Dr. King and the Foundation of a Black Intellectual-Activist

This post is part of our forum on Black Intellectuals and the Crisis of Democracy.

Dr. Martin Luther King during a press conference, 15 August 1964 (Hugo van Gelderen, Anefo / Wikimedia Commons

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a shining example of a Black intellectual- activist. Born on January 15, 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, King witnessed both racial injustices and economic hardships. Twenty-six years later, the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott thrusted King onto the national scene. He would found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led several civil rights campaigns, win a Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership and activism in the Civil Rights Movement, and give numerous speeches and sermons, as well as write articles and books. As a Black intellectual-activist, he sought to improve American society through (1) a moral critique of racism, materialism, and militarism; (2) nonviolent direction-action which dramatized injustice and immorality; and (3) pursuing racial, economic, and political justice. Underappreciated aspects of King’s life include the experiences in his youth directing his deep commitment for racial and social justice as well as the development of his intellect and moral compass. The foundation of his moral pursuit of justice is rooted in his family life; experiences with racism in the Jim Crow South; and his curricular and extra-curricular activities.

King comes from a long line of preachers, including his grandfather and father, who were pastors of Ebenezer  Baptist Church, which the King family attended. King felt that his home life was stable and full of love. King’s parents provided a loving family environment where their children’s needs were always met. Nurtured to carry himself with dignity and self-respect, King was instilled with a moral compass that would later guide his thoughts and actions as a Black intellectual-activist. He asserts, “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 present.” King describes his mother, Alberta Williams King, as “soft-spoken and easygoing” and yet “never complacently adjusted herself to the system of segregation.” He recalls his mother taught him to feel a sense of “somebodiness” despite the realities of racism and the system of Jim Crow that would threaten his humanity and dignity. She told him, “that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior.” Mrs. King, despite and in spite of Jim Crow, sought to instill self-love, self-worth, and self-respect in her children. Essentially, the race problem in America was a sickness that had inflicted white people, and as a result, Mrs. King wanted to vaccinate her children with a sense of love, dignity, worth, and value.

King describes his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., as a “very physical presence” who was strong and self-confident. The son of a sharecropper, King, Sr., is described as “a man of real integrity, deeply committed to moral and ethical principles.” King, Sr. modeled strength and confidence for his children. For example, King recalls a trip to a shoe store with his father where they sat in empty seats in the front of the store. The white clerk politely asked them to move to the seats in the back where he would assist them. After a brief exchange, King, Sr. and his son left the store without purchasing shoes refusing to accept Jim Crow. King also remembers his father being pulled over by a white policeman who addressed his father as “boy” to which King, Sr. retorted, “Let me make it clear to you that you aren’t talking to a boy. If you persist in referring to me as a boy, I will be forced to act as if I don’t hear a word you are saying.” King, Sr. demonstrated how to live by a moral compass while remaining steadfast and strong in his convictions.

King was also influenced by his direct experiences with racism. A couple of examples here will suffice.  One of King’s childhood friends was a white boy whose father owned a store across the street from King’s home. From about the age of three to six, they played often. This stopped when the boys became school-age, attended separate schools, and the white boy’s father told his son that he could no longer play with King. Hurt and confused, King discussed the situation with his parents. They shared with him the realities of racism, Jim Crow, and  racial injustice. King recalls, “I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older this feeling continued to grow.” King’s early experiences with racism led him to hate white people.

His parents reminded him of his Christian duty to love all, but the burning question remained: “How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends.” Here, King was conflicted by his family values, Christian upbringing, and natural inclination to loathe those that hate Black people.

King’s disdain for Jim Crow grew as he got older. For example, in high school, he rode the school bus to a segregated Black school. Even when white students were not on the bus, Black students still had to go to the back. On a 90-mile bus trip back from an oratorical contest when he was 14 years old, King and his teacher Mrs. Bradley, had to stand the entire ride. These experiences, and more, in his young life, contributed to shaping King’s commitment to racial justice. He was developing a hatred for segregation, white supremacy, and economic exploitation, realizing that poor whites were also victimized.

Years later as a student at Morehouse College, King’s intellect and commitment to racial and social justice continued to advance as he participated in oratorical competitions, presided as president of the Sociology Club, became a member of the debate team, student council, glee club, minister’s union, the Morehouse chapter of the NAACP, and played on the Butler Street YMCA basketball team. During the summer after his sophomore year, King wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution in response to racial injustices and murder in Georgia, concluding that Black people wanted their basic rights respected and shared in equal opportunities as American citizens. He would later publish “The Purpose of Education,” in the Maroon Tigerstating, “Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only the power of concentration but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Here, King reveals a growing commitment to social change in his early published writings. King also served on the Intercollegiate Council, which was an interracial student group in Atlanta. They met monthly to discuss various social issues with students from other campuses. Here, King would dialogue with white people, overcome his anti-white feelings, and find value in interracial cooperation to address racial, economic, and political matters.

While a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, King learned about pacifism, nonviolent direct action, and the social gospel. In one of his papers, King wrote,

Above all, I see the preaching ministry as a dual process. On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other, I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the social gospel.

King was articulating a need for individual and societal shifts while developing a profound talent for clearly articulating his thoughts and ideas to the masses. Later, while earning his doctorate at Boston University, King helped organize and participated in the Dialectical Society, where a dozen Black theological students met monthly, discussed philosophical and theological ideas, and how to use them to liberate Black people from the shackles of racial injustice in the United States. In so doing, King was grounding himself intellectually through rigorous study and dialogue about critical issues as well as theories and approaches to address them. His life experiences, moral compass, and intellectual development were at the heart of his intellectual-activism.

Volumes of work have been written on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is important to remember, however, that King’s parents and family, as well as being a witness to and victim of racial injustice in his youth, shaped his commitment to racial and social justice. In addition, his curricular and extra-curricular activities sharpened his intellect. King’s moral assessment of local, national, and international injustices, along with a willingness to speak against injustice, including the struggle for racial and social justice, is a testament to his legacy. And yet, the foundation for his approximately thirteen-year public Black intellectual-activist life is squarely rooted in his youth.

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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

Keith Claybrook, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at CSU, Long Beach, where he teaches classes on history and the social sciences. Claybrook serves on CSU, Long Beach’s Presidents Commission on Equity and Change Commission, and served two terms as VP of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. His research interests include the history of Black Los Angeles, the Black Freedom Movement, the Black Student Movement, 21st Century Black student activism, 21st Century Pan Africanism, Reparations, and Hip Hop. He is the author of Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Beyond the Spectacle: The Intellectual Work of the Black Power Era in Los Angeles, 1965-1975.

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