by Claire Howlett
Martin Luther King, Jr. is famous for his civil rights activism, his iconic oratory, and his philosophy of freedom and equality. King’s ideas were deeply influenced by his personal ancestry and his roots in the folk Christian church. As he furthered his education, King adopted several other leaders as ancestral figures, modeling aspects of his philosophy after their beliefs and works. His adoption of religious ancestors like Moses and St. Paul and political predecessors like Thomas Jefferson led him to develop his own comprehensive view of what makes man and society free. The result was a unique synthesis of black Christianity and Western philosophy, a set of political views rooted in principles like brotherhood and faith. An analysis of three of King’s most famous speeches, “I Have a Dream,” “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” reveals the central components of King’s philosophy and the influence of these thinkers on his ideas.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia to Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King’s father and grandfather, with whom he lived at an early age, were both Baptist ministers (Miller, 30). As a child in a strict Christian household, King was exposed to religious doctrine and the folk preaching tradition on which the black Southern Baptist church was built. Folk preaching is a particular style of Baptist oratory that evolved from slave religion. Ebenezer Church, the parish where King, Sr. was a minister, was a close-knit congregation typical of black Baptist communities in the early 20th century. King, Sr. began his preaching career in a rural church at age 15. Like many Baptist ministers during that time, King, Sr. had little formal education and described himself as “mostly illiterate.” He memorized and delivered variations of the speeches of older preachers before he obtained a formal education and started writing his own sermons (Miller, 34-35). In this way, King, Sr.’s preaching style was heavily influenced by his folk preaching ancestors in the church. King, Jr. was raised on these sermons and they inspired his values and his rhetoric.
In fact, some of the most recognizable aspects of King’s style were lifted from this folk preaching tradition. In the 1800s, when slave congregations were largely illiterate, religious knowledge could only be preserved orally. Repetition in sermons helped the congregation to remember the message and allowed members to participate in services through dialogue with the minister (Miller, 26). In his speeches, King often used this device to emphasize his message and engage his audience. In “I Have a Dream,” King employs the title phrase as a rallying cry for protesters; in “Mountaintop” he repeats “if I had sneezed” to explain why he is grateful to be living in the age of civil rights protests; and in “Selma” he repeats “let us march” when expressing the reasons for their rally. This strategy allows the audience to participate in his speech, anticipating his lines and shouting out statements of affirmation during pauses. King’s use of repetition, inspired by his folk preaching ancestry, contributes to the memorable and enduring nature of his speeches. The clip below, from “I Have a Dream,” demonstrates how King uses repetition, pauses, and other elements of folk preaching tradition to inspire his audience.
King’s upbringing in a family of Baptist ministers also influenced his sense of personal responsibility. Dating back to times of slavery, ministers played the role of civic leaders and community organizers as well as religious authorities in the black community (Miller 26). These roles persisted in King’s time, when despite legal advances there were few institutions in which blacks could hold positions of leadership. As a minister, King saw his position as one of tremendous responsibility to the black community. In “Mountaintop,” he claims that it is a minister’s job to fight injustice, saying that “God has commanded us [preachers] to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” He adopted his father’s belief in the social gospel, a Christian movement that applied biblical ethics to social problems and taught that it was the obligation of Christians to remedy societal ills, which King, Sr. preached about at Ebenezer Church (Miller, 37). In “Mountaintop,” King calls for a “relevant ministry” that provides for people’s practical needs as well as their spiritual fulfillment.
Hope was an enduring theme in black folk preaching, another custom dating back to slave congregations (Miller, 27). The church was the only avenue that provided a sense of hope to members of these communities, who suffered daily under conditions of hard labor and bondage. This theme of hope endured within the black Christian church and inspired King’s ideas, lending a sense of optimism to his beliefs that distinguished him from his contemporaries.
