King and Rustin

Internal Ground: Dr. King’s Philosophical and Spiritual Influences

If you’re going to sustain your activism over a long period of time, amidst great challenges, it helps to have a strong philosophical and spiritual base for your actions. The fellowship of truth seekers, friends and allies who support the strengthening of your inner life, undergird the work. It was no different for Dr. King.

His faith story is a rich mixture of his early Baptist upbringing, and his theological introduction to the ideas of the Christian existentialists and Christian realists, and the Quakers. King was well on his way as an effective leader when he found the path of committed non violence as a political method. It was his friend #BayardRustin who introduced King to Gandhi-ism. In fact, Rustin and another friend, #GlennSmiley, implored King personally to take non violence seriously.

When the Montgomery bus boycott first began, nonviolence was not mentioned at the mass meetings, and many of the leaders had armed guards protecting them. Bayard Rustin, arrived during the boycott’s third month and encouraged King to make a philosophical commitment to nonviolence. When Glenn Smiley arrived shortly thereafter, he brought with him the book The Power of Nonviolence. King read it immediately and wrote to the author (Gregg) “I don’t know when I have read anything that has given the idea of non-violence a more realistic and depthful interpretation. I assure you that it will be a lasting influence in my life” (Papers 3:244-245).

King learned more about the path of non-violence from books and written works by Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau,  Walter Rauschenbusch, Aldous Huxley, and pacifist and socialist reformer Jessie Wallace Hughan.

But the daily reality of spiritual life was supported by other real life people with whom he could debate, discuss and shore up his heart and mind. Some of these people are:

  • Reinhold Niebuhr
  • Paul Tillich
  • Howard Thurman
  • Richard B. Gregg
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Harris Wofford
  • Glenn Smiley
  • Billy Graham
  • Edgar Sheffield Brightman
  • George Dennis Sale Kelsey
  • Benjamin Elijah Mays

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Raised in the social gospel tradition of his father’s church, Martin Luther King encountered Reinhold Niebuhr’s less hopeful philosophy, Christian realism, as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1949. King later evaluated Niebuhr’s contribution to theology as a rebuttal of ‘‘the false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism’’ (King, 99).

Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, the son of a Lutheran minister, Gustave Niebuhr, and his wife Lydia. He attended Yale Divinity School (BD, 1914; MA, 1915) before assuming the pastorate of Bethel Evangelical Church of Detroit in 1915. In 1928 Niebuhr accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he taught philosophy of religion and applied Christianity for the remainder of his life. As a founder of the journal Christianity and Crisis, and the political group Americans for Democratic Action, he exercised considerable influence in American religious and political thought.

Once an advocate of pacifism, Niebuhr served as chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1931 until 1932. He broke from the movement in 1933 with the publication of his book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Niebuhr embraced a new approach to theology and ethics called Christian realism. He argued that a chief reliance on the power of reason through education and moral suasion was naive and misplaced. Citing U.S. racial problems as an example, he declared, ‘‘However large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if he is not forced to do so’’ (Niebuhr, 253).

Prior to his initial introduction to the ideas of Niebuhr, King ‘‘was absolutely convinced of the natural goodness of man and the natural power of human reason’’ (Papers 5:419). Niebuhr, however, challenged the usefulness of moral idealism in struggles for social justice. In line with this thinking, King also appreciated Niebuhr’s interpretation of original sin, writing: ‘‘His theology is a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence’’ (King, 99). King wrote several papers on Niebuhr in the course of his doctoral studies at Boston University and determined that Niebuhr’s thought was ‘‘the necessary corrective of a kind of liberalism that too easily capitulated to modern culture’’ (Papers 2:278).

King wrote to Niebuhr in preparation for his doctoral dissertation comparing Paul Tillich’s and Henry Nelson Wieman’s concepts of God, asking for assistance with his topic. As he rose to national prominence, King continued to draw on Niebuhr’s philosophy as a theological basis for nonviolent civil rights protest. He linked Niebuhr’s Christian realism to his own ideas of Gandhian nonviolence, calling it ‘‘a Niebuhrian stratagem of power’’ (Branch, 87). 

King inscribed a copy of his 1958 account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, to Niebuhr, praising him as a theologian of ‘‘great prophetic vision,’’ with ‘‘unswerving devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice’’ (King, November 1958).

King invited Niebuhr to participate in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and Niebuhr responded by telegram: ‘‘Only a severe stroke prevents me from accepting … I hope there will be a massive demonstration of all the citizens with conscience in favor of the elemental human rights of voting and freedom of assembly’’ (Niebuhr, 19 March 1965).

