Martin’s Ideas: A More In-Depth Look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King in Birmingham Jail

This column originally appeared in the January 24, 2019 edition of Democracy and Me. It is reprinted this week to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

With the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and work it is a good time to take a deeper look at his legacy. The celebrations of Martin Luther King usually consist of an emphasis on his most popular speeches, his marches and also his death. Although, popular tributes to King are of the utmost importance, they fail to take an in-depth analysis of his more complex and sophisticated ideas. When one delves deep into the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, one discovers that he talked a lot about many democratic principles such as justice, freedom, equality, fairness and creating what he called the “beloved community.” These principles can apply to societal challenges today. This article offers resources that can help students, the general public, teachers and scholars take a more in-depth look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It provides some information and resources outside of mainstream portrayals of Dr. King that may be useful tools in addressing some of the social and political challenges in which we find ourselves today.

King Was Not Always Popular
Dr. King was vilified, harassed and eventually murdered because his ideas challenged the status quo and the established order. Ironically, many people that celebrate Dr. King in our time would not have supported him when he was living and would have considered him to be a radical. Martin was a man of great integrity, who was very kind and selfless as well. However, his unpopularity came because he courageously spoke out and pushed against the establishment. Stephen and Paul Kendrick in an April 3, 2018 Washington Post Op Ed article wrote “In our long effort to moderate King, to make him safe, we have forgotten how unpopular he had become by 1968. In his last years, King was harassed, dismissed and often saddened. These years after Selma are often dealt with in a narrative rush toward martyrdom, highlighting his weariness. But what is missed is his resilience under despair. It was when his plans faltered under duress that something essential emerged. The final period of King’s life may be exactly what we need to recall, bringing lessons from that time of turmoil to our time of disillusion.” Right up unto the day that he died, King had many critics, but after he was killed people celebrated and praised him. Perhaps this is because many people are not always willing to make sacrifices, but when the time comes for accolades there are no shortage of supporters.

Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Addresses Some of His Critics
Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail is a good source too add to the discussion about the many critics he had. Martin chose to go into the ministry after first considering being a medical doctor or lawyer. In his writings, he states that the church and his role as a minister gave him the best resources and platform to answer “an inner urge to serve humanity.” Thus, the opinions of his fellow ministers (He directs the letter to his “fellow clergymen”) was very important to him. Apparently in King’s day many of the ministers were very critical of the work he had been doing. He starts off stating “while confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities unwise and untimely.” He goes on to say that “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” As evident in this quote, one can clearly note that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not always viewed as the kindly, soft, superhero in which society views him today. As the letter also indicates, some of the disapproval came from his colleagues in the ministry. To be fair, Martin enjoyed immense popularity among many people, but he had just as many enemies as he had admirers, if not more.
Letter from Birmingham Jail

King’s Non-Violence Stance Was Not Always so Certain
One of the principles King is most noted for is his practice of nonviolent resistance. However, it is not common knowledge that he did not start out this way early in his work. But, through much of the literature he read and those who mentored him he moved in that direction. His advisers showed him an alternative to violence and how nonviolent resistance can act as a powerful tool. The goal was not to humiliate one’s opponent but to win them over as a friend. He took to the idea also because of his religious beliefs as a Christian and a Baptist minister. Two of King’s primary advisers were Christian theologian Howard Thurman and white activists Harris Wofford, from the Christian pacifist tradition. Another one of King’s key mentors was veteran African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who helped coach and train him in strategies of non-violent resistance. Both Wofford and Rustin both studied Gandhi’s teachings and exposed King to his philosophies. In King’s early activism in the 1950’s he rarely used the term “nonviolence” and knew very little about Gandhi’s work. Surprisingly, King did not always subscribe to nonviolence and early on believed in self-defense. King had even purchased firearms to protect his family from attackers in his home. Later in his activism he strongly and publicly denounced the personal use of guns, however Dr. King always had  conflicted views of self-defense. Even though he spoke out against self-defense, many of his associates carried fire arms to protect him. So perhaps he was influenced by the realities of his day and black activist who unapologetically advocated for the use of violence if necessary.
Dr. King’s Nonviolence Stance

