Biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Before the I Have a Dream Speech

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On April 14, 1954, Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the position of pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As we know now, that decision would set off a chain of events that would lead King to become the spokesperson of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), and ultimately a leader of the civil rights movement. Today, Dexter Avenue Church’s basement holds a mural (Figure 1) “depicting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ascension into heaven, …, in the painting he is surrounded by his forebears and teachers, including Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, [and] W. E. B. Du Bois.” In the course of taking Professor Clayborne Carson’s class “American Prophet: The Inner Life and Global Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” I was surprised that images of these and similar black forebears were seldom evoked in King’s speeches and sermons. Instead, King spent much of his time grounding his ideology in American intellectual traditions and the broader Western civilization tradition. This tendency was a byproduct of King’s upbringing, of his education, and of his desire to appeal to white moderates.

King’s Background

Michael (later Martin) Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia to parents Michael (later Martin) Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams. King was raised in a loving, financially stable household with a deep connection to Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s grandfather, A.D. Williams, and father “Daddy King” both served as pastor of Ebenezer. From an early age, Martin Luther King Jr. was witness to how Christianity could be used as a tool for making the world a better place. The church was a catalyst for literacy and education, and produced black leaders. It enabled A.D. Williams to fight for black public schools and King Sr. to work towards desegregating Atlanta’s city hall. The bible itself is filled with messages of justice and providing for the less fortunate which had a lasting impact on King. In a 1950 essay titled An Autobiography of Religious Development King wrote, “it is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences.” Therefore, it is not surprising that King came to be one of history’s strongest advocates of nonviolence. As phrased in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Statement of Purpose, “nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love., …, Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to Himself and man to man.”

It has been interesting to think about King’s upbringing in contrast to Malcolm X’s early life experiences. Malcolm’s father passed away when he was six years old, leaving his mother to struggle to provide for Malcolm and his siblings. Eventually, in the words of Professor Carson, “Malcolm's mother [was] institutionalized in an insane asylum and [Malcolm] became a ward of the court, to be raised by white guardians in various reform schools and foster homes.” King once stated that Malcolm, “was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro’s blighted existence in this nation. He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair that inevitably derives from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of our race.” This common juxtaposition between their economic conditions and ideologies invites further investigation, especially in comparison to King’s wife Coretta Scott King. While Coretta’s beliefs and ideologies aligned very closely to King’s, she was raised in a poor community in Southern Alabama. Unlike King, she attended college with the help of a scholarship, worked her way through school, and was completely self supporting. This is in contrast to Martin Luther King Jr. whose father provided him with an apartment, car, and living allowance while he was studying leading some of his peers to lightheartedly refer to him as a “prince.” This illustrates that in addition to economic factors, the rural-urban and south-north divide was an equally strong line of demarcation between the ideologies represented in the movement. For example, both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael spent a significant portion of their lives and were heavily influenced by the urban North and came to have ideologies more closely aligned.

Another area of interest is how King and others viewed and spoke about the United States. During a 1965 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church titled The American Dream King said, “And so for those days we traveled all over Jamaica. And over and over again I was impressed by one thing. Here you have people from many national backgrounds: Chinese, Indians, so-called Negroes, and you can just go down the line, Europeans, European and people from many, many nations. Do you know they all live there and they have a motto in Jamaica, 'Out of many people, one people.' And they say, 'Here in Jamaica we are not Chinese, (Make it plain) we are not Japanese, we are not Indians, we are not Negroes, we are not Englishmen, we are not Canadians. But we are all one big family of Jamaicans.' One day, here in America, I hope that we will see this and we will become one big family of Americans. Not white Americans, not black Americans, not Jewish or Gentile Americans, not Irish or Italian Americans, not Mexican Americans, not Puerto Rican Americans, but just Americans. One big family of Americans.” This message is in stark contrast to the words of Stokely Carmichael at a speech given at the University of California, Berkeley in 1966. Carmichael said, “I do not want to be a part of the American pie! The American pie means raping South Africa, beating Vietnam, beating South America, raping the Philippines, raping every country you’ve been in. I don’t want any of your blood money! I don’t want it, don’t want to be part of that system.” While King was critical of the United States, he remained invested in its tradition and rhetoric.

In The American Dream sermon King later goes on to say that, “The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth. It doesn’t mean that every musician is equal to a Beethoven or Handel, a Verdi or a Mozart. It doesn’t mean that every physicist is equal to an Einstein. It does not mean that every literary figure in history is equal to Aeschylus and Euripides, Shakespeare and Chaucer. (Make it plain) It does not mean that every philosopher is equal to Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Hegel.” In my research I found that it was not uncommon for people in the movement to invoke the names of history’s “great philosophers.” In his 1966 speech “Black Power” Stokely Carmichael said, “The philosophers Camus and Sartre raise the question whether or not a man can condemn himself. The black existentialist philosopher who is pragmatic, Frantz Fanon, answered the question. He said that man could not.” But as seen in this example Carmichael used this as an opportunity to incorporate into the conversation a black existentialist and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon. Later in the same speech he says, “I don’t think that we should follow what many people say that we should fight to be leaders of tomorrow. Frederick Douglass said that the youth should fight to be leaders today. And God knows we need to be leaders today, ’cause the men who run this country are sick, (applause) are sick (applause).” Similarly, James Farmer a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and organizer of the Freedom Rides wrote in his book Lay Bare the Heart, “despite the NAACP and the Urban League; despite Fred Douglass; despite DuBois and James Weldon Johnson; despite Charles Hueston, Thurgood Marshall, Bill Hastie, and a whole battery of superb lawyers; despite the bombardment of the nation’s ears by writers who can stride into the human heart and orators who put Demosthenes to shame. Despite it all, segregation persists.”


