Martin Luther King Jr. and the Power of His Ambitious and Influential Speeches

by Scott Bumpus

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference in 1964 / World Telegram & Sun photo by Walter Albertin. From the Library of Congress

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. His powerful, convicting prose lit a fire under all that listened. It was only a year after this speech that the Civil Rights Act was signed into effect. The “I Have a Dream” speech was not the only powerful speech that King delivered during his career as a pastor and as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, King had a profound effect on the Civil Rights Movement through his ability to deliver a multitude of captivating speeches and sermons that communicated a consistent message of love and peace in the face of hate and violence.

King’s whole life had been leading up to him becoming one of the most influential speakers of the Civil Rights Movement. King grew up in Atlanta, where his father was the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Because of his father’s pastoral role, “some of the most renowned pastors of the day stayed in his home during revivals”.[1] King took full advantage of his father’s job and all of the other pastors that came through the doors of Ebenezer by observing their actions and different styles of preaching. All throughout his childhood, King was learning the motions, language, and overall practices of preaching. The learning and observing did not stop when King left home. At the age of 15 King started college at Moorehouse University. It was at Moorehouse that King met Benjamin Mays. Mays “was an influential figure in his own right. In the 1930s and 1940s he authored pioneering works in black religion, helped lay the foundation of black theology, and was a leader in ecumenical movements that coalesced into the World Council of Churches”.[2] Mays encouraged King to keep communicating the hope that many of the African American pastors and Civil Rights speakers were putting on the forefront, but to communicate the hope in a way that was more refined and educated. After his four years at Moorehouse, King pursued more education at Crozer Theological Seminary, outside of Philadelphia, at the cost of turning down an assistant-pastoral role at Ebenezer. Unlike Moorehouse, Crozer was a predominantly white university. However, this potentially intimidating environment did not faze King. In fact it was at Crozer that King began to find his voice against segregation and the role of the Church in this fight. In one of his assignments at Crozer, King wrote that the Church must “deal with great social problems” and help its congregants to “adjust to the complexities of modern society”.[3] This vision that King had for the Church in his seminary years continued to develop as he went to get his PhD. from Boston College. Unlike many of the African American pastors of King’s day, King went through several levels of school to become the most educated and skilled preacher and speaker he could be.

All of this education and preparation eventually lead him to becoming the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 25.[4] At his very first sermon at Dexter Avenue Church, King did not shy away from the difficult issues and did not sugar coat any aspect of his sermon even though this sermon was simply a tryout. In this sermon King spoke out against any aspect of self-importance that was existent in the church. He preached that “no man should become so involved in his personal ambitions that he forgets that other people exist in the world. Indeed if my life’s work is not developed for the good of humanity, it is meaningless and Godless”.[5] This style of unapologetically socially conscious preaching can be traced all the way back to his days at Moorehouse studying under the college’s president Benjamin Mays. King wasted little time in carrying out his socially conscious agenda at Dexter. When he delivered his first sermon as their official head pastor, he called for social reform. King did not soften his preaching style even after he settled in as Dexter’s pastor. One of his congregants remembered that his preaching “always hit, and probably hit too hard”.[6] One sermon that likely hit the Dexter congregation hard is the sermon King delivered one Palm Sunday. In this sermon, King spoke on a most unexpected topic: the life and success of Mahatma Gandhi. He talked about the power of nonviolent response and the effectiveness of a nonviolent movement versus a violent protest. King stated that the Indian people were able to have a successful protest because Gandhi and the Indian people had “only decided to follow the way of love and understanding goodwill and refused to cooperate with any system of evil”.[7] For King to preach on Gandhi in a Palm Sunday sermon definitely would have ruffled some feathers. King’s congregants were most likely expecting a sermon on the power of Christ; instead they got a sermon about a nonviolent protest that was organized by a non-Christian in a country across the globe.[8] King thought that this was an appropriate sermon topic because he believed that Gandhi embodied the spirit of Jesus more than any other living person.[9] Not only did this claim startle King’s congregants, but it also showed how highly he held nonviolent and peaceful protests. By saying that Gandhi was the person that embodied the spirit of Christ, King was also saying that nonviolent protests were the most Christlike thing that a person could do. However, King did not simply challenge his congregation; he also spent a fair majority of his sermons encouraging his congregants while they were living in the midst of the struggle that was the Civil Rights Movement. In one of his sermons, “How to Believe in a Good God in the Midst of Glaring Evil”, King preached that “disbelief in a good God presents more problems than it solves. It is difficult to explain the presence of evil in the world of a good God, but it is more difficult to explain the presence of good in a world of no God”.[10] This excerpt of King’s sermon shows his ability to walk the difficult line that was faced by his congregants and the greater African American population: on the one hand, the situation seemed bleak and they were getting treated horribly, but on the other hand, they were called to show love and to hold on to the hope of God.

Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Mrs. Juanita Abernathy follow with Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King as the Abernathy children march on the front line, leading the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. [public domain]

King did not only “talk the talk” of nonviolence; he also “walked the walk”. One prominent example of this, of King and the Civil Rights movement resorting to nonviolence in the face of terrible violence, is the march from Selma to Montgomery. The Montgomery Improvement Alliance, a Civil Rights organization that King was president of, organized a march from Selma to Montgomery but they were met with tear gas and nightsticks from the police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As a result, the police placed a restraining order on the marchers so they would be unable to cross the bridge. However, when King and the marchers gathered again they marched straight toward the police barricade. Instead of trying to push forward, the entire group of marchers knelt down in front of the barricade and prayed. This demonstration of nonviolence gained national attention; the president even stepped in and demanded that the National Guard protect the marchers the next time they marched. Some might criticize that the nonviolence was a weak response and that it was the movement practically dismissing their own anger. However, King stated that “nonviolence provides a healthy way to deal with the understandable anger”.[11] By saying this, King was able to affirm the anger that he and his congregants were feeling towards their situation, but he was also able to consistently call for a nonviolent response.

Maybe one of the most profound effects that nonviolence protest has on a movement is the ability to unite a previously divided community. By consistently preaching nonviolence, King and the rest of the Civil Rights Movement preachers were able to unite the movement. For instance, if King and the Civil Rights Movement had called for a militant reaction, they would have alienated everyone that was not able to participate in a violent response. However, by calling for nonviolent protest, King was able to unite the whole African American population in Montgomery and eventually the whole south. For example, through the Montgomery bus boycott, the African American community became a more cohesive unit across socio-economic class lines. This unity was the cause of the African American community coming together in carpools, where people would ride in cars with people they would have never ridden with before, and going to more African American owned small businesses, because the African American community would not ride the buses to the white owned businesses in downtown Montgomery. The nonviolent protests that King called for in his sermons and speeches not only united the community but they captivated the nation. By acting in a nonviolent manner, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement put themselves in a position to not receive any of the blame if/when things would turn violent. Through the method of nonviolent protest the Civil Rights Movement was able to “command the moral high ground, to persuade, and to wield power effectively”.[12] King’s influential preaching of nonviolence and love allowed the Civil Rights Movement to unite and make political power plays.

King’s legacy is centered around his action and his ability to lead in the Civil Rights Movement. However, King’s true influence on the movement was his ability to preach, speak, and motivate any crowd he spoke to. From the influence of his father’s church to his ambitious preaching style at Dexter, King developed into a skilled orator, one that would use his gift to motivate and encourage the participants of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

NOTES

[1] Troy Jackson, Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 38-39.
[2] Sarah Azaransky, “Benjamin Mays’s The Negro’s God: Recovering a Theological Tradition for an American Freedom Movement,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 34, no. 2 (2014): , accessed April 30, 2018,
[3] Jackson, Becoming King, 41
[4] “Major King Events Chronology: 1929-1968” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, accessed May 02, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-resources/major-king-events-chronology-1929-1968.
[5] Jackson, Becoming King, 54
[6] IBID, 66
[7]Martin Luther King and Lewis V. Baldwin, “In a Single Garment of Destiny”: A Global Vision of Justice (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 90-91.
[8] “Religion – Hinduism: Gandhi – Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi,” BBC, August 25, 2009, , accessed May 02, 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/people/gandhi_1.shtml.
[9] King and Baldwin, “In a Single Garment of Destiny”, 84
[10] Jackson, Becoming King, 105-106
[11]Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 64.
[12]Kevin Mattson, “Make Straight the Way,” Commonweal, New York125, no. 8 (April 24, 1998): , accessed May 1, 2018, https://librarysftp.whitworth.edu:2443/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/210407150?accountid=1149.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Azaransky, Sarah. “Benjamin Mays’s The Negro’s God: Recovering a Theological Tradition for an American Freedom Movement.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics34, no. 2 (2014): 141-58. Accessed April 30, 2018. doi:10.1353/sce.2014.0052.

Jackson, Troy. Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.

Jones, Clarence B., and Joel Engel. What Would Martin Say?New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

King, Martin Luther. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

King, Martin Luther, and Lewis V. Baldwin. “In a Single Garment of Destiny”: A Global Vision of Justice. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.

Meyer, Tracy Elaine. Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

“Major King Events Chronology: 1929-1968.” Major King Events Chronology: 1929-1968 | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Accessed May 02, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-resources/major-king-events-chronology-1929-1968.

“Martin Luther King Jr.” Biography.com. January 18, 2018. Accessed April 28, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/martin-luther-king-jr-9365086.

Mattson, Kevin. “Make Straight the Way.” Commonweal, New York125, no. 8 (April 24, 1998): 22-24. Accessed May 1, 2018. https://librarysftp.whitworth.edu:2443/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/210407150?accountid=1149.

National Conference On Religion And Race. Race: Challenge To Religion. Chicago, IL: H. Regnery Company, 1963.

“Religion – Hinduism: Gandhi – Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi.” BBC. August 25, 2009. Accessed May 02, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/people/gandhi_1.shtml.

Ward, Brian, and Tony Badger. The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. London: Macmillan, 1996.