Chapter 11. The Martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr., by Sunny, P.

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 11. The Martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr., by Sunny, P.


"The Blood of the Martyr will be seed of the tabernacle of freedom"

-- M.L. King Jr.

The United States became a world power after the second world war. The Americans condemned racism abroad but practiced segregation at home. In the U.S.A. the Black community was neglected completely by the Whites even from civil rights. In such a strange situation there was born a man with a dream, a dream which had shaken the whole world. A man with the conviction to put an end to such dehumanizing factors. M.L.King Jr. had even paid his own life and blood for this cause, the cause of the people.

The primary concern here is to share his Christian faith and its socio-political dimensional roots. The question is to find out whether those means and methods are rightly used to bring about social change in our context today. In short, the aim of this write-up is to highlight the significance of his martyrdom today for the Christendom.


The Blacks in the United States constitute a sizeable minority, numbering approximately 22 million. It is nearly 95 percent of the non-White population. This is the 11 percent of the total population in America. (T. Edmund, Martin Luther King and the Black Americans Protest Movement in the USA [Delhi: New Heights, 1975], p. vii.) The Blacks have been on the soil of America for a very long time, yet they are fighting for their legitimate place in the American society even today. After the second world war, this struggle got accelerated.

During this period Asia, Africa and other suppressed regions of the world were moving forward. The American society itself was passing through a technological revolution there and life expectations were rising rapidly. The American democratic capitalism had never granted equal civil rights to the Blacks. Blacks were considered as slaves and inferior to the White community. Whites based their reasoning on an old Testament legend stating that Noah had placed a curse on the black people of Ham condemning them forever. The Blacks were in mental as well as in physical slavery because they were even denied the chance of education.

Most of the good jobs were held by White citizens while the Blacks worked as domestic servants and farm hands. Even among the Churches, there was no mutual aid, even the Blacks themselves were scattered without a common voice. The White people called the Blacks -- as ‘Niggers’ ‘black cows’ ‘black apes’ etc. Discrimination in each and every area of life in the society was expressed, bus seats were reserved for the Whites, Blacks had to stand, only minor jobs were allowed to Blacks, separate churches for Blacks etc. A long history of injustice, discrimination, domination etc, were spiritualized and structuralized. In such a social situation a man came on the scene and it was none other than Martin Luther King Jr.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. Family, Education, Marriage, Profession, Dream etc.

King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in a modest home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia. Auburn Avenue was a famous street in Atlanta where middle and upper middle class Blacks lived. (Robert Morril Bartlett, The Sixth Race Bombay, D.R. Bhagi for Blackie & Son [India Ltd. 1969], pp. 175-77.) His father Martin Luther King Sr. came to Georgia and became a preacher and married the daughter of the founder of the Ebenezer Baptist church which is in Atlanta and became its pastor. He was active in the National Association for the Advancement of colored people (NAACP) and was a leading figure in the international council of Atlanta which played a significant part in keeping peace between the races. (T. Edmund, op.cit., p. 46.)

The King family lived a simple life and they were free from want. The children were given sufficient money for their expenses. All the children in the Kings family were healthy, happy and well behaved. Time was set apart for serious study, prayer and play during the day. Their father being a pastor carefully brought up his children in a religious atmosphere. From childhood King Jr. was physically strong, fun-loving and he loved games.

King Jr. began early education at an Elementary school in the nearby Auburn Avenue and then was transferred to Atlanta University’s private laboratory school. Then he entered Morehouse College, an excellent Blacks institution in Atlanta for his higher studies. While working hard at theology, he found time to attend lectures on philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and to specialize on the life and work of Gandhi. (M.J. Sargunam, A Galaxy of Heroes (Palaniandavar Printers, Coimbatore, 1991), p.76.) He graduated from Morehouse with distinction and gained a scholarship to an integrated theological college in the North. This was Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania.

His distinction at Crozer led to the award of a two year scholarship for further study at the college of his choice. Martin was in favor of Boston University to begin his studies for doctorate in philosophy. (Kenneth Slask, Martin Luther King (London: SCM Press, 1970). p.27.)