Two years later, Niebuhr defended King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War, calling him ‘‘one of the greatest religious leaders of our time.’’ Niebuhr asserted: ‘‘Dr. King has the right and a duty, as both a religious and a civil rights leader, to express his concern in these days about such a major human problem as the Vietnam War’’ (Ansbro, 261). Of his country’s intervention in Vietnam, Niebuhr admitted: ‘‘For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation’’ (Fox, 285).


  • Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr., 2000.
  • Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
  • Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, 1985.
  • King, Inscription to Reinhold Neibuhr, November 1958, CNP.
  • King, ‘‘Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,’’ 13 April 1960, in Papers 5:419–425.
  • King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
  • King, ‘‘The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr,’’ April 1953–June 1954, in Papers 2:269–279.
  • King to Niebuhr, 1 December 1953, in Papers 2:222–223.
  • Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932.
  • Niebuhr to King, 19 March 1965, MLKJP-GAMK. 

Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

A theologian who had a major influence on Martin Luther King’s religious ideas, Paul Tillich is considered one of the foremost thinkers of Protestantism. In response to Tillich’s death in October 1965, King commented: ‘‘He helped us to speak of God’s action in history in terms which adequately expressed both the faith and the intellect of modern man’’ (King, October 1965).

Paul Tillich was born on 20 August 1886, in the province of Brandenburg, Germany, to Johannes Tillich, a Lutheran pastor, and his wife Wilhelmina Mathilde. He studied at a number of German universities before obtaining his PhD at Breslau in 1911. In 1912 he was ordained as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brandenburg. After serving as a chaplain in the German Army during World War I, he taught Theology at the Universities of Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, Leipzig, and Frankfurt. Removed from his Frankfurt post due to his public support of leftist intellectuals and Jews during the early Nazi regime, Tillich accepted Reinhold Niebuhr’s invitation to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich served on the faculty as a Professor of philosophical Theology from 1933 until his retirement in 1955, and went on to join the faculty at Harvard University. In 1962 he accepted a post as the Nuveen Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death.

King first encountered Tillich’s writings as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, but he did not substantively study Tillich’s work until choosing his dissertation topic, ‘‘A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,’’ in early 1953. In his dissertation, King expressed disagreement with both men’s disavowal of personalism, and criticized Tillich’s abstract notion of God as ‘‘little more than a sub-personal reservoir of power’’ and ‘‘a pure absolute devoid of consciousness and life’’ (Papers 2:534). King did, however, praise both men’s ‘‘cry against the humanism of our generation … that has had all too much faith in man and all too little faith in God’’ (Papers 2:519).

King later credited Tillich’s work as a major influence on his religious thinking, having convinced him that ‘‘existentialism, in spite of the fact that it has become all too fashionable, had grasped certain basic truths about man and his condition that could not be permanently overlooked’’ (Papers 5:421). He frequently used Tillich’s cautioning view that ‘‘sin is separation’’ to illustrate the inherently evil nature of segregation in speeches in his later years (King, ‘‘The Negro Is Your Brother’’). Commenting on Tillich’s view of God in this context of modern alienation, King observed: ‘‘His Christian existentialism gave us a system of meaning and purpose for our lives in an age when war and doubt seriously threatened all that we had come to hold dear’’ (King, October 1965).


  • King, ‘‘A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,’’ 15 April 1955, in Papers 2:339–544.
  • King, ‘‘The Negro Is Your Brother,’’ Atlantic Monthly 212 (August 1963): 78–81; 86–88.
  • King, ‘‘Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,’’ 13 April 1960, in Papers 5:419–425.
  • King, Statement on death of Tillich, October 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
  • Macleod, Paul Tillich, 1973.
  • Pauck and Pauck, Paul Tillich, 1976.
  • Tillich, My Search for Absolutes, 1967.

Howard Thurman (1899-1981) 

Howard Thurman was a theologian and religious minister whose ideas on nonviolence and integration deeply influenced Martin Luther King. 

In the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin took the time for spiritual nourishment and re-minding, re-membering. During the bus boycott, King’s friend and biographer, Lerone Bennett, reported that King ‘‘read or reread’’ Thurman’s 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited, which interprets Jesus’ teachings through the experience of the oppressed and the need for a nonviolent response to such oppression (Bennett, 74). 

During his tenure as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, theologian and minister Howard Thurman sent Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King his 1955 volume on spirituals, Deep River. He inscribed the book: ‘‘To the Kings—The test of life is often found in the amount of pain we can absorb without spoiling our joy” (Papers 6:299).’’ Thurman’s commitment to a spiritually and physically integrated society, and to the methods of Gandhian nonviolence, served as major influences in King’s life.

Born in Daytona, Florida, Thurman attended Morehouse College, earning a BA in 1923. After receiving his BD from Rochester Theological Seminary (1926), he did further graduate work at the Oberlin School of Theology and at Haverford College, where he studied under Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones. He returned to Morehouse in 1929, as a philosophy and religion professor. In 1932 he married Sue Bailey, a contemporary of King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, when both women attended Spelman College. The couple relocated to Washington, D.C., when Thurman joined Howard University’s faculty. Three years later, he became dean of Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel, a position he held until 1943.

