Chapter 12: The Martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr., by John Roberts

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

Chapter 12: The Martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr., by John Roberts


The Blacks in the United States of America constitute about 11% of the total population. Though they were on the American soil right from the beginning of their Republic, they are still fighting for their legitimate right in the American society. The Blacks responded to the moral challenge posed by the Institution of slavery in a variety of ways. These were in the form of uprisings and revolts mainly in the Southern part of U.S. For instance in 1817, 3000 Blacks met in Philadelphia at a Convention to protest at colorization. This movement was a significant early attempt on the part of the Blacks to organize themselves and petition to the legislature to redress their grievances.

Gradually, a civil war emerged in 1852 with the Blacks emphasizing on their liberation from slavery. When the war was finally won, nearly four million slaves got freedom.

After the civil war, there followed a period in the history of America known as reconstruction. The economic life of the South which was based on free slave labor had to be restored. President Lincoln helped them by issuing rations, establishing hospitals, etc. The most striking aspect of the post-war was that the US. Congress passed the fourteenth amendment in 1866, which made the former slaves, citizens, and extended to them equal protection under the law and protection against state interference with their life, liberty and property. A fifteenth amendment was also passed in 1869 which prohibited the states from denying the Blacks the right to vote. However, these two amendments were weak compared to the civil and political equality demanded by the radicals.

These amendments made the white community more furious and their exploitation became more ruthless. These were dealt with more ruthlessly and were terrorized particularly by the Klu Klux Klan and the white leaguers. Due to this violence and terrorist activities, the black’s participation in politics declined sharply particularly in the South.

During the post resurrection period, the Blacks carried on their struggle against segregation, expressing their strong resentment against the continued inequalities. They resented against segregation in the transport system, schools, theaters and other walks of life. As a result, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1900. The dominant feature of this organization was legal democratic action for the attainment of equality thus, all laws supporting segregation were declared unconstitutional.

II. It is in this socio political context that Martin Luther King Jr. was born on the 15th January 1929 at Georgia in Atlanta. He began his early education in schools that were segregated. The Blacks could not go to white schools and vice-versa. The author recalls -- "His love for big words, choice expressions, and persuasive eloquence continued throughout his adolescent period which enabled him later in life to shine as a great orator and an eloquent preacher.

After his schooling, King shifted to a leading college in Morehouse. This college has the reputation the Blacks have, just as the white have for Harvard. It was here that King had his first frank discussion on the racial issue with his colleagues, his friends, and Professors. At Morehouse, King enjoyed a sense of academic freedom. His concern for racial and economic justice was significant during his stay at Morehouse. It was here, he happened to read Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on civil disobedience. He was considerably influenced by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system. In his book Stride for Freedom, King wrote "I am so deeply moved that I re-read the book several times. This was the first intellectual contact with the theory of non-violent resistance". King went on to complete his doctoral requirement by writing his thesis on "A comparison of the conception of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman".

With increased social consciousness, King was eager to experience the life of the undervalued people. He was anxious to identify himself with the masses- to know, learn and understand from their sufferings and feelings. He noted with concern how the Blacks were paid less than the Whites -- performing the same job. He also observed that money was the root -- not only of evil but also of race.

At seventeen King finished his Junior College and took a momentous decision to join the ministry. In 1947, King was ordained. He read extensively from Karl Marx, R. Niebuhr etc. with the sole desire of eliminating social evil. It was at this time that King became fascinated by Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent ways of resistance. The whole concept of satyagraha became significantly meaningful to him. "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to live the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force in a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation, it was in this Gandhian emphasis of love and non-violence that I discovered the method for social reform I had been seeking for so many months."

The black people believed that freedom because a foretaste of that which is given in the Sermon event itself. When King spoke of dream at the 1963 ‘March on Washington,’ and when he spoke of his hope that "he will reach the promised land," the night be-fore his assassination in Memphis (April 1968), Black people believed him not because of the cogency of his logic but rather because of the spirit of empowerment generated by the style of his sermon oration. They believed him because they contended that they experienced in their hearts the spirit of God’s liberating presence.