Boston was to give him more than the opportunity of advanced study under outstanding teachers. Here he met the girl who was to become his wife. She was doing her studies in music in Boston, her name Coretta Scott. She came from a Black rural poor background. Her father, Obediah Scott struggled for a decent livelihood and his children demanded education. Coretta remembers joining her brother and sister in hoeing the crops on their bit of land when she was six or seven. (Ibid., p. 28) That land gave food for themselves and for their animals. The young Coretta lived very close to economic realities.

Her father’s hard work and innate gifts in industry made him a rich man. He gradually achieved ownership of a truck, then he achieved a new mill etc. But his White enemies burned it down in suspicious circumstance. But this cruel act remained unpunished. (Ibid., p. 29) Coretta Scott had already studied at Antioch college and came to Boston for further studies. This college opened its doors to Black students for the first time in 1943, and Coretta Scott’s sister Edytta was the first Black to enter it.

On June 18th 1963, Martin Luther King Sr. officiated at the marriage of his son to Coretta Scott on the lawn of her parent’s home. The bridegroom was twenty four and the bride twenty six years old. Only 16 years of marriage lay ahead of the young pair.

After their marriage, they stayed at Boston. After the completion of his studies King Jr. reached Montgomery with family and started his priestly office. He very much liked South because of two reasons: he was born and brought up in the South and also the extreme severity of racialism existed in Southern parts. He thought his service would be a healing to his own people. In January 1954 on the invitation of Dexter Congregation he preached a very powerful sermon titled ‘the three dimensions of a complete life’. In September 1954, he settled his family in Montgomery and officially took up his pastorate.(T. Edmund, op.cit., p.71.) His sermon adumbrated both social and religious message. He showed that the minister must also be a leader of social progress.

Dream: Luther King Jr. had a dream for the future and that dream had a historical background. Hundreds of years after the Emancipation proclamation, still Blacks were not free. The life of the Blacks was still sadly crippled by the menaces of segregation and the chains of discrimination. The Blacks lived on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Blacks were considered only in the corners of American Society and found themselves exiles in their own land. In this background King addressed his colleagues: "So I say to you, my friends. that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. it is a dream deeply rooted in American 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". (Nissim Ezekiel (ed),A Martin Luther King Reader," [Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1969], p. 107.)

He continued to speak about his dream on all occasions. "One day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

"One day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. (Ibid.)

"This is our hope, with this faith we will be able to tear out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to work together, pray together to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day." (Ibid., p. 158.)


How did Martin Luther King Jr. develop his political and theological perspective? He kept his dream inside his heart even from childhood. When he started his studies, he was inspired by philosophers and scholars. In his own words: "During my student days at Morehouse I read Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience for the first time. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was deeply moved that I re-read the work several times. This was my intellectual contact with the theory of non-violent resistance" (Ibid., p. 3)

M.L.King Jr. further continued to develop his perspective by putting all his interest in the study of philosophy and theology. "I spent a great deal of time reading the works of the great social philosophers. I came early into contact with Walter Rauschenbaush’s, Christianity and the social crisis. (Ibid. p. 4.) This book gave him the theological basis for his social concern.

Then he turned into a serious study of the social and ethical theories of -the great philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Bobber, Bentham, Mill and Locke: all of these masters stimulated his thinking much more sharply. Gradually Luther King Jr. felt an interest to study Karl Marx, to find out as to how communism appealed to many people. He says: " for the first time, I carefully scrutinized Das Capital and the Communist Manifesto.. .such communist writings, I drew certain conclusions that have remained with me as convictions to this day." (Ibid., p. 4.)

Further M.L.King Jr. says that war could never be a positive or absolute good. It could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread of evil force. Then, very interestingly, his interest went into the study of Gandhi. He went to hear a sermon from Mordesi Johnson, President of Howard University, who spoke about the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He was highly impressed by Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent resistance. "I was particularly moved by the salt march to tie Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha profoundly became significant to me." (Ibid., p. 8)

It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and non-violence that he discovered the method for social reform that he had been seeking for so many months.