In 1935 the Thurmans traveled with Reverend Edward and Phenola Carroll on a ‘‘Pilgrimage of Friendship’’ to Burma, Ceylon, and India at the invitation of the Student Christian Movements of the United States of America and India. The delegation met with Mohandas K. Gandhi in February 1936, and discussed the status and history of African Americans and questions of nonviolence. Upon their return to the United States, the Thurmans toured and spoke of their experiences with Gandhi.

In 1943 Thurman resigned his position at Howard to help found an integrated church in San Francisco. The doors of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples opened for the first time in October 1944, for an inaugural multi-faith service with Thurman and white clergyman Alfred G. Fisk as co-pastors. Thurman remained there as minister until 1953, when he accepted the post of dean of Marsh Chapel and professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources at Boston University. According to Thurman, he and King met ‘‘informally’’ during King’s last years as a doctoral student: ‘‘We watched the World Series on television at our house. Sue and Martin discussed very seriously the possibility of his coming to Fellowship Church; it was then she discovered his commitment to Montgomery’’ (Thurman, 254).

In a 1955 letter written less than a month before the Montgomery bus boycott, Thurman communicated his regret that he would not be able to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church’s Men’s Day Service, and passed on ‘‘special greetings’’ from his wife (Papers 2:588).

According to Thurman’s autobiography, the only time that he and King were able to arrange a ‘‘serious talk’’ came in the fall of 1958, when King was recovering in New York after being stabbed by Izola Curry at a book signing (Thurman, 254). The day before their meeting, Thurman recalled having a ‘‘vibrant sensation’’ in which ‘‘Martin emerged in my awareness and would not leave’’ (Thurman, 255). When he met alone with King the following day, he asked how long King’s doctor had given him for his convalescence.

When he told me, I urged him to ask them to extend the period by an additional two weeks. This would give him time away from the immediate pressure of the movement to reassess himself in relation to the cause, to rest his body and mind with healing detachment, and to take a long look that only solitary brooding can provide. The movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own to which he must relate in fresh and extraordinary ways or be swallowed up by it (Thurman, 255).

Thurman retired from Boston University in 1965. He directed the Howard Thurman Educational Trust until his death in 1981.


  • Bennett, Jr., What Manner of Man, 1968.
  • Kapur, Raising Up a Prophet, 1992.
  • King to Thurman, 31 October 1955, in Papers 2:583–584.
  • Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949.
  • Thurman, With Head and Heart, 1979.
  • Thurman, Inscription to King, 1955, in Papers 6:229.
  • Thurman to King, 14 November 1955, in Papers 2:588.

Richard B. Gregg (1885-1974)

Pacifist, writer, social philosopher and activist Richard Gregg was the first American to publish a book on nonviolence. Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence, published in 1934, explained Gandhi’s nonviolent principles and his methodology of social change. He had an influence on the thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., Aldous Huxley, civil-rights theorist Bayard Rustin, and pacifist and socialist reformer Jessie Wallace Hughan. Gregg’s ideas also influenced the Peace Pledge Union in 1930s Britain, although by 1937 most of the PPU had moved away from Gregg’s ideas. 

In the foreword to the book’s second edition (1959), King affirmed that “new ways of solving conflicts, without violence, must be discovered and put into operation” (Papers 5:99). In 1947, when King was asked by an official from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to name the books that most influenced him, he included Gregg’s book along with those of Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Walter Rauschenbusch.

Gregg was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1885. He attended Harvard, receiving his BA in 1907 and a law degree in 1911. His work in industrial relations led him to read Gandhi’s work and travel to India in 1925 to study with him. Gregg spent four years in India, including seven months at Gandhi’s ashram. Upon return, he wrote The Power of Nonviolence. Gregg was involved in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) throughout most of his adult life and influenced many of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality.

When the Montgomery bus boycott first began, nonviolence was not mentioned at the mass meetings, and many of the leaders had armed guards protecting them. Former FOR staff member, Bayard Rustin, arrived during the boycott’s third month and encouraged King to make a philosophical commitment to nonviolence. When FOR’s Glenn Smiley arrived shortly thereafter, he brought with him The Power of Nonviolence. King read it immediately and wrote Gregg, “I don’t know when I have read anything that has given the idea of non-violence a more realistic and depthful interpretation. I assure you that it will be a lasting influence in my life” (Papers 3:244-245).