In addition to the spoken and written style of King’s theology, parting towards freedom and hope, the same then is also found in the context of his message. The central themes of freedom and hope do define the context of King’s life and message. It is summarized in his ‘march on Washington speech’. "I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave holders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood .. with this faith we will be able to transfer the jangling discords of our nations into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."

In the Black church, King knew that the people had a hope that stretched back to beginnings of the Black Christian community in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. All he had to do was to restore that hope for freedom in the songs and language of the people, and the people would respond to the content of the message. That was why King used the language of the so called negro spirituals’ in his sermons in black churches. King’s sermons always contained the hope for freedom and he always related it to his current struggles to attain freedom in this world. But when it seemed that freedom was difficult to realize in this world, Martin King did not despair but moved its meaning to an eschatological realm as defined by the Black church’s claim that ‘The world will make a way somehow’. The night before he was assassinated (3 April 1968), King, in a Black church worship service, restated that hope with the passion and certainty so typical of the Black preacher.

"I don’t know what will happen now. We have got difficult days ahead but it is divine matter with me, because I’ve been on the mountain top. Like anyone else, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned with that. I just want to do God’s will and he has allowed me to go up the mountain."

III. King’s emphasis on the eschatological hope for freedom, as defined by "the mountain top", was not derived from White theologians and philosophers, but rather from his own religious traditions. These words of faith and hope were derived from the Black people’s struggle to overcome their pain and suffering. People who have lived in the context of nearly 400 years of slavery and suffering are not likely to express an eschatological freedom. Hope in God’s coming eschatological freedom is always derived from the suffering people who are seeking to establish freedom on earth but have failed to achieve it to their perception of their humanity. In Martin King’s failure to establish freedom in his existing present, he prevented despair from becoming the defining characteristic of his life by looking forward to God’s coming, eschatological freedom. Although he had to face the threat of death daily, King denied that it had the last word, for he said in the previously quoted sermon: "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 promised land. I am happy tonight that I am not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord". It was with this accomplishment that he courageously fell to an assassin’s bullet.


The Black’s situation can be easily analyzed in par with the age old caste system that has riddled India. Earlier, I held a view that problems of the Blacks differed with that of Indian situation, on biological grounds. But I have come to understand that the caste problem in India is not merely hierarchical in nature but also racial. The Dalits were the original inhabitants of this country but were forced to be branded as ‘outcastes’ by the Invading Aryans. However, the Dalit movement is not so intense as that of the Black Liberation movements, mainly because of the tribal oppressive, namely caste (hierarchy) creed (language) and race. Moreover, the Indian administrative system has its interest in the Western model of economic development rather than social development.

I am also critical of Martin King’s approach towards liberation namely non-violence. However, it must be understood that the very act of non-violence was "violence" in that particular time and context. Violence will make worthy approach in liberating the Dalits of our country. Martin King was inspired by the Gandhian approach of Satyagraha (the soul force).

Like the Blacks of the U.S.A. ‘Low’ caste people in India have been subjected to many of the evils of the caste system and are thus unable to progress along with the ‘high’ caste people. Unless the Indian Independence laws are passed against the caste system and the Indian constitution provides for equal opportunities to all people in India, that the depressed class movements can be further solidified and strengthened.



King, Martin Luther. Chaos or Community? Hodder and Stoughton, 1968, King, Martin Luther, Strength and Love, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1964.

King, Martin Luther, Why We Can’t Wait. Harper and Row, New York.

King, Martin Luther, An Audio Tape of March on Washington.


Alexander, M.K. Martin Luther King, A New Light Publishers, New Delhi.

Bennett, Lerone, What Manner of Man, Johnson Publishing Co., Chicago, 1964.

Cone, James, Concilium.