The Formative Influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peaceand harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk."
Adam Fairclough

By Gregg Blakely | 2001-04-01 12:00:00

"As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King's main political teaching is that "Non-violent civil disobedience is the primary and necessary means of effecting social and political change." How did Dr. King arrive at this statement? Who and what were the formative influences? Were those influences restricted to Gandhi, or were there other, equally important individuals whom Dr. King looked up?

It appears that there were a myriad of thinkers, philosophers, and people whom King knew personally, who were responsible for shaping his approach.

Personal Influences

"In an age when whites viewed black neighborhoods as hellholes of vice and social disorganization, Daddy King's church stood like an anchor in a stable and respectable community. And in a dominant culture that stereotyped blacks as childish, sycophantic clowns, King's father prided himself on being the equal of any white person."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Sr., quite often referred to simply as "Daddy King," served as the first role model for young Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the principal influences in molding his personality. King's father was constantly concerned with social and political issues. He assisted in the organization of voter registration drives, participated in the NAACP, and sat on the board of Morehouse College. As pastor of the local church, he embedded strong religious ideals in his son and linked him to the church. The lectures from both King's parents on the subject of racial harmony stuck with Martin Luther and armed him against all forms of prejudice.

King soon left to begin his formal education at Morehouse College, where he became acquainted with the remarkable president of the school, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who influenced generations of black students. This propensity to shape the minds of black students was not lost on young King. In Mays's strength of purpose and religious commitment, young men like Martin found a role model. Later on, he publicly recognized Dr. Mays as an enormous influence on him in his formative years. He confirmed the religious convictions that the young man had already developed through his father's influences. King is said to have believed that without God, nonviolence lacked substance and potency.

Academic Influences

It was with a strong Christian faith in hand that Martin Luther King embarked upon his formal education. He said that Henry David Thoreau's essay, "Civil Disobedience," was his "first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolence and resistance." It was primarily Thoreau's concept of refusing to cooperate with an evil system which so intrigued Dr. King.

As Martin moved on to the seminary, he began to pass countless hours studying social philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. Next came Hegel and his contention that "truth is the whole." This fascinated King and convinced him that growth comes through struggle, an idea that would later prove very important in his life. While King deplored the substituting of materialism for religious values, he applauded Marx for exposing the injustices of capitalism, promoting class consciousness among the workers, and challenging the complacency of the Christian churches. It was in part due to his reading of Marx that King became convinced that capitalism had failed the needs of the masses and that it had outlived its usefulness. When it comes to identifying his greatest influence, however, I think King might place Walter Rauschenbush ahead of all of these philosophers, for his bookChristianity and the Social Crisis. It was this work which made King realize that a person's day-to-day socioeconomic environment was important to Christianity.

In King's later career, he came to be associated to certain thinkers by the content of his speeches and writings. For example, he used the concept "agape" (Christian brotherly love) in ways that showed the unmistakable influence of Paul Ramsey. Ramsey has coined the phrase "enemy-neighbor" (the neighbor includes the enemy) and referred to regarding him with love as the ultimate in agape, for in such cases nothing can be expected in return. King's own words closely echo this statement when he professes that, "the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution."

As well, in later years, King talks of nonviolence as a way of catching or drawing one's opponent off balance and, as a result, potentially changing his or her mind. When nonviolent resistance is practiced effectively, it can disarm one's opponent by weakening his moral defences and disturbing his conscience. In this description of nonviolent resistance, King draws on Richard Gregg's doctrine of "moral jiu-jitsu," as Gene Sharp and others will also do later.

In his final year at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania (where he obtained a bachelor's degree in divinity), King studied Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian who impressed him profoundly. Niebuhr played a vital part in stimulating the renaissance of theology in the United States. King was intrigued by the key ideas in Niebuhr's theological book, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941). He later recalled having been excited by Niebuhr's concept of man representing both a child of nature and a spirit who stood outside it. He felt that Niebuhr led him to a fuller understanding of group behavior, human motives, and the connection between power and morality. In King's own words: "Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man's social involvement and the glowing reality of collective evil."

In what is perhaps Niebuhr's most relevant statement on the subject of non-violent direct action, he professes, "Even in a just and free society, there must be forms of pressure short of violence, but more potent than the vote, to establish justice in collective relations." This is obviously a thought that King both liked and followed. It is interesting to note that Niebuhr was critical of using anything except force to combat imperialism, territorial aggression, and class exploitation. Even Gandhian nonviolence was viewed by Niebuhr as a form of coercion. At this phase of his intellectual development, King had accepted Niebuhr's argument that coercion is absolutely required to restrain evil and combat oppression, but he remained unpersuaded of the relevance of Gandhian nonviolence. Even though King recognized how greatly Black Americans were outnumbered and that it was, in effect, hopeless to attempt violence as a solution, he was skeptical of pacifism at this point. His warming toward nonviolence began on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, where in 1948, he attended a lecture by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, who discussed the teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.