The hopefulness that characterized King’s speeches was also inspired by one of his adopted ancestors, St. Paul. King encountered the gospels of St. Paul critically during his graduate studies at Boston University, where he received a doctoral degree in theology. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul introduces the concept of the three theological virtues, writing that “now these three remain: faith, hope, and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13a). King drew from his ancestral roots and Paul’s writings by adopting the theological virtues into his set of beliefs. His ideas were grounded in faith in God and assurance that the civil rights movement would succeed. In “Mountaintop,” he describes the faith of protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, explaining that they possessed “a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.” He goes on to describe their “prayers, words [and] songs” moving their jailers and changing the minds of their adversaries. King believed that God supported the actions of civil rights activists and that His power could overcome all obstacles they faced, even converting their enemies to support the movement. King later mentions that he can “see God working” to help protesters’ efforts. He expresses similar ideas in “Selma,” claiming that “God keeps watch above his own” and will therefore look after the people involved in civil rights protests.
King’s faith extended beyond his faith in God. In his speeches, King expresses faith that freedom as an ideal can be attained. The entire concept of “I Have a Dream” is based on his belief that a world of complete equality will one day be actualized. In “Mountaintop” he tells protesters that with faith and self-sacrifice, the movement will have “no stopping point short of victory,” and in the final words of the speech he tells that audience that “we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” or an equal society. Moreover, King believed that faith and hope were necessary in order to achieve these ideals. He closes “I Have a Dream” with a series of statements that begin: “with this faith.” The significance of this anaphora can’t be overlooked — King is telling his followers that they need faith to achieve the goal of equality. Similarly, in “Selma”, King tells the crowd that it will not be long before the “radiant star of hope” will overcome “chains of fear and the manacles of death,” implying that this theological virtue can fully overcome oppression. Though he acknowledges that suffering is inevitable, he claims that continuing “with the faith that nonviolence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all of these conditions.” This powerful statement reveals a central tenant of King’s philosophy: faith enables change. King maintains that the civil rights movement will one day be successful and that his belief in its inevitable success has the ability to propel the movement forward.
In 1 Corinthians 13:13b, Paul writes that of the three theological virtues, “the greatest of these is love.” This emphasis on love influenced King’s belief in the brotherhood of all men and his insistence on nonviolent protest. In “Mountaintop,” he contends that his movement is not “engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody,” and in “Selma,” he offers a “call to higher ground” to his audience, urging them to stay committed to nonviolence. King’s values reflect St. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 13:5-6, which states that love “does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” King reinforces this idea later in “Selma” when he tells the assembled crowd that “our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.” The adoption of this idea distinguished King from black power activists of his era, some of whom called for revenge against white persecutors. To King, freedom entails full rights for whites and blacks, not a counterbalance to remedy past discrimination. Taking inspiration from St. Paul, King kept “no record of wrongs” past and made it clear that his goal was not revenge, but equality.
King’s belief in solidarity was inspired by Paul’s discussion of the theological virtues in conjunction with his writings on unity. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul writes:
We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
King expresses a similar belief in his speeches, emphasizing the brotherhood of white and black men and urging people of different races to treat each other with compassion. In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he tells his audience that “either we go up together or we go down together,” using the unity of man to explain why one’s freedom is tied to the freedom of others. Similarly, he closes “I Have a Dream” with an image that parallels Paul’s letter, describing “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” joining hands in solidarity. In a powerful expression of compassion in “Mountaintop,” King describes the men who threaten to murder him as “our sick white brothers,” insisting on classifying even his enemies as members of the brotherhood. He expresses a similar sentiment in “Selma” when he speaks of the coming era as the “day not of white men, not of black men, but of man as man.”
St. Paul extends the body analogy throughout 1 Corinthians 12 to express his belief in equality. He writes that “if one [body] part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). King’s belief that freedom is dependent on the freedom of others — that if one man is enslaved, no man can be free — directly correlates with St. Paul’s teaching. He conveys this in “I Have a Dream,” telling his audience that white men must realize that “their destiny is tied up with our destiny,” meaning that no white man can be completely free when the freedom of blacks is restricted.
King encountered another ancestor in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophet Moses. For King, adopting Moses as an ancestor was likely inspired by his folk preaching background. In the 1800s, black preachers began teaching about the Book of Exodus, using the Israelite’s struggle under an oppressive ruler and eventual escape to the Promised Land to inspire hope in their enslaved congregations (Miller, 17). In his years as a preacher, King became familiar with this interpretation of the Old Testament and applied it to the modern black struggle. King’s people were no longer in a state of bondage, but lived in a slave-like condition of drastic inequality. King alludes to Exodus in “I Have a Dream” where he describes the state of the nation as “sweltering with the heat of oppression” and expresses his dream that it will be “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” This biblical imagery recalls the story of the Israelites’ suffering on a 40-year trek through the desert before reaching the oasis of the Promised Land.