Deeper Concepts in King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” Often Missed
In the media and at MLK events when one hears excerpts from King’s most popular speech entitled “I have a Dream”, it is heard starting from the climax toward the end of the speech that repeats “I have a dream.” We hear King begin this segment with the lines “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Even though these words are electrifying and speak of high moral ideals, people miss equally deep and powerful concepts discussed earlier in the speech. For example, in an earlier part of the speech Dr. King states: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Even though these words were spoken in 1963 it applies to our time period as if it were written for today. There has long been the popular notion that America has moved well past the injustices and racial prejudices of the Civil Rights era, however with the rise of hate groups, white supremacy and racial rhetoric in our society, it seems that the nation has regressed and given way again to racial divisions on a wide scale. Indeed, the line “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” can be applied to today as our country becomes more and more divided along racial lines, Martin’s “I Have a Dream Speech” speech reminds us that racial injustice can act as quicksand that can impede progress in our land; it can cause us to be stuck. But King’s legacy reminds us to lift up our nation  toward a more just society.
Original “I Have Dream Transcript” in the National Archives

Discussion Questions:
• What progress has been made in terms of racial reconciliation sense Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time?
• How much progress have we really made in terms of race relations and equality since the Civil Rights era?
• Are there incidents, events or attitudes in today’s society that remind us of the times in which Dr. King lived? If so, what are they?
• Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked a good deal about race, but he also talked about economic injustice, do you think we have made much progress in terms of economic equality?
• If Martin were living today how would he feel about society? What kinds of things might he be saying?
Below are a number of lesson plans and resources for teachers and students that offer a more in-depth study of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lesson Plans
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades K-5
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades 6-8
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades 9-12
Lesson Plans & Teacher Guides

Sermons and Speech Transcripts
The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Sermon Delivered at Friendship Baptist Church
“Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
“But If Not” – A Sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool” (Sermon) Martin Luther King Jr.

Sermons/Speeches- Audiovisual Resources
Our God Is Marching On! (March 25, 1965)
MLK: Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence
Martin Luther King, Jr., American Dream
Martin Luther King – But if Not – Full Sermon
Martin Luther King’s Last Speech: “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”
Conclusion of “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” Speech
Martin Luther King, Jr., “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”
Martin Luther King “If I had Sneezed”

Other Audiovisual Resources
Mahalia Jackson singing & Martin Luther King Jr preaching at Church
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Minister & Civil Rights Activist 

The Greatest MLK Speeches You Never Heard
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed by a deranged woman. At 29, he almost died.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Is Slain in Memphis; A White Is Suspected; Johnson Urges Calm


  1. I think the sentence ” Ironically, many people that celebrate Dr. King in our time would not have supported him when he was living and would have considered him to be a radical” is so interesting. I think many people I identify with (white people), like to think that we are tolerant and that we would have never supported systematic discrimination, or to go even further back, the enslavement of black women, men, and children. You even hear so many people today say that “don’t have a racist bone in my body,” but I think that it is hard to definitively say that I, or my peers, would have actually rallied against the establishment during the civil rights movement. When you push the status quo of a society, many people get uncomfortable because it threatens their way of life. That is why Dr. King was not popular- white people felt threatened and thought that their lives would be upturned if the status quo was challenged. Even some African-Americans  believed that Dr. King and the civil rights movement were too radical because racism was so embedded into American culture. Even today, there is rampant systematic oppression of people of color that is either ignored or defended by people who “do not have a racist bone” in their body.

    I think that it would be interesting to have discussions during a unit on civil rights about the unpopularity of the movement as a whole and people we now hail as heroes. I think it could lead to a great discussion about what we may be allowing to happen in today’s society because it is so engrained in our culture.

  2. I have always been interested in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., yet I feel that I have not truly learned about his life and legacy. Reading this article opened my eyes on the true impact he had on the world around him while he was alive and after he was killed. I was unaware of how many people disliked him during his life, and then how dramatically that changed after he was killed. I was also unaware that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was not always practicing nonviolent resistance. The article mentioned that the “I Have a Dream Speech” has concepts and ideas that are still important today. The article says, “Indeed, the line “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” can be applied to today as our country becomes more and more divided along racial lines.”. This article opened my eyes to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the less talked about choices and events during his life.

