Martin Luther King, Jr.’s impact on the civil rights movement was nothing short of monumental. To say anything less may be considered sacrilege in the history of the United States. King’s liberal and Christian upbringing, comfortable and educated childhood, and his theological education all played a large part in his contributions to civil rights in America.
Perhaps one of his most sustained acts was his ability to represent the plight of African American rights while simultaneously portraying a palatable character to White America. In addition to leading various civil disobedience campaigns, he served as the movement’s main “strategist, theorist, and symbol maker” while also becoming the “movement’s chief interpreter to white Americans.” Stewart Burns actually goes so far as to suggest King, early on, realized his destiny was to be both a black Moses, delivering his brothers from the injustice of Jim Crow, as well as a Christ-like figure, offering equal measures of love, compassion, and forgiveness. This of course caused him to be disliked and criticized amongst some of the more nationalist and militant black leaders of the time, but inversely, allowed many Americans to sympathize with the movement’s main goals.
Perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence showing King’s ideology is found in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in April of 1963. In it, King writes a response to other black civil rights leaders. He responds to the consensus that his current activities may be “unwise and untimely.” King rebukes this sentiment, outlining many important tenets of his belief structure, including the connection between all human beings, his non-violent civil disobedience strategies, his extremist love, and most importantly, his criteria for choosing which laws are just and which are unjust. King wrote, “One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” In just these few short sentences, the overall impetus of King’s belief structure is outlined. Obviously, whole books have been and continually are written about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theological belief structure, so much so that this small overview can hardly do it justice. With that said, it is my firm belief King’s theological understanding, and his love for a “radical” Jesus, are the foundational tenets and perhaps his most enduring contribution to the civil rights struggle.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influence on the civil rights movement, and his personal beliefs, were in fact flexible. From 1955 to 1968, King experienced a variety of shifts in his public actions. This, of course, seems understandable and quite natural. As with anyone’s beliefs on a subject, they are constantly being challenged, reinforced, and reinvented. MLK was not expectation. What originally started out as legal challenges to Jim Crow laws, during the beginning of King’s involvement, eventually evolved to...