The next stage of his intellectual pilgrimage to non-violence came during his doctoral studies in philosophy, and theology at Boston University under Bigar S.Brightman and L.Harold Dewolf, "both men greatly stimulated my thinking". (Ibid., p. 11.) In 1954 he ended his formal training with all of these intellectual forces converging into a social philosophy. The conviction that non-violent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to the oppressed people in their quest for social justice came to him.


In the mid-fifties American Blacks started to support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This association was dissatisfied because of the neglect of the authority over the Blacks. In such a background King Jr. propagated the doctrine of non-violent direct action to achieve the social, economic and political institutionalization of freedom for the Americans Blacks.

Meanwhile Mrs. Roas Parks was arrested from a bus for her refusal to stand to a White man who entered the bus. She was arrested on charge of violating the city’s segregation ordinances. This opportunity was used by M. L. King Jr. With the support of NAACP and also some members of the women’s political council (Blacks), he adopted the bus boycott. This was a success and M. L. King Jr. become famous soon.

Then he formed Blacks protest movement for civil rights. M.L.King Jr. thereafterwards was asked to co-ordinate all churches and Christians in the South to make a community spirit and thus he gave form to Southern Christian leadership Conference in 1957. (Kenneth L. Smith, Search for the Beloved Community. The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr [Valley Forge, Judson Press, 1974] p.120.)

The ultimate aim of the formation of all movements were to create a beloved community in America, an integrated society wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in every aspect of social life. He viewed the civil rights movement as a microcosm of the beloved community. His books chaos or community and why can t we wait, speak about his conviction of a beloved community.

His Action Strategy:

M.L.King Jr. and his colleagues protested with the weapons of bus boycott, Dharna, Processions etc. and used them as main strategy to fight against racial discrimination. 5th December 1955 was an important date in the annals of the history of the Blacks protest movement in the U.S.A. On that day. the Blacks of Montgomery began their boycott of the city buses. This was to register their protest against the segregation in the buses. This bus boycott continued till 20th December, 1956. He had arranged well and several committees were formed to conduct the prolonged boycott, a finance committee was constituted to look after the finance. Representatives of all sections of Black community were included in the Executive Board. A car pool of nearly 300 automobiles were created and at various places in the city ‘dispatch’ and ‘pick up’ stations were set up to transport people to and from the place of their work. (Edmund, op.cit. p. 81.) This bus boycott shook the whole world, press brought out the attention of the whole world. Here many Blacks were arrested including King Jr. Then mass arrests took place in Montgomery. At last, the Federal Government ordered bus integration based on mutual respect. From December 21, 1956 onwards Blacks and Whites of Montgomery traveled together in buses. (Ibid. p. 106, 107)

Thus the Blacks in Montgomery found in non-violent direct action, a militant method which avoided violence and electrified the whole nation. This experience at Montgomery made King Jr. to write his book Stride Towards Freedom.

Secondly, King began to feel that immediate and most important issue confronting the Blacks was to secure the right to vote and he started planning action. He conferred with other Black leaders and it was planned to call for a ‘prayer’ pilgrimage of freedom to be held in Washington on 17th may, 1957. In this pilgrimage 37000 marchers met at Lincoln Memorial in Washington. There he delivered his first of inspiring political speeches to a national audience.

The Third in M.L.King Jr’s strategy in between 1957 and 1960 was that he tried to present a new posture. "After his political oriented plea made on the pilgrimage, he endeavored to organize a ‘crusade for citizenship.’ Thus his experience in the pilgrimage proved "a turning point in his life". (Ibid. p. 122.) King’s fame rose up as an excellent pulpit orator.

Then in the following year 1958 King Jr and delegates of Black people had negotiation with the President in the White House conference hall. King Jr. demanded a clear national policy against racial discrimination.

On 3rd September 1958, King Jr. was arrested, later he was released but underwent prison life which led him to a deeper commitment. After his complete recovery of health, he accepted the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawarlal Nehru. During his visit in India he emphasized the influence of Gandhi on him.