King and Gregg corresponded on the application of nonviolence in Montgomery. Gregg cautioned King not to despair if there were failures in discipline during the protest, reminding him that Gandhi also faced this. “You are doing something big enough to call for all your energy and devotion and endurance,” he told King. “The whole world will be grateful to you” (Papers 3:268). Gregg traveled to India again and reported to King after the boycott that he “heard echoes of [his] struggle in Montgomery” (Gregg, 27 October 1958). Gregg also provided King with the names of people to meet when he traveled to India in 1959.

  • Sources:
    Gregg to King, 20 May 1956, in Papers 3:267-269.
  • Gregg to King, 27 October 1958, MLKP-MBU.
  • King, Foreword to Richard B. Gregg, Power of Nonviolence, 1959, in Papers 5:99.
  • King to Gregg, 1 May 1956, in Papers 3:244-245.
  • King to Gregg, 18 December 1958, in Papers 4:547-549.
  • Joseph Kip Kosek, “Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence,”  Journal of American History, 91, no. 4 (2005): 1318-1348.
  • Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)


Controversial activist, strategist, advisor. King’s mentor on Nonviolence. March on Washington campaign planning. SCLC foundation.  

Bayard Rustin was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where his family was involved in civil rights work. In 1936, he moved to Harlem, New York City, where he earned a living as a nightclub and stage singer. He continued his activism for civil rights.

In the Pacifist groups Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the War Resisters League (WRL), Rustin practiced nonviolence. A member of the Communist Party before 1941, he collaborated with A. Philip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement in 1941 to press for an end to discrimination in employment. 

He was a leading activist of the early Civil Rights Movement, helping to initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge, with civil disobedience, the racial segregation issue related to interstate busing.

He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership capacity, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s position leadership. Rustin promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance, which he had observed while working with Mahatma Gandhi‘s movement in India, and helped teach Martin Luther King, Jr. about nonviolence.

Rustin became a leading strategist of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968. A close advisor to Martin Luther King and one of the most influential and effective organizers of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was affectionately referred to as ‘‘Mr. March-on-Washington’’ by A. Philip Randolph (D’Emilio, 347), the head of the campaign. Rustin also organized and led a number of protests in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

While Rustin’s homosexuality and former affiliation with the Communist Party led some to question King’s relationship with him, King recognized the importance of Rustin’s skills and dedication to the movement. In a 1960 letter, King told a colleague: ‘‘We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value’’ (Papers 5:390).

Rustin also influenced young activists, such as Tom Kahn and Stokely Carmichael, in organizations such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 


After the passage of the civil rights legislation of 1964–65, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans, suggesting that the civil-rights movement had left its period of “protest” and had entered an era of “politics”, in which the black community had to ally with the labor movement. Rustin became the head of the AFL–CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions and promoted the unionization of African Americans. 

The Institute under Rustin’s leadership also advanced and campaigned for (from 1966 to 1968) A Freedom Budget for All Americans, linking the concepts of racial justice with economic justice. Supported by over 200 prominent civil-rights activists, trade unionists, religious leaders, academics and others, it outlined a plan to eliminate poverty and unemployment in the United States within a ten-year period. Rustin became an honorary chairperson of the Socialist Party of America in 1972, before it changed its name to Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA); Rustin acted as national chairman of SDUSA during the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. At the time of his death in 1987, he was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti.

Rustin’s sexuality, or at least his public criminal charge, was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders because they believed it detracted from his effectiveness. Rustin was attacked as a “pervert” or “immoral influence” by political opponents from segregationists to conservative black leaders from the 1950s through the 1970s. In addition, his pre-1941 Communist Party affiliation when he was a young man was controversial, having caused scrutiny by the FBI. To avoid such attacks, Rustin served rarely as a public spokesperson. He usually acted as an influential adviser behind the scenes to civil-rights leaders. 

In the 1980s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes. President Ronald Reagan issued a statement on Rustin’s death in 1987, praising his work for civil rights and his shift toward neoconservative politics over the years. On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


  • Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 1998.
  • D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 2003.
  • King to Edward Gotlieb, 18 March 1960, in Papers 5:390–391.
  • Rustin, ‘‘Montgomery Diary,’’ Liberation (April 1956): 7–10.
  • Rustin to King, 23 December 1956, in Papers 3:491–494

Harris Wofford (1926-?)

Wofford is an American attorney and Democratic Party politician who represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate from 1991 to 1995. A noted advocate of national service and volunteering, Wofford was also the fifth president of Bryn Mawr College from 1970 to 1978, served as Chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party in 1986, as Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry in the cabinet of Governor Robert P. Casey from 1987 to 1991 and was a surrogate for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He introduced Obama in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center before Obama’s speech on race in America, A More Perfect Union.

Harris Wofford was the Kennedy administration’s civil rights expert and an ally of Martin Luther King. Wofford believed in employing a mix of direct action and legal techniques to combat segregation. He applauded King’s leadership in Montgomery: ‘‘You have already proven yourselves master artists of non-violent direct action’’ (Papers 3:226).

