Martin Luther King Jr. was an African American Baptist preacher and a prophet for racial equality. He was born just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. His father was a minister and his mother was a schoolteacher. His parents believed that education would increase his knowledge and broaden his worldview, and that religion would shape his character, ethics, and faith in God. While religion and education helped Martin to see goodness in all people, he could not escape the impact that Atlanta's segregated bus system, harassment by white policemen, and inattentiveness by white store clerks would have on Southern black consciousness and identity. While Martin could have responded with anger to such situations, his religious upbringing taught him to believe in the power of brotherly love to redeem a world that might otherwise destroy itself. Thus, Martin's adult years were spent trying to end racial conflict and segregation. Martin Luther King's life is celebrated in the United States every year on his birthday, a day in which people remember and honor the positive changes he brought to individual lives, the country, and to the world. His life is a model of healthy religious and spiritual development; it is a life upon which many others model their own religious and spiritual development. From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was the most important leader of a nonviolent black freedom struggle that challenged racism and segregation in American society and paved the wave for equality for all people. During the 12 years that King was involved with the civil rights movement, blacks made more progress than in any other period in American history, overcoming the damaging psychological effects of generations of oppression, and acquiring a sense of unity and dignity.
King's method for effecting such change in America was known as nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance called upon its participants to return love for evil and to display a nonviolent response in the face of indescribable violence. His philosophy of nonviolent resistance was a synthesis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and Mohandas Gandhi. Jesus' teachings from the Sermon on the Mount provided King with the motivating ideal of love, and Gandhi provided King with the method of mass nonviolent direct action. The type of love advocated by Jesus was expressed by the Greek word agape, meaning an unconditional goodwill toward all people. Agape seeks "to preserve and create community."
This type of love was at the center of King's spirituality. Love of God had to be accompanied by love of humankind. Because the end cannot justify the means, hatred and violence were not acceptable. For King, nonviolent love was the discipline of the spiritual life. From reading books on the life of Gandhi, King was impressed by the Indian leader's nonviolent tactics of boycotts, strikes, marches, and mass civil disobedience. Gandhi taught that nonviolence was an active form of resistance that confronted evil forcefully with love rather than violence and hatred. This philosophy helped to shape the character of the civil rights movement. For King, confronting injustice through nonviolent tactics was a way of putting feet to the prayers of the downtrodden. More specifically, he believed that a proper spirituality was one that combined the inner piety of prayer with the outer piety of social action.
As a result of such spirituality, civil rights marches and boycotts took on a spiritual dynamic. They were righteous demonstrations and acts of faith. Those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. were hoping to build an integrated worldwide community where all God's children were welcome. Unfortunately, King's dream of an inclusive community was never achieved; he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. But his legacy includes a spirituality of unconditional love that was committed to confronting evil with nonviolence rather than hate. As a model of activism, King helped to shape the identity of the black church in the latter years of the 20th century. The faith of African Americans is not confined to the churches. Their faith has provided a prophetic voice that challenges injustice in the marketplace, political arena, and religious sector.