In the year 1959, Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Black Muslim Movement and the self-styled spiritual head of Muslims in the west, opposed King’s directions and philosophy. They began to plead for the establishment of a Black state. (Ibid. p. 135.) This was the first new voice of separation and militancy that emerged.

King Jr. on February 1, 1960, started a student "sit in" in Greensboro North Carolina, when Joseph Moveill, a Frenchman at the agricultural college of North Carolina, was refused service at the bus terminal lunch counter. As the sit-ins, freedom rides, and other demonstrations moved across the South, the White resistance stiffened. People from Albany called King Jr. to join with them for a social protest. But Albany protest for integration was a failure.

Thus M.L.King Jr. gave out his plan for a Blacks revolution. "In the summer of 1963, a need and time circumstances and the mood of the people came together". (M.L. King Jr., Why can’t we wait (New York, Harper and Row Publishers, 1964). p. 15, 16.) In order to understand the seriousness of economic and political deprivation, "we are going to make Birmingham the center of anti-discrimination activity in the nation. object of breaking racial barriers in Birmingham". (Edmund, op.cit. p. 158.) At the beginning small groups organized ‘sit ins’ at lunch counters in department and drug stores.

Thus on 7th April 1963, started street demonstrations and as a second phase of it, 12th April 1963 on the Good-Friday, they were arrested. In the prison, King drafted a nine thousand word letter from Birmingham jail. This letter expressed very much his concern towards Blacks.

The next move was a March on Washington. On 28th August, 1963, 2 lakh citizens marched to Washington to highlight their grievances. M.L.King Jr stressed their richness of freedom and security of Justice to all the people in U.S.A.

Similar kind of March and protest have been continued in different parts of USA by the Blacks power. King was one of those rare politicians who opposed the involvement of America in the Vietnam war and vehemently criticized American interest to kill people.

The influence of King Jr was not limited to America alone. He was called by African leaders to speak there. In 1964, he visited East Germany; in Rome, Pope gave him a private audience to speak. He was invited to preach in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And on the way, he arrived at Oslo to receive the Noble Prize in 1964.

In his last days King Jr. received personal threats. He went to Memphis and addressed a gathering of his supporters on April 3, 1968. He said, ‘I see 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 premised land. I am happy tonight that I am not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." (Edmund, op.cit. p. 158.)

On the 4th April, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a sniper in Memphis, Tennessee, as he stood below the balcony with friends. Before reaching the hospital... the end had come! He died at the age of 39.

Significance of M.L.King’s Martyrdom : Martyrs are generally those who undergo violent death in witness to a religious truth. I would like to evaluate the original significance of martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. in the light of Jesus’s Martyrdom.

First of all, the death that Jesus endured was the consequence of the struggle he waged against those who wielded religious and political power. He died, because he fought. His death must not be seen in isolation from his life. So someone who dies while fighting actively for justice and righteousness of a community or for a group of people has to be considered a real martyr today Those who lay down their lives for those values of the kingdom such as truth, justice, love of God and love to the poor can be considered as martyrs. M.L.King Jr. belongs to such a tradition.

The task of building the Black minority into an unified entity to struggle unitedly under a single leader was virtually a super human task. His faith in the total integration of Black minorities in the American society was so strong that he always opposed the idea of people going back to Africa.

The Martyrdom of M.L.King Jr challenges Indian Christianity today. The Black community in the U.S. can be considered as equal to the Indian Dalit community. How long would upper castes exploit and prevent justice to the dalits? In India we need to have two kinds of liberation struggles : first, to liberate. dalits from upper castes domination; second, to mobilize the minority strength to fight against injustice, oppression and discrimination by the majority. His life inspires me to stand firm for the betterment of the other and see God and God’s love in the struggles of the poor for true humanity.



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Edmund, T; Martin Luther King and the Black Americans Protest Movement in the USA, Delhi, New Heights, 1975.

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King Jr. M.L.; Why cant we wait? New York, Harper & Row Publishers, 1964.

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