The Montgomery bus boycott brought Martin Luther King Jr. to the attention of Wofford, who by then was practicing law at white-shoe Covington & Burling in Washington. He wrote King several letters on the importance of Gandhian civil disobedience; when those entreaties failed to elicit a satisfactory response, Wofford began showing up at King’s Northern speaking events, finally seizing his attention in Baltimore, where Wofford successfully pitched him on traveling to India. Chauffeuring King to Washington later that day, Wofford and the minister sat in front and talked about Gandhi while Clare and Coretta Scott King conversed in the backseat. At one point, Wofford recalls, “We heard Coretta say, ‘Clare, ever since Martin chose this course, I’ve had nightmares that he’s going to be killed.’ King turned around and said, ‘Corey, get that nightmare out of your head.’”

Around the same time that Wofford was courting King, John F. Kennedy was courting Wofford. The two first met in 1947, at a lawn party thrown at the Connecticut home of Clare Boothe Luce; neither man had impressed the other. “He had a beautiful woman on each arm,” Wofford recalls, “and he listened to me for about two minutes maybe and then he said, ‘Right now I’ve got my eyes on tennis,’ and departed.” But a dozen years later, when Kennedy was getting ready to run for president, he recognized Wofford’s value. Kennedy was ultimately persuaded by Wofford to join his presidential campaign and work with Sargent Shriver on courting the “Negro vote.”

Just days before the election King was thrown in a Georgia jail for driving with an out-of-state license. Coretta feared for her husband’s life and begged Wofford to get Kennedy to intervene with Georgia’s Democratic governor. Kennedy’s other advisers blanched at that notion, fearful that such a move would cost him the support of Southern whites. But behind those advisers’ backs, Wofford, working with Shriver, prevailed upon Kennedy to make a private phone call to Coretta to express his concern. The call prompted Martin Luther King Sr., who’d endorsed Richard Nixon on account of his suspicion of Kennedy’s Catholicism, to switch his endorsement to Kennedy; and when Coretta told a reporter that Kennedy had contacted her, the news swept across black neighborhoods—assisted by pamphlets touting the call bought and distributed by the Kennedy campaign. In the end, many people, including Nixon himself, attributed Kennedy’s narrow victory to his overwhelming share of the black vote. The day after the election, Nixon’s African American chauffeur told the defeated candidate, “Mr. Vice President, I can’t tell you how sick I am about the way my people voted in the election.” Nixon replied, “If there was any fault involved it was not with your people; it was mine, in failing to get my point of view across to them.”


  • King, Letter to the editor, March 1961, CSKC.
  • King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
  • Wofford, India Afire, 1951.
  • Wofford, ‘‘Non-Violence and the Law,’’ 7 November 1957, CSKC.
  • Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, 1980.
  • Wofford to Kennedy, 30 December 1960, JFKPP-MWalK.
  • Wofford to King, 25 April 1956, in Papers 3:225–226.

Glenn Smiley (1910 – 1993)

The Reverend Glenn Smiley was a white civil rights consultant and leader. Smiley was born in Loraine, Texas, on 19 April 1910. He studied at McMurry College, Southwestern University, University of Arizona, and University of Redlands. Smiley worked for 14 years as a Methodist preacher in Arizona and California before joining the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and FOR in 1942. In 1945 he served time in prison as a conscientious objector.

He closely studied the doctrine of Mahatma Gandhi and became convinced that racism and segregation were most likely to be overcome without the use of violence, and began studying and teaching peaceful tactics. 

As an employee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), he was introduced to Martin Luther King, Jr. by Bayard Rustin when he arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There Smiley advised King and his associates on nonviolent tactics, and was able to convince King that nonviolence was a feasible solution to racial tension. Smiley, together with Bayard Rustin and others, helped convince King and his associates that complete nonviolence and nonviolent direct action were the most effective methods and tools to use during protest. After the Civil Rights Movement, Smiley continued to employ non violence and worked for several organizations promoting peace in South American countries. Just three years before his 1993 death, Smiley opened the King Center in Los Angeles.

