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

Dr. King in Birmingham Jail

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

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. My American History Professor once told the class, while talking about Dr. Martin Luther King, that in his later days after Selma, Dr. King had transitioned from being a civil rights activist to being a human rights activist. Now, at that time I couldn’t understand the difference but reading this article it dawned on me that it meant that he was standing up and fighting for justice and democracy not just for black people but all people. And I am sure that made him unpopular in those days. Had he been an activist right now in 2019, he would have been dragged by the media and had his name tarnished by the President himself.
    Although America has come a long way from the days of racial segregation in the 1960s, we are facing another form of segregation- one that appears to be invisible to those who don’t seek it out. And it has caused division amongst the people and is unknowingly excluding people of color from various opportunities. I think we are in dire need of Dr. King’s ideologies now more than ever.

  2. In the world we live in today not everyone agrees on the same things. With that being said, in order to make a change and do things to make a difference, it comes with making enemies along the way. I believe that’s what MLK had to go through because he fought for what is right and to make a difference and there were many people who didn’t agree or like what he was doing. I also think that many people didn’t give him the credit he deserves until he was dead which happens a lot nowadays with artists or people that make a contribution to our society. They end up passing away and then everyone comes out saying they miss them and how much they did for us but didn’t have the same energy when they were alive.

  3. I wanted to touch on two interesting topics in this post. The first is the idea that Dr. King was not highly praised until after he was murdered. I find that this happens often, both with celebrities and less influential people. Recently Nipsey Hussle was murdered. Before his untimely death, though he was an activist for his community, there was little support for his art or his actions in his community. After he was murdered, celebrities came out publicly to declare their support for Hussle and his actions in his community. Here I am not trying to create a comparison between the acts of Dr. King and Nipsey Hussle, but rather note how common it is for people to be unsupportive of activists until something unfortunate happens.
    Another thing I wanted to discuss here was your question of whether the civil rights movement has progressed since Dr. King was murdered. Though it felt, for a while, that our society was moving in a progressive manner, with the election of our current president that progression seems to have become blurred. Those with hateful ideologies and hateful intentions have become more prominent in today’s culture, and it leads one to wonder if their current prevalence will result in a regressive civil rights movement.

  4. 6. Martin’s Ideas: A More In-Depth Look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
    Author: David Childs
    Response: When reading the other responses of my peers on this blog, I saw a comment that really stood out to me saying that if Dr. King was still alive today, that he would be very upset with this country. I would have to agree to and also disagree. In the matter of racism, I do believe that our country has not made the steps that it has should’ve been brought up a long time ago. I believe racism is still very present in this country and it should have been abolished many years ago. But also, I think if he was still alive he would be amazed in how far this country has come, in the eyes of technology and government.

  5. MLK not always having a non-violence stance came as a bit of a shock to me since that is what he is known for, and in many ways, maybe why his Civil Rights movement was so successful. Sometimes what you don’t do speaks louder than what you do do. Him and all his supporters did demonstrations for civil rights using non-violence which is why I think he was so successful. To hear that he did not always have non violent ideas is understandable, but I think the most important thing to come away with this is that he realized that non-violence would be more effective in having his mission be supported. Also I don’t blame him for having his body guards armed because, obviously because he was assassinated, he was right to be concerned for his safety.

  6. Hey Madison. Great response. Often when we stand up for what is right we have to go through struggle and persecution. Everyone does not always agree with the truth. I really like your comparison and analysis of the two men. Although, we have made some great strides in our society we still have a long way to go in terms of racial equality.

  7. Currently, I’m enrolled in a History course where I am meant to study US history through 1877. The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’m slowly starting to realize in order to change things, you’ll have to make some enemies. This statement seems relatively logical. However, up until this point, I had assumed the opposite.
    Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality. In my head, this is the right thing to do. Segregation is wrong. This should have been obvious for the majority of people. So, I had assumed when MLK took a stand for what was right (obviously he’d have those that disagreed), most people would stand behind him.
    I’m seeing this theme start back when the thirteen colonies were being established. In 1636, a man named Roger Williams fled to Rhode Island because he disagreed with the way things were being ran. He offered freedom to everyone despite their religious beliefs. Because of this, Rhode Island was considered a “sewer” filled with all of God’s trash.
    The similarities between the men don’t stop there. Despite King being arrested, and Williams being exiled, both kept fighting. King wrote his letter to those that criticized him from a jail cell, while Williams continued to fight for a charter for his people. Both men fought for equality- Williams for religious and King for racial- and refused to back down.
    I think both men would be happy with what they saw today. I’m sure there are still many aspects of the world they would demand we do better in, but we’ve come a long way since they fought for what they believed in.

  8. I picked this article because MLKJ and I share a birthday and I love learning about him. This article made me realize how much Martin Luther King Jr. was a normal person. I think when we discuss MLKJ we treat him as if he wasn’t human. He did a lot for the black community when he was a live. MLKJ was a man of words not weapons. I love how this article implemented “I have a Dream” speech in everyday life. I try to treat everyone equal with no harsh judgement. It’s hard to do when you are human but I make the best of it. I give everyone at least one chance. MLKJ gave his kids everything he didn’t have and made it better. I know because of ignorance we still have a divide. It’s getting better, but not nearly as undivided as it should be. The only way to change that is if we all walk a mile in the other shoes.

  9. I learned a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from this article. In school, we only focused on his I have a dream speech and his marches. I think it is very important for teachers to discuss Dr. King in more detail than just his one speech. It is important for students to know that he was a real person and understand that his ideas were radical at the time and many people disagreed with him. It is also important for students to understand that there are many themes within his famous I have a dream speech and it is much more than just the famous couple of lines that are always discussed. I believe that it would also be very beneficial to students to read his letter from Birmingham jail because there are many ideas from this letter that are still relevant today.

  10. It was shocking to me to read about how Dr. King didn’t always use nonviolence. The way we see him today and the pedestal we have him on makes him seem perfect. It’s interesting to learn about the “not-so-perfect” parts of him as well. As I read this article, I thought of March Book One. Although the book was not mostly about MLK, it did tie into his teachings and thinkings. I enjoyed learning more about a figure in history that is so widely known, but I do not know much about other than the “I Have a Dream” speech.

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