
Other great men shaped the adult Martin Luther King, Jr.
Others who influenced Dr. King included his good friend Billy Graham. In 1948, Graham launched a national revival ministry that eventually used television to broadcast its crusades. Graham’s astute ability to hold fast to his Christian faith and yet still interact, friend and work with the skeptic and doubter, impressed King.
Martin faced opposition not just by the white but also the black (Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, Black Panthers). King later credited Graham with making his civil rights movement successful.
Another influencer was the author Henry David Thoreau (who wrote a book on civil disobedience in 1849).
Booker T. Washington’s works (and words) impacted King, likely more than anyone else.
Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and author of Up From Slavery (1901), was a broad-shouldered, six-foot tall man who walked with poise and confidence. Just his presence earned respect.
With “close cut” neat hair, eyes that “gleam with kindness” and a firm jaw displaying courage and conviction, Washington was an impressive and successful man.
I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race…I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.
Like King, it was Christianity that drove Booker T. Washington’s convictions. In a Columbus, OH address (May 24, 1900), Washington stated: “The men doing the vital things of life are those who read the Bible and are Christians and not ashamed to let the world know it.”
King appreciated Washington’s ability to navigate the secular and sacred with passion. In his book “Putting the Most Into Life” (1906), Booker penned:
My observation has taught me that the people who stand for the most in the educational and commercial world and in the uplifting of the people are in some real way connected with the religious life of the people among whom they reside. This being true we ought to make the most of our religious life…
Booker’s success was noticeable, especially to Black Americans like King.
In many ways, Booker T. Washington started the job of lifting the black “up from slavery” and now, six decades later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to finish the work. His “dream” was a reflection of Washington, as well as other great Blacks, like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
But similar to the “King of Kings” he worshipped, Martin’s story was soon to face a crucifixion.
On April 4, 1968, upon a motel balcony in Memphis, TN, the dream of a King died.
Dr. King and his entourage were finalizing preparations for their evening’s event in a room at the Lorraine Motel. At one point, Martin turned to the musician Ben Branch, who was slated to perform, and made a request: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Then Martin stepped out onto the balcony of room 306 to catch the evening sunset. It had been a nice, warm Tennessee day. The time was 6:01 p.m.
A gunshot rang out over the din of the Memphis traffic passing in front of the motel. King fell to the balcony floor. Aides rushed to his side. A lone bullet struck his right cheek, tunneled through his spinal column and buried in his shoulder. He was still alive…barely.
Sixty-four minutes later, at a local emergency room, Martin Luther King, Jr. was pronounced dead.
He was 39 years old.
But his autopsy revealed a different truth. King “had the heart of a 60 year old” man.
In the end, Martin lived and died just like another of his influencers—Mahatma Gandhi—lived and died. Gandhi was assassinated twenty years earlier (January 30, 1948) and equally famous for his nonviolence social activism.
In 1959, King toured India for five weeks and studied Gandhi’s philosophy and practices. He concluded that Gandhi’s “nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”
He also said of Gandhi:
Mahatma Gandhi was the first person in human history to lift the ethic of love of Jesus Christ, above mere interaction between individuals and make it into a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.
I have a dream, Martin preached in 1963.
A dream that all people would be judged, not by the shallowness of their skin color, but by the depth of their true character.
Martin Luther King, Jr. died before his dream was fulfilled.
Just as the biblical Moses stood outside the Promised Land, unable to enter and experience its glorious views and benefits, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood upon a similar mountaintop. All he could do is look forward and point from the other side of Jordan’s waters.
Martin left his “dream” in the hands of future generations.
Perhaps one day…ALL people…black, white, red, brown, yellow or otherwise…will no longer be judged by the color of their skin…but the content of their character.
On that day, we will all be free.
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re all free at last!