During his work in ministry in the 1940s, Smiley developed an interest for the methods of Mahatma Gandhi and his methods of self-discipline and nonviolence. From these studies, he developed his theory that nonviolence was the most effective way to combat discrimination. Smiley first used his theory of nonviolence in the late 1940s when he attempted to spur integration of tearooms of department stores in the Los Angeles area. Smiley went on to have a professional relationship with Martin Luther King, in which he advised King on non-violence tactics and emphasized the importance of nonviolence in the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Smiley was already impressed with Dr. King’s leadership, but was critical of King for having a bodyguard. In a letter that Smiley had written to some of his friends, he was quoted writing, “If King can really be won to a faith of nonviolence there is no end to what he can do. Soon he will be able to direct movement by sheer force of being the symbol of resistance. Smiley also persuaded King that there needs to be an active dialogue between the white and black ministers in the South. King sent Smiley around the South preaching the doctrine to church congregations and civil-rights groups, and nonviolence quickly became a binding premise of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Smiley, who rode alongside Martin Luther King on Montgomery’s first desegregated bus, helped solidify King’s understanding of Gandhian nonviolence. Smiley later said that he took the bus ride to get a reaction, as his organizational work had been urging nonviolence. After interviewing King during the first few months of the boycott, Smiley wrote a colleague: ‘‘I believe that God has called Martin Luther King to lead a great movement here, and in the South. But why does God lay such a burden on one so young, so inexperienced, so good? King can be a Negro Gandhi, or he can be made into an unfortunate demagogue destined to swing from a lynch mob’s tree’’ (Smiley, 28 February 1956).

During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Smiley participated by spreading news of the boycott to his congregation. Smiley was also charged with appealing to Southern white people, and accessed group meetings of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the WCC. He is quoted saying, “my assignment was to make every contact possible in the white community.” After the resolution of Browder v. Gayle on December 17, 1956, it was ruled by the Supreme Court that segregation on city busses is unconstitutional; the MIA developed a set of guidelines to help black residents successfully ride on the newly integrated busses. Smiley, along with Martin Luther King and other MIA leaders, was an integral author of these new guidelines.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle Smiley rode with Martin Luther King and Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy on the first day that bus segregation ended in Montgomery. Later during the student sit-in movement during the 1960s, Smiley was a strong supporter and urged the students to attend a conference at Shaw University that would go on to be the birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The extent to which FOR and Smiley claimed credit for the adoption of nonviolence in the Montgomery bus boycott became an issue of contention in the late 1950s. According to Smiley, Abernathy reportedly felt that: ‘‘We could never have achieved the success we did in Montgomery had it not been for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Glenn Smiley’’ (Smiley, 1986). Smiley stated his own position in a 1957 letter: ‘‘It seems clear to me that the F.O.R. has developed in the south a self-conscious, nonviolent movement with King at the head’’ (Papers 5:218n). King acknowledged Smiley’s role, noting ‘‘his contribution in our overall struggle has been of inestimable value’’ (Papers 4:111). However, he challenged the notion that FOR was responsible for the nonviolent campaign. He wrote to a colleague: ‘‘I fear that this impression has gotten out in many quarters because members of the staff of the FOR have spread the idea’’ (Papers 5:218).

In the 1960s, Smiley founded the Methodist-inspired organization called Justice-Action-Peace Latin America, which was responsible for organizing seminars on non-violence in Latin American countries between the years of 1967 and the early 1970s. Smiley traveled to South American countries, where he taught nonviolence during the time he worked under the National Council of Churches and the National Council of Catholic Bishops. Shortly before his death, Smiley founded the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolence in Los Angeles in 1990 to further his lifelong philosophy of nonviolence. Speaking about the King Center, Smiley stressed “nonviolence is the most effective way of achieving change because in the process it does not rip countries apart; it builds, it does not destroy.”

Billy Graham (1918-2018) 

is an American evangelical Christian evangelist, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, who rose to celebrity status in 1949 reaching a core constituency of middle-class, moderately conservative Protestants. He held large indoor and outdoor rallies; sermons were broadcast on radio and television, some still being re-broadcast today. In his six decades of television, Graham is principally known for hosting the annual Billy Graham Crusades, which he began in 1947, until he concluded in 2005, at the time of his retirement. He also hosted the popular radio show Hour of Decision from 1950 to 1954. He repudiated segregation and, in addition to his religious aims, helped shape the worldview of fundamentalists and evangelicals, leading them to appreciate the relationship between the Bible and contemporary secular viewpoints.

Graham was a spiritual adviser to American presidents; he was particularly close to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson (one of Graham’s closest friends) and Richard Nixon. He insisted on integration for his revivals and crusades in 1953 and invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960s when King was arrested in demonstrations. He was also lifelong friends with another televangelist, Robert H. Schuller, whom Graham talked into doing his own television ministry.[citation needed].

Graham operates a variety of media and publishing outlets. According to his staff, more than 3.2 million people have responded to the invitation at Billy Graham Crusades to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior”. As of 2008, Graham’s estimated lifetime audience, including radio and television broadcasts, topped 2.2 billion. Because of his crusades, Graham has preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity.

Graham has repeatedly been on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women. He has appeared on the list 60 times since 1955, more than any other individual in the world.  Grant Wacker reports that by the mid-1960s, he had become the “Great Legitimator”.

