Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most important figures of the 20th century. As an activist and a political leader, he galvanized the civil rights movement and was one of the most instrumental African American men of the century. As a political theorist and philosopher his ideas have remained important even after his death and continue to inspire people all over the world. This paper will provide an overview of King’s life and will consider the factors that led unprecedented levels of influence of people’s consciousness. In doing so, it will claim the primary reason for King’s influence lay behind his capacity to combine political knowledge and education with an image of deep and serious personal integrity.
King was born on 15th of January, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. Initially educated in sociology and politics, he progressed to complete a doctorate in theology at Boston University. As such, before seeing understanding his entrance into politics, it is important to understand the intellectual and theological underpinning that led to it. King himself practiced as a pastor form the age of twenty five, and, as such, he learnt to combine his religious and intellectual training with the realities of public speaking and of community organisation. In a speech delivered in 1967, King himself stated that; ‘Before I was a civil rights lead I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment’ (King 1967). In the same speech he also stated that all that he was doing in civil rights he was doing because he regarded as a part of his ‘ministry, ‘and that he did not plan to run for political office, nor to be anything other than a preacher (ibid).
From this perspective it is clear that King himself considered himself to be primarily a preacher and a man of religion, rather simply someone who should be understood as a purely political figure. As the civil rights movements progressed and it became clear that King would play a key role in it, it became evident that it was precisely this capacity to combine politics with a religious integrity that would enable him to maintain and to build upon his political throughout his short life. Influence.
King became a crucial figure for the civil rights movement in America. This was a non-violent movement that had as its aim the granting of equal legal rights for African American citizens. At the time previous to the movement and to King’s direct involvement in it, then African Americans were legally treated as second class citizens. King’s direct involvement in organizing campaigns and events such as the march on Washington in which hundreds of thousands of African Americans gathered in the nation’s capital in order to demand full recognition and civil rights led to a situation in which it is generally thought that the ruling government had not choice but to grant the demands of King and his followers.
As much as for his political commitment, King became famous for his attitude towards non-violence and his insistence that it would be possible to effect political change through peaceful measures. It was arguably this insistence that has led to his continuing influence in the world politics and of political philosophy. King stands in contrast to spokes people for Africa American liberation such as Malcolm X, in this he insisted that violence would be counter-productive and that the civil rights movement should, at all times, maintain a moral high ground against the current government. Not only did this position serve to win the movement a huge amount of support from sympathetic liberal audiences who would otherwise have been put off by an overtly militaristic and violent rhetoric, but it also had the effect of ensuring that King himself is treated as a figure who is of contemporary interest as more and more people become interested in new forms of political activism, such as those expressed in and around the Occupy movement.
The emphasis on non-violence also led to King making vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as police brutality within the United States. Once again, however, King’s overtly Christian message and his capacity to project an image that demanded change but that did not pose a violent threat to the establishment. Although King was assassinated in 1969, he continued to be figure for African American struggle throughout the rest of the century. Other figures and leaders such as Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton have not had the same lasting influence, despite having attracted huge amounts of the attention while they were alive. It is, I believe, King’s reputation for reasoned thinking and for non-violence that enables his own integrity endure, and therefore for him to remain a figure of continuing interest and influence, over fifty years after his death.
In conclusion, this paper has briefly discussed the life of Martin Luther King Jr. from his early education to his involvement in the civil rights movement to his assassination. It has argued throughout that King stands as unique in the African American history of influential political figures as he is able to combine a capacity to mobilize huge amounts of people and also to maintain a strict image of intellectual and political integrity. It is this factor that explains King’s immense influence while alive, and leads to his continually cited presence and influence in global politics and political philosophy.
- King, Martin Luther. Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool: Delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago 27th August, 1967. Edited by The Martin Luther King Jr. Research Institution. Web.