Martin Luther King Jr. enrolled in Morehouse College at the age of 15. Both King’s grandfather, A.D. Williams, and his father were alumni of Morehouse College. After graduating, King wanted to experience a more liberal environment and receive an advanced education in the North. He wanted to preach a gospel based not only on emotion but on intelligent, and look at the Bible critically. In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. King reflected, “not until 1948, when I entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, did I begin a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil. I turned to a serious study of the social and ethical theories of the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke.” King also speaks about reading the works of Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Marx, Henry David Thoreau, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. All of these writers/ thinkers mentioned are white.

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King grew up in the church but struggled in his preaching courses, he was criticised for being too intellectual. The remnant of this is illustrated during a sermon titled 'Can A Christian Be a Communist?' delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church. King said to his congregation, “now, this will not be the traditional sermon with a text, and you may feel when it’s over that it’s more of an academic lecture than a moving sermon.” He goes on to say, “You remember the words of Shakespeare’s Othello. As he stood there before the villain Iago, cried out, “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’twas mine, ’tis his, has been the slave of thousands. But he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which might enrich him but makes me poor indeed.” This is in direct contrast to how Malcolm X began his speech “Message to the Grass Roots,' delivered at a Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference in Detroit. He began by saying, “We want to have just an off-the-cuff chat between you and me, us. We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.”

King’s approach was quite different, which is probably most clear in King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” During this address delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis he was speaking to the black sanitation workers who were on strike. He said: “And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, 'Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?' I would take my mental flight by Egypt (Yeah), and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. (All right). I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon [Applause], and I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there. (Oh yeah) I would go on even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire (Yes), and I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. (Keep on).

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there. (Yeah) I would even go by the way that the man for whom I'm named had his habitat, and I would watch Martin Luther as he tacks his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there. (All right) But I wouldn't stop there. (Yeah) [Applause] I would come on up even to 1863 and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there. (Yeah) [Applause] I would even come up to the early thirties and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation, and come with an eloquent cry that 'we have nothing to fear but fear itself.' But I wouldn't stop there. (All right) King is known for being able to take the “ordinary” struggles of man and put them in the global context, in the context of the civil rights movement as a whole. And this was certainly an important way to mobilize people and bring them into the movement. It was especially effective in mobilizing young people. However, it could also be argued that these topics (Plato, Aristotle and the Renaissance) are not the most accessible and relatable for less educated working class people.

King’s Appeal to White Moderates

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which he gave at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, is the cornerstone of King’s popular media legacy and MLK holiday celebrations. People highlight King’s messages of love, nonviolence, and unity. The speech’s patriotic themes appealed to a wide audience including white moderates.

In his speech King said: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men (My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.,…, this will be the day when all of God’s children (Yes, Yeah) will be able to sing with new meaning: “My country ‘tis of thee (Yeah, Yes), sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. (Oh yes) Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride (Yeah), from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

It is extremely interesting to put these words in conversation with Malcolm X’s words at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference in Detroit that same year. Malcolm X said, “you are ex-slaves. You didn't come here on the 'Mayflower.' You came here on a slave ship. In chains, like a horse, or a cow, or a chicken. And you were brought here by the people who came here on the 'Mayflower,' you were brought here by the so-called Pilgrims, or Founding Fathers. There were the ones who brought you here.”

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert F Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indiana. He was advised to cancel his appearance but decided to instead gave an unprepared statement addressing King’s assasination to a mostly black audience. Bobby Kennedy said, “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black, considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.” On one hand this speech could be seen as a touching statement by a man who lost a brother to assassination, in line with King’s beliefs. But this speech is also the first example of the way King’s legacy has been used by white american politics for its own agenda. As we learned in class, white politicians and leaders came to Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral who would not have taken a photo with him the night before the assassination.


Martin Luther King Jr. is the best known black leader to emerge from the “civil rights movement.” He is known in popular culture as a gifted orator and a prolific writer. In reading many of King’s speeches and sermons it becomes clear that King often grounded his ideology in American intellectual traditions and the broader Western civilization tradition. By putting these pieces in conversation with the works of men like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael I concluded that this was due to King’s upbringing, education, and desire to appeal to white moderates. This is important to acknowledge because it foreshadows what Cornel West has called the “Santa Clausification” of Martin Luther King Jr.

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