Rather than simply drawing from the Israelites’ experience, King’s speeches indicate that he saw himself as a successor of Moses. A man who epitomized good leadership, Moses used faith and the power of God to free his people from a condition of servitude. He was an example of righteousness for the Israelites, abiding by God’s law and resisting temptation to sin throughout a harrowing 40-year journey. Like Moses, King wanted to deliver his people from a state of bondage and insisted upon maintaining biblical virtue throughout the civil rights movement. Most significantly, King saw Moses as a model of self-sacrifice. King believed that citizens’ obligation toward freedom entails a willingness to sacrifice one’s time and energy to establish a free society. In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King tells his audience that those involved in the civil rights movement must “give ourselves to this struggle till the end” and be “willing to sacrifice” for what is right. He goes beyond the abstract concept of self-sacrifice in telling the audience that “if it means leaving work [or] school” to attend protests, then they should still “be there.” Later in the speech, he retells the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, highlighting the man’s courage and willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of others. The Samaritan exhibited “dangerous unselfishness,” as King puts it, risking his own safety in order to help a stranger. Here, King reinforces his call for self-sacrifice, holding up a person who endangered himself for the good of another as an example for civil rights protesters.
After leading the Israelites in their escape from slavery and 40-year journey through the desert, Moses famously dies within sight of the Promised Land. The Book of Deuteronomy describes Moses climbing to the top of Mount Nebo on the day of his death. “There the Lord showed him the whole land […] then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob […] I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said” (Deuteronomy 34:1-5). King’s statements near the end of “Mountaintop” liken him to Moses. He alludes to Moses’ death and offers the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice, telling his audience that he is “not concerned” about whether he dies young; rather, he “just wants to do God’s will.” He says that “[God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Here, King draws a clear parallel between himself and his ancestor, and by saying outright that he is willing to die for the good of the civil rights movement, King expresses his belief in the honor of self-sacrifice. The closing of this speech is especially powerful in context, as King was assassinated the day after it was delivered because of his activism. With his death, King, like Moses, became a model of self-sacrifice and leadership for the civil rights movement. The clip below, from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” contains King’s famous lines about self-sacrifice and his powerful promise of his people’s deliverance.
King’s in-depth exposure to Western philosophy began in his undergraduate years at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he received a degree in sociology. It was there that he most likely encountered the writings of Thomas Jefferson, which influenced his views on democracy and equality. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson writes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” King’s belief in equality as a self-evident truth became the foundation for his ideas on freedom; to King, freedom requires equality. He makes this clear in “I Have a Dream” when he states that the black man “still is not free” and references the “manacles” and “chains” placed on blacks in his era. Though slavery had been abolished nearly 100 years before King delivered “I Have a Dream,” he believed that racial inequality kept blacks in a condition of “captivity.” To King, freedom did not end with equality under the law. He believed that freedom entails equal treatment in practice, arguing in “Selma” that equality “recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children” in addition to providing legal rights like voting and property ownership.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson famously expresses that all men are entitled to the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This right to pursue happiness inspired the concept of the American Dream, a national ideal of the United States based on social mobility and the potential to achieve success through hard work. King’s definition of freedom incorporates the American Dream, encompassing equal opportunity for all people in addition to legal equality. In “Selma,” he describes the purpose of the march as “a march to the realization of the American Dream” and mentions segregated housing, black ghettos, economic depression, segregated schools, unequal education, poverty, hunger, and unemployment as targets to eliminate. King’s definition of equality even extends to economic opportunity. Since inequality limits chances for the poor to achieve social mobility, King argues implicitly that it restricts the freedom of all men. In “Selma,” he describes African-Americans as being stranded on a “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” For King, the pursuit of happiness encompasses freedom of opportunity, giving no economic, educational, or social advantages based on race.
