5 People That Inspired Martin Luther King Jr.
Written by Emily Horn January 15, 2021
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, we're here to celebrate him and the civil rights movement of the 60s and how he changed history as we know it today! For today's post, we wanted to bring visibility to some of the people that inspired MLK and his movement. Read on to learn more!
The People That Inspired MLK
Characterized by MLK as his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father,” Benjamin Mays was the president of Morehouse College when MLK attended. Mays would hold weekly sermons and King found them to be unforgettable, teaching him how to integrate the importance of history in his speeches. MLK would often discuss issues such as racism and integration with May. Mays gave the eulogy at MLK’s funeral, where he said “I make bold to assert that it took more courage for King to practice nonviolence than it took for his assassin to fire the fatal shot.”
Considered one of the most influential African American theologians of the 20th century, Thurman was the person that first introduced MLK (through teachings at Boston University) the concept of nonviolence and civil disobedience. The teachings of Gandhi (Thurman met him while leading a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” trip to India) stayed with him throughout his life and career and he believed that nonviolence could work in the civil rights movement, inspiring a new generation of leaders such as King. Both steeped in the black Baptist tradition, Thurman and King would discuss how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging white supremacy and segregation.
King learned about Gandhi through one of his mentors Howard Thurman and drew heavily on the Gandhian principle of nonviolence in his own civil rights activism. King once wrote, “while the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change. I came to see that operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s idea is that oppressed people could use truth or love as weapons in their struggle for justice. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life."
A close confidant and advisor to MLK and one of the most influential and effective organizers of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer of the March on Washington. Rustin, who had traveled to India for seven weeks to study the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, was one of the people that helped MLK accept pacifism as a way of life. King invited Rustin to serve as his advisor, well aware that Rustin’s background and sexuality (he was an openly gay activist) would be controversial to other civil rights leaders. Rustin and King would continue to work together for years. Barack Obama awarded Rustin (posthumous) the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Known as the Queen of Gospel, Jackson was a musical legend who helped bring gospel from church to mass audiences. A good friend to King, Jackson agreed to sing at a fundraising rally for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After that, she frequently accompanied King to perform at rallies and events and her voice became "the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.” During the 1963 March on Washington, King’s original speech didn’t include “I have a dream,” but he started improvising mid-way through and Mahalia Jackson cried out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!" leading to MLK’s famous, “I have a dream" speech.