By then his presence conferred status on presidents, acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonor on indecency, and prestige on civic events.


Brightman, Edgar Sheffield (1884-1953) 

Five years after Edgar Brightman’s death, Martin Luther King wrote that his mentor  from Boston University’s School of Theology gave him ‘‘the metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God’’ (Papers 4:480). Brightman believed that personal experience was at the center of all faith and that ‘‘all religion is of, by, and for persons. Religion ascribes a unique value to persons and has a unique interest in their welfare and their salvation’’ (Brightman, ‘‘Religion as Truth,’’ 73). His scholarship greatly influenced King’s personal philosophy of religion from the time of his early graduate studies at Crozer Theological Seminary.

Brightman was born in Holbrook, Massachusetts, on 20 September 1884, to George Edgar and Mary Sheffield Brightman. He received his STB in 1910 and his PhD in 1912 from Boston University. Brightman taught at Wesleyan University from 1915 to 1919 and then returned to Boston University, where he was appointed to the chair named for his mentor, Borden Parker Bowne, Professor of Philosophy, in 1925.

King became aware of Brightman’s ideas while at Crozer. In a 1949 school paper written for professor George W. Davis, King agreed with Brightman’s idea that any individual can know God. King read Brightman’s A Philosophy of Religion (1940), which led him to reflect on his own spiritual life. King commented: ‘‘How I long now for that religious experience which Dr. Brightman so cogently speaks of throughout his book. It seems to be an experience, the lack of which life becomes dull and meaningless’’ (Papers 1:415–416).

In his application to Boston University in 1950, King stated, ‘‘my thinking in philosophical areas has been greatly influenced by some of the faculty members there, particularly Dr. Brightman’’ (Papers 1:390). After matriculating, King attended Brightman’s Philosophy of Religion class and his Seminar on Philosophy. Brightman died just 16 months after King began his graduate studies at Boston University, and King continued his work in the ideologies of personalism with Brightman’s colleague and former student, L. Harold DeWolf.


  • Edgar S. Brightman, ‘‘Religion as Truth,’’ in Contemporary American Theology, ed. Vergilius Ferm, 1932.
  • Courses at Boston University, 1951–1952, 1952–1953, in Papers 2:18.
  • Introduction, in Papers 1:51, 56.
  • Introduction, in Papers 2:5.
  • King, ‘‘A Conception and Impression of Religion Drawn from Dr. Brightman’s Book Entitled A Philosophy of Religion,’’ 28 March 1951, in Papers 1:407–416.
  • King, Fragment of Application to Boston University, September–December 1950, in Papers 1:390.
  • King, ‘‘My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,’’ 1 September 1958, in Papers 4:473–481.
  • Walter G. Muelder, ‘‘Edgar S. Brightman: Person and Moral Philosopher,’’ in The Boston Personalist Tradition, eds. Paul Deats and Carol Robb, 1986.

Kelsey, George Dennis Sale (1910-1996) 

MLK’s academic teacher who influenced his choice to become a minister. Close friend and supporter.

The only instructor to award Martin Luther King, Jr., an A as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, George D. Kelsey was a theologian and educator who helped to convince King that a career in ministry would enable him to address issues of social justice and racial reform.

Kelsey was born in 1910 in Columbus, Georgia. He received his AB from Morehouse College (1934), his BD from Andover Newton Theological School (1937), and his PhD from Yale University (1946). Kelsey joined the Morehouse faculty in 1938 as professor of Religion and Philosophy and served as director of the School of Religion from 1945 to 1948. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Convention, he became associate director in the field department of the Federal Council of Churches in 1948 and retained the position until 1952; after the organization became the National Council of Churches of Christ in 1950. Kelsey joined the faculty of Drew University in 1951, a post he held until his retirement in 1976.

During King’s junior year at Morehouse, his burgeoning sociopolitical views intersected with Kelsey’s social gospel approach when King enrolled in his Bible course.  To King’s father, Kelsey was a teacher who “saw the pulpit as a place both for drama, in the old-fashioned, country Baptist sense, and for the articulation of philosophies that address the problems of society” (Papers 1:362). The younger King, uncertain about pursuing ministry as a vocation, was greatly impressed by Kelsey’s use of higher biblical criticism in addressing theological issues.

King enjoyed his undergraduate studies in the social sciences and had been leaning toward a career in law or medicine; however, the ministry became a more tangible choice when he learned from Kelsey “that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape” (Papers 1:42-43). King had questioned “whether religion, with its emotionalism in Negro churches, could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying,” but Kelsey encouraged King to synthesize the religious notions of his upbringing with the secular education he received (Papers 1:44). He saw that King “stood out in class not simply academically, but in the sense that he absorbed the teachings of Jesus with his whole being” (Papers 1:155).  In his letter recommending King for admission to Crozer Theological Seminary, Kelsey noted this shift in King’s academic performance and described him as “being quite serious about the ministry and as having a call rather than a professional urge” (Papers 1:155).

