Misusing and Misunderstanding Dr. King’s Ideas? A Deeper Look at Martin’s Ideology

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech.

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

This is a revised version of an article that was originally posted on January 24, 2019 entitled Martin’s Ideas: A More In-Depth Look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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. Many of the contemporary tributes to King fail to take an in-depth analysis of his more complex and sophisticated ideas. When one delves deeper into his work, one discovers that he talked a lot about 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 of contemporary times.

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 today 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 until the day that he died, King had many critics, but after he was killed people celebrated and praised him. People are not always willing to make sacrifices, but when the time comes for accolades there are no shortage of supporters. Most Americans didn’t approve of Martin Luther King Jr. Polls show King was already unpopular and demoralized before he died. But, he pressed on anyway.

King after being struck by a rock at the August 5 protest.
Photo: Chicago Tribune

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 to draw from when discussing King’s critics. 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 thoughts and opinions of his ministry colleagues were very important to him (He directs the letter to his “fellow clergymen”). 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.

April 12, 1963, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,
right, are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business
section of Birmingham, Alabama (AP Photo). 

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 nonviolent 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 firearms to protect him. So perhaps he was influenced by the realities of his day and black activists 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 popular “I have a Dream” speech, it is heard starting from the climax toward the end of the sermon. The speech is played from the part 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 quick sands 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 racist 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 quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” can be applied to today as the US 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.

Discussion Questions:
1. What progress has been made in terms of racial reconciliation since the time of Dr. King?
2. How much progress have we really made in terms of race relations and equality since the Civil Rights era?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. 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

Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.
We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors, please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:


  1. A lot of “controversial” aspects are tiptoed around and not fully explored when it comes to school curriculum. I think segregation and Dr King are largely affected by this. I’m really glad you’ve offered a more holistic teaching of Dr. King. As a child, learning about segregation and Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time, we weren’t taught in depth about his messages or the reception of his messages. This article expanded my view of Dr King, his work, and the opposition he faced. I think it’s very important to include a holistic approach in history teachings because it can be difficult to convey the true dynamic of social issues when things are left out.

  2. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a huge inspiration to many and as some see it, a societal breakthrough. His speech held so much value and sincerity, that it touched thousands of Americans’ lives during it. Racial injustice is a huge important issue in society in the United States, and all around the world. All the important details from this speech should be something we are all educated on. Many strongly disagreed with Dr. King when his speech came out but as we further educate ourselves on the topic, the better understanding we will have.

  3. While reading the article, I was shocked to find out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stance on non-violent protest was not always non-violent. The fact that he was once adamant on self defense and even purchased firearms to protect his family, which is not shocking from a protection sense, blew my mind because I have always been taught that he was a pacifist. Also, the section on the deeper concepts in the “I Have a Dream” speech was interesting. I never heard of the early part of the speech before, but it is so powerful, and I agree that it still applies today for America has “regressed” as the article states due to the racial prejudices and racial hate today. I also like the analogy of racial injustice being like “quicksand” that causes us to be stuck.

  4. Throughout this article, we cover Dr. Kings unpopularity and where it was rooted from. We can see that the time period that Martin Luther King lived in did not treat him with the respect he deserved. His opinions were far different than the political ideas at the time, causing him to be disliked and frowned upon. Although his speeches and ideas have a completely different impact now, back then they caused him danger as many strongly disagreed.

  5. Martin Luther King Jr. to me was a huge inspiration in the fight against racial injustice. The people who did not agree with what he believed in were probably the ones who vilified him. I also think that we did a lot to help with getting rid of racial injustice. Even though I do think that there are still some racial problems in our time.

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