Martin Luther King Jr. owed much to an earlier generation of black religious thinkers.
“African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930–55” by Dennis C. Dickerson, in Church History (June 2005), Dept. of Religion, Florida State Univ., Dodd Hall M-05, Tallahassee, Fla. 32306–1520.
When Martin Luther King Jr. articulated the dream he had for “all God’s children” and led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Though they were invisible to most observers at the time, an earlier generation of black religious thinkers had shown King and his cohorts the way.
King defined segregation as a sin and an evil inimical to God’s plan for mankind, asserted the worth of all human beings, even segregationists, and embraced nonviolence as the best path to victory. In all this, says Dickerson, a historian at Vanderbilt University, he was echoing ideas developed during the 1930s and 1940s by thinkers such as Mordecai W. Johnson, president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Benjamin E. Mays, dean of Howard’s divinity school and later president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. Those two decades, following on the heels of the African-American cultural renaissance of the 1920s, were a time of intellectual ferment among black religious intellectuals. As a student at Morehouse during the 1940s, King fell under the influence of Mays and religion professor George D. Kelsey, and he wove their ideas into his thought and his rhetoric. Mays became a lifelong adviser to King.
Many black religious thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s traveled abroad for ecumenical conferences and made pilgrimages to India to learn from Mahatma Gandhi about Satyagraha (“soul force”) and its application through direct nonviolent action. As early as 1930, Johnson had urged African Americans to take up Gandhi’s approach; he later said, after visiting Gandhi in 1936, that “nonviolence is not passive resistance but rather is an active force,” and that “it must be practiced in absolute love and without hate.” When Howard Thurman, a professor at Howard and a Baptist minister, met Gandhi that same year, the Mahatma asked why African Americans espoused Christianity rather than Islam. Thurman gave his fullest answer to that question in Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), in which he explained that as a poor Jew within the oppressive Roman Empire, Jesus was on the side of the downtrodden.
Pre-King black religious thinkers were also influenced by labor leader A. Philip Randolph, a secular socialist who sought to organize Pullman car porters in the 1920s and 1930s. Randolph “challenged black churches and clergy to pursue social change and find the moral means to achieve it.” His success in organizing demonstrators for a threatened march on Washington in 1940 prompted the government to outlaw employment discrimination in defense plants. Randolph regarded the mobilization of black church communities as vital to the struggle against Jim Crow, and his technique of grassroots mobilization meshed well with the Gandhian nonviolence favored by Thurman and other black religious intellectuals. By World War II, the black church was becoming “a militantly critical and confrontational force against Jim Crow,” and the struggle against evil abroad strengthened the resolve to fight segregation at home. After the war, the groundwork was in place for the crusade that changed America.