King continued his close relationship with Kelsey beyond his college years, and Kelsey continued to provide King with financial and moral support during the Montgomery bus boycott. Kelsey believed King was “conducting activities in the finest Mosaic and prophetic tradition” (Papers 3:146). King sent Kelsey an early draft of a chapter of Stride Toward Freedom, trusting Kelsey’s scholarship and asserting he would not like to have any of it published without Kelsey’s “critical suggestions” (Papers 4:391). Upon announcement of King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Kelsey sent King a heartfelt congratulation. The Kelseys and the Kings remained family friends, with Kelsey, inviting Martin and Coretta to stay with him and his wife whenever King traveled north.


  • Introduction in Papers 1:42─44.
  • Kelsey to Charles E. Batten, 12 March 1948, in Papers 1:155.
  • Kelsey to King, 28 February 1956, in Papers 3:146.
    King, “An Autobiography of Religious Development,”Papers 1:359─363.
  • King to Kelsey, 31 March 1958, in Papers 4:391-392.
  • William Peters, “Our Weapon Is Love,” Redbook, August 1956, 42─43, 71─73.

Mays, Benjamin Elijah (1894-1984) 

Described by Martin Luther King, Jr. as his ‘‘spiritual mentor,’’ Benjamin Mays was a distinguished Atlanta educator who served as president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967 (Scott King, 249). While King was a student at Morehouse, the two men developed a relationship that continued until King’s death in 1968.

Mays was born in Epworth, South Carolina, on 1 August 1894 to former slaves Hezekiah and Louvenia Carter. After briefly attending Virginia Union University, Mays transferred to Bates College in Maine, where he earned his BA in 1920. The following year he was ordained as a Baptist minister. After earning his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, Mays served as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University from 1934 to 1940

After becoming president of Morehouse College, Mays delivered weekly addresses at the college’s chapel services. King often followed Mays to his office after these sessions to discuss theology and current events. 

Mays visited King and his parents at their home and became a regular guest at the family’s Sunday night dinners. According to King, his ministerial aspirations were deeply influenced by Mays and Morehouse professor George Kelsey. ‘‘I could see in their lives the ideal of what I wanted a minister to be,’’ King commented in a 1956 interview (Peters, ‘‘Our Weapon Is Love’’). Mays remarked that the King he met at Morehouse was ‘‘mature beyond his years’’ (Bennett, 27). Mays also had a lasting influence on King’s intellectual life. In ‘‘Mastering Our Fears,’’ a sermon written nine years after King graduated from Morehouse, he drew on a 1946 newspaper column Mays wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, which argued that black and white people must overcome their mutual fears to improve race relations.

When the Montgomery, Alabama, police indicted over 80 boycott leaders to stop the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, King decided that he should remain involved in the protest, even against the wishes of his father. While the senior King assembled acquaintances to dissuade the younger from continuing to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, it was Mays who heard King’s ‘‘unspoken plea’’ and strongly defended his position (King, 145). Morehouse College awarded King an honorary Doctorate of Letters in July 1957, and Mays, reflecting upon King’s role in the bus boycott, glowingly referred to him as a man ‘‘more courageous in a righteous struggle than most men can ever be, living a faith that most men preach about and never experience’’ (Mays, July 1957). Mays continued to support King throughout his life, delivering the benediction at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and endorsing King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967.


After King’s assassination Mays eulogized him on the Morehouse campus by detailing King’s consistent faith in nonviolence: ‘‘Here was a man who believed with all his might that the pursuit of violence at any time is ethically and morally wrong; that God and the moral weight of the universe are against it; that violence is self-defeating; and that only love and forgiveness can break the vicious circle of revenge’’ (Mays, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, 247).

Mays remained active throughout the 1970s, becoming the first black president of the Atlanta Board of Education as well as serving on the Advisory Council of the Peace Corps, the board of directors of the United Negro College Fund, and the board of the National Commission for UNESCO. By the time of his death in 1984, Mays had received 28 honorary degrees and the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).



  • Bennett, What Manner of Man, 1964.
  • Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
  • Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
  • King, ‘‘Mastering Our Fears,’’ 21 July 1957, in Papers 6:319–321.
  • King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
  • (Scott) King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., 1969.
  • Mays, Born to Rebel, 1971.
  • Mays, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Speaks, Colston, ed., 2002.
  • Mays, Honorary Degree Citation to Martin Luther King, Jr., Morehouse College Bulletin (July1957): 6–7, LOLP-ICIU.
  • William Peters, ‘‘Our Weapon Is Love,’’ Redbook (August 1956), 42–43, 71–73.

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