Although his birthday has already passed, today is the day that we, as a nation, reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all that he stood for. Prior to his untimely death in 1968, Dr. King’s leadership during the Civil Rights Movement established the foundation for generations of every race, religion, and gender to become leaders of the free world today.
However, even Dr. King had figures throughout history that he drew from when he took the reigns and heralded the Civil Rights Movement. The actions of pioneers of the past effected Dr. King in different aspects of his social and political activism, culminating in the man that successfully fought for a dream of equality in America. These are the people that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through their actions towards peace and equality.
Although President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King fought for equality during entirely different eras, they both fought for a common goal: progression towards a nation with equal civil rights. Signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln had made the first step in the arduous journey toward equality. Of course, the fight for national equality was a long way away, but this drastic change in the fabric of America helped inspire King to fight for the rights of citizens in the ‘50s and ‘60s in order to create a more equal nation.
The message that Mahatma Gandhi brought to Dr. King greatly impacted the way he led the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King, having been raised in a household that associated Christianity directly with nonviolence, still had reservations about how effective non-violence would be in the fight for equality, especially with African Americans being severely outnumbered in the nation. It wasn’t until he heard a lecture about the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 that he believed in the possibility of achieving racial equality through peaceful means. Dr. King expressed the effect that Gandhi’s actions had on him: “It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking,” he stated in the memoir Stride Toward Freedom.
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau wasn’t known for his outspoken comments or passionate speeches like Dr. King, but one thing they did have in common was their stance against injustice. As a poet and philosopher, Thoreau wrote about the power of taking on a non-violent method of fighting injustices in society, as opposed to carelessly following laws, in his landmark essay, “Civil Disobedience.” King, having read the essay while in college, drew from Thoreau’s ideas when writing the well-known “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Of the great minds that influenced Dr. King, Leo Tolstoy may have held ideals that were the most contrary to Dr. King’s. The Russian author, known as one of the greatest authors of all time for his novels that addressed politics, war, and religion, wrote the distinguished War and Peace, which Dr. King examined at the 34th Annual Convention of the National Bar Association in 1959. During his speech, Dr. King examined the following excerpt, in which Tolstoy stated, “I cannot conceive of a man being free unless he is dead.” Although King didn’t agree with the sentiment literally, he agreed with the idea that an absence of freedom was the same as the presence of death. So the unjust treatment of minorities during the Civil Rights Movement would, in effect, kill a part of them spiritually, according to Dr. King.
Civil Rights Activist, Minister / 1929 - 1968
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist, who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968.
Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer, U.S. President, U.S. Representative / 1809 - 1865
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. He preserved the Union during the U.S. Civil War and brought about the emancipation of slaves.