King adopted Jefferson’s view that an oppressed people has the right, and even the duty, to rebel to secure their freedom. Jefferson outlines this view in Notes on Religion, where he states that “the oppressed should rebel, and they will continue to rebel and raise disturbance until their civil rights are fully restored to them and all partial distinctions, exclusions and incapacitations are removed.” This quote could not be more applicable to King’s philosophy. Like Jefferson, King believed in the right to protest and told his followers to never concede until their rights were secured. He often compared the civil rights movement to other revolutions in American history like the Civil War and American Revolution, indicating the influence that these historical events had on his ideas. For instance, in “Selma” he tells marchers that their protest is an “honorable and inspiring […] moment in American history,” and in “I Have a Dream” he tells protesters that they are part of the “greatest demonstration in American history.” These sweeping claims of historical importance boost the morale of protesters, but also indicate that King considered the civil rights movement to be the next great revolution in American democracy.
Jefferson was a staunch believer in self-government and the power of the vote. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s main grievance with King George is his refusal to allow the American colonists representation in British legislature. He claims that “the right of representation in the legislature [is] a right inestimable to [the people] and formidable to tyrants only.” In Answers to Soules Questions, he describes the right to representation as a necessity, writing that “no Englishman will pretend that a right to participate in government can be derived from any other source than a personal right, or a right of property.” King adopted these ideas, claiming that black representation in local and national government would bring justice to this disenfranchised population. In “Selma,” he equates the right to vote with power, telling the audience that the Civil Rights Act executed without the right to vote gave blacks “dignity without strength.” In the middle of the speech, he uses the phrase “let us march on ballot boxes” as a rallying cry, emphasizing the power that the vote could give blacks. He expresses faith in representative democracy, urging his audience to “send to city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress, men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk justly with thy God.” King believed that given the right elected representatives, the government would have the power to institute change for the good of the people. As Jefferson suggested, King saw that the vote allowed citizens to exercise authority and effectively self-govern.
In an 1819 letter to I. Tiffany, Jefferson writes: “Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” This quote encapsulates King’s philosophy on freedom. Like Jefferson, King believed that the liberty man should practice in society is based on equality: no man should take an action, even in the name of freedom, that restricts the rights of other men. The civil rights movement was necessary because societal conditions of inequality restricted the freedoms of blacks and therefore were wrongful. In his letter, Jefferson clarifies his definition of liberty, writing that “I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.” This, too, is applicable to King’s America. Technically, much of the discrimination that occurred during the civil rights era fell within the limits of the law, but Jefferson and King would argue that the legality of this discrimination did not make it just. The men who created unequal laws were in effect acting as tyrants, passing measures that benefited themselves and their constituents but violated the rights of some individuals. By Jefferson’s definition such actions, despite their legality, are not exercised under rightful liberty. This concept certainly resonated with King and he used it to justify his protest against discriminatory conditions.
In “What is Freedom?” Hannah Arendt defines a miracle as an act that disrupts the natural processes of life. In the political sphere, miracles are the highly improbable occurrences that introduce change, events that lead to a society’s demise or its salvation. She writes:
The chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming… The decisive difference between the ‘infinite improbabilities’ on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the ‘miracles.’ It is men who perform them — men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
All of King’s ancestors were authors of miracles. They rebelled against traditional ideas, took chances, disrupted natural political processes, and led revolutions. Moses freed an entire race, incited a political upheaval and founded a new nation. Jefferson did the same, leading an unprecedented rebellion to start a country from scratch. St. Paul represented revolutionary ideas as well, rejecting ancient customs that called for retaliation and exclusivity in favor of a moral code based on love and respect. Following the example of these ancestors, King too became a performer of miracles. He had faith in the “infinite improbability” that tomorrow would be better than yesterday and believed that freedom and action could establish a new reality of his own fashioning. It was this faith that made King a true agent of change and inspired a generation to take action in the name of freedom.
Arendt, Hannah. “What is Freedom?” Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 1968. 142-169. Print.
Declaration of Independence. 1776.
Holy Bible, New International Version. Colorado Springs: Biblica, Inc., 2011.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on Religion. 1776. Papers 1:548.
Jefferson, Thomas. Answers to Soules Questions. 1786. ME 17:133.
Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Isaac H. Tiffany. 4 April 1819.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., 28 Aug. 1963. Address.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Memphis, Tennessee, 3 April 1968. Address.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.” Montgomery, Alabama, 25 March 1965. Address.
Miller, Keith. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources. New York: Macmillan, 1992. Print.