"It is ironic, yet inescapably true that the greatest Christian of the modern world was a man who never embraced Christianity."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

After hearing Dr. Johnson speak about Gandhi, Martin Luther King became extremely enthused about the Mahatma's ideas. He felt compelled to expand his knowledge of Gandhi, and after reading a number of his books, began to lose his skepticism about the power of love. King himself states in Stride Toward Freedom, "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 continues, saying, "It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. ...I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

It was Gandhi's doctrine of satyagraha ("truth force") which had the most powerful influence on King. At the time, however, King was still in the seminary and lacked a clear idea about how it might be applied effectively. Still, the whole idea of satyagraha developed a special meaning to him. For King, agape was at the heart of the teachings of Jesus. After discovering Gandhi's thought, King felt he had found the key by which oppressed people could unlock social protest. Gandhism was a way to fight the oppression of black Americans - a method that was consistent with the Christian ethic of love. Martin Luther King now saw that Gandhi proposed a method by which Jesus' concept of Christian love could be set to work on the problems of those fighting to achieve freedom and justice.

In 1959, King visited India and became fully convinced that satyagrahacould be effectively applied to the struggle by blacks in the United States for racial integration. King was now thinking about love as an engine for social change. He saw the importance of the ethos of nonviolence as a cohesive force within the black struggle. The Gandhian idea of the "Beloved Community" would go on to become the central goal of King's spiritual campaign, for he now believed in nonviolence as a viable option for black Americans. The nonviolent civil rights movement was born.

As King's career and involvement in a nonviolent struggle went on, his words began to echo Gandhi's own sentiments. For example, in King's discussion of civil disobedience he says, "an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law." Similarly, King says, "In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty." These statements echo the words of the Mahatma himself, who always taught respect for the law, provided it is consistent with the truth.

King, like Gandhi, also talks about enduring suffering as a path to self-purification and spiritual growth. He had discovered through Gandhi that achieving social justice, especially when it comes to racism and discrimination, comes through suffering because it stretches below the rational and the conscious. In the words of Kenneth Smith, "Reason has to be enlightened by suffering; suffering is an aid to understanding."

King's Personal Transformation

As time passed, Martin Luther King's study of Gandhi continued and he began to adopt Gandhi's philosophy at a more personal level. He began to view Gandhi's ideas as more than just tactics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the following statement made by Dr. King:

Nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient at the moment; nonviolence is ultimately a way of life that men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim. But even granting this, the willingness to use nonviolence as a technique is a step forward. For he who goes this far is more likely to adopt nonviolence later as a way of life.

Martin Luther King's lifelong experiment with nonviolence evolved from his original intellectual realization of its possibilities as a method of social change to its eventual adoption as a personal way of life. In the words of William Watley:

This conversion was not only the result of the deeper insights he gained as he learned more and more about Gandhian nonviolence; much of that conversion process occurred through King's own experiments with the truth of nonviolence, as he lived it, applied it, refined it, and suffered through it, beginning in Montgomery.

Martin Luther King's formal education ended in 1954, by which time he had fused a diverse collection of ideas and theories into a unified, positive social philosophy. One of the main principles of this philosophy was the strong belief in nonviolent resistance as one of the most powerful weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for social justice. Walton identifies the three most important causal figures of this philosophy:

From Jesus, Thoreau, and Gandhi had come the philosophical roots for King's theory of nonviolent social change; from Christ's Sermon on the Mount, with its emphasis on humility, self-criticism, forgiveness, and the renunciation of material gain, came the initial inspiration for a nonviolent approach; Thoreau's example had taught the rightfulness of civil disobedience; and Gandhi showed that there was a method for mass non-violent resistance to the state.

A.B. Assensoh takes the summary in a different direction, saying, "In retrospect, it is possible for one to examine the overwhelming scholarly evidence of the various influences which were dominant on King's formative years, and subsequently come to the conclusion that the most significant of them all was that of parental influence." The Christian morals that King's parents passed on to him filtered into his life's work more than any other influences. Still, it is impossible to ignore the vast political and intellectual influence of India's leader upon America's own civil rights champion. Despite the important contributions of some other social and theological thinkers, such as Thoreau and Niebuhr, Gandhi's influence was by far the greatest.

Mahatma Gandhi blended together a profound religious faith with deep social involvement. He engaged himself completely in his attempt to satisfy the needs of his people, and he dedicated the full length of his adult life to serving humankind at enormous personal sacrifice. To Gandhi, religion and public service were equivalent. In his eyes, service to humanity was the path to self-actualization, and to experiencing God. In the life and writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. we find a similar blend of the religious and the social. We also find the same dedication to serving the needs of his people. This point is both inspiring and tragic. Through the devotion of their lives to religious-based social action, both Gandhi and Dr. King made the ultimate personal sacrifice. By way of an assassin's bullet, each man sacrificed his life.


Assensoh, A.B. (1987). Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and America's Quest for Racial Integration, London: Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd.

Ayres, A. (Ed.). (1993). The Wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York: Meridian.

Fairclough, A. (1990). Martin Luther King, Jr., Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Gandhi, M. (1949). For Pacifists, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Gandhi, M. (1996). Selected Political Writings. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Hanigan, J. P. (1984). Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Foundations of Nonviolence. New York: University Press of America.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1958). Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Moses, G. (1997). Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence, New York: The Guilford Press.

Smith, K.L. & Zepp, I.G. (1998). Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

Walton, H. (1971). The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Westport, Conn: Greenwood Publishing Corp.

Ward, B. & Badger, T. (Eds.). (1996). The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civ l Rights Movement, London: MacMillan Press Ltd.

Watley, W.D. (1985). Roots of Resistance: The Nonviolence Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr., Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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