  3. I was very interested in reading this article because I wanted to know more about Martin Luther King Jr. and his impact on . I remember learning about him in school, but we never got to learn about him in depth since we usually covered material on him in a couple days. What really opened my eyes is the portion of this article that talks about his “I Have A Dream” speech. This part brought up a different part of the speech that covered topics that were crucial for what he was fighting for! We never really hear about these parts of his speech, which is why I was happy to receive extended information on this which I had never knew about. I also thought it was very interesting that Dr. King supported a nonviolent approach, yet was protected by guns in order to keep him and his family safe. I completely understand why he wanted to protect his family though. I enjoyed reading this article and had my eyes opened to new information that I had never knew before about Dr. King and what he stood for.

  4. I have always been fascinated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I loved learning about what he did and why he did it. Everyone should be educated on his movement and work. This article was a good refresher on what I had previously dug into learning about Dr. King. Everyone should be educated on what Dr. King did and went through.

  5. I previously know about Dr. King through his very famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but I was not very informed of the other important parts of his life. I was not aware that many people did not stand by him and his words until after he was killed. There was one specific statement mentioned in the article after stating the death of Dr. King that really resonated with me. It said, “Many people are not always willing to make sacrifices, but when the time comes for accolades there are no shortage of supporters.” I think this statement is important and allows the reader to reflect on our society as a whole. At the time of Dr. King, people were too afraid to stand up for what they believed in because of what might happen to them and their families. Dr. King sacrificed his life for his rights as a person, which is why he is so known today. This article shows that even though Dr. King had many critics and people against him, he was determined to fight for what himself and other people like him truly deserved.

  6. Growing up I was oblivious to Dr. Kings views and the way the public saw him. I knew of Martain Luther King Day as a snow makeup day, rather than what it really stood for. This allowed me to view the morals of the day and understanding the “I Have a Dream Speech” in a way I have never before. I was also really surprised to understand that even though Dr. King stood behind a nonviolent approach, he sometimes had to resort to using some violence.

  7. I did not realize how powerful Dr. King’s speech was. I had not heard it all the way through until after reading this article. I think after reading this article I am more interested in finding out more about Dr. King’s journey and what he fought for and tracking his growth throughout his process. I also was surprised about how Dr. King was once using violent actions to using nonviolent actions.

  8. After reading this article, and listening to Dr. Kings, “I Have A Dream”, speech for probably the first time fully through, I learned quite a bit that I did not know. I had no clue that others spoke at the event as well. I am also 22 years old and did not know how long his speech was. I have always understood that his dream was rooted from the effects of racism but did not realize that he spoke of the issue in great detail. I also find it appalling that his speech is still extremely relevant today. I thoroughly enjoyed the section, “…Letter from a Birmingham Jail…”; I really admire the fact that he could have gone on to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he went into the ministry because this is where he believed he could make the most difference. He could have gone on with his life in “peace”, but he saw his life as an opportunity to invoke change. That is an incredible quality that I hope more people share.

  9. I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through out my schooling. I really enjoyed that we were taught about him and his legacy through the course of the entire year rather than only mentioning him on only a few days. Since I will be teaching social studies, I think that these articles are great resources to guide a lesson or use the ideas presented as evidence for this specific topic.

  10. The way MLK’s legacy is addressed in popular memory is such a shame, as it leaves so much of his unpopular, truly radical thinking out in favor of a very bland notion of equality and justice – one that often dismisses the hard, painful work that must be done to achieve the “positive peace” that King mentioned in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

    MLK was a man who once said “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” yet we seldom see discussed his long history of struggling for economic justice and worker empowerment. This message would resonate in an era when workers have less power than ever before (in the form of key Supreme Court rulings against them, and an overall decline in union membership,) while the wealthiest 1% hoard wealth to an extent similar to the Gilded Age. I believe this to be an active effort on the part of the powerful to avoid linking a now-beloved figure in history, Martin Luther King, with an idea as dangerous to their status quo as socialism.

    MLK would surely be disappointed if he were alive today. He would have seen some positive things in the last 50 years like a black president, more black voices in academia and the arts, and more mainstream awareness of issues like white privilege, microaggressions, and systemic oppression. He would also have seen that far too many of those instruments of systemic racial oppression (in housing, schooling, policing, and so many more areas) remain in place, while economic inequality grows larger by the year, and corrupted or outright authoritarian leaders rule throughout much of the world, in numbers unseen since King’s childhood.

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