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Making History: Five Books that Inspired Martin Luther King Jr.

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Olivia Snaije found this witty
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There are few figures who loom larger in American history than Martin Luther King Jr. He has become an icon of peaceful courage and resilience, and his life’s work is testament to the potential citizens have to change the world around them. King was a powerhouse of the civil rights campaign: he led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, helped coordinate the marches from Selma to Montgomery, received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work, and delivered some of the most important and well-remembered speeches in history, most notably his 1954 speech, ‘I Have a Dream.’

This year, on April 4th, we mark the 50th anniversary since his assassination. It is certainly a sombre historical moment, but it is also a chance to commemorate King’s incredible legacy, as his ideals and principles live on. Indeed, just days after his assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title VII of this Act, known as the Fair Housing Act, is commonly seen as a tribute to King, and his ongoing fight to combat residential discrimination in the US. The influence of his work has continued since then, and today is an important example for people fighting for civil rights across the world. In order acknowledge the impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on history, it’s an opportunity to look at the people and the writing that impacted him. King was a very well read man, and he drew from his extensive reading to develop his ideas about racial equality and non-violent activism. We take a look at some of these books which range from philosophy, to fiction and poetry, all of which help inspire King to change the world.

Walden / Civil Disobedience / and Other Writings

In 1849, American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau published his essay Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was largely motivated to write this work because of his deep disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War. In the essay, Thoreau outlined his stance that the principles of an individual should not give way to the corrupt rule of government, and that it is our duty to refuse to engage with governments that are using its people, and its people’s money as agents of injustice. The work is of particular importance to King, for it was through reading this essay that he was struck by the idea of nonviolent resistance. This approach was one of the most important parts of King’s movement, and he records the moment he read about it, in his autobiography:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

The Nicomachean Ethics

King was influenced by a great number of the Ancient Greek philosophers. In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he said, “I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.” For this list we’ve pulled out a single work, The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. Here Aristotle, himself influenced deeply by his mentor Plato, outlines how men should best live, how to achieve happiness and how this is linked to virtue and good living. King was deeply invested in creating a just and fair society, one that saw everyone with the opportunity to follow their path to happiness. The questions of these Ancient Greek philosophers had immense and practical impact on King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.

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City of God

One of the books we haven’t mentioned here, The Bible, of course had an immeasurable impact on King. As a Christian minister, King’s work was always through the lens of his Christian faith. However, for this list we’ve looked at some of the other Christian writing that made an impact on him. King took deep inspiration from some of the foundational church figures. King wrote frequently about Saint Augustine and his “vast theological system.” In The City of God, Augustine explores a range of theological questions such as the suffering of righteous people, the tension between free will and God’s omniscience, and the existence of evil in the world. Along with Saint Augustine, King was well-read in the works of Thomas Aquinas, including his Summa Theologica which were written as instructional works to inform theologians on topics such as the existence of God, Man’s Purpose, and Christ.

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Of The Social Contract and Other Political Writings

Another profound influence on King’s thinking was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and in particular his writing in The Social Contract. In this, Rousseau put forward the idea that people should have sovereign rule over themselves, and that rights and responsibilities would be shared equally. In this context he also argued that slavery was illogical and absurd. Rousseau delineated how the individual should exist in a community without losing his freedom: “the collective force of all, and under which each person, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.” This sense of connection between all people, and sense of responsibility to all forms a deep part of King’s political approach. Indeed, the quote above seems to be echoed in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in which he said “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly, affect all indirectly.”

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John Donne

Most of the books that we have looked at here have been works of politics and philosophy, however this next entry on the list shows the breadth of the material King drew on for his inspiration. After all, treatises and essays are not the only way to approach philosophy, and the work of 17th century poet John Donne, like that of Rousseau, has a lot to offer in terms of understanding the interconnectedness of the world around us, and King certainly saw its value. In his speech at Grosse Point High School King quoted Donne in a speech saying

“John Donne was right. No man is an island and the tide that fills every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And he goes on toward the end to say, "any man's death diminishes me because I'm involved in mankind. Therefore, it's not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And by working with determination and realizing that power must be shared, I think we can solve this problem”

King shows his ability to interconnect the writings of men across genres and centuries, to demonstrate the interconnectedness of man within his own society and his own time. 

War and Peace (Vintage Classic Russians Series)

Our last book comes from one of the most famous writers in history, Leo Tolstoy, but while many people know his books, there are fewer who remember his contributions to political action and protest. Nevertheless Tolstoy’s impact on history reaches far beyond the typical scope of literature, and the figures of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were deeply entwined. Gandhi had been deeply moved by Tolstoy’s writing, in particular with War and Peace, and his treatise on non-violence, The Kingdom of God Is Within You. The two corresponded extensively towards the end of Tolstoy’s life. It was then King’s turn to be inspired by the Russian writer. Jonathan Ebel, a religious studies professor in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences, says, “King knew of and quoted Tolstoy and was strongly influenced by many who were directly influenced by Tolstoy, most importantly Gandhi.” The impact of Gandhi on King was deeply important, with King even going to India to meet his surviving followers. With this, King found himself inspired by Tolstoy both directly and indirectly, through Tolstoy’s other followers. In this we can clearly see the legacy that led up to Martin Luther King Jr, and from there we can witness the impact he, and those who came before him, continues to have on political activists today.

If you would like to read more about Tolstoy’s political impact click here: Leo Tolstoy, The Godfather of Non-Violent Resistance

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I love to read, cook, and travel. My favourite books are anything Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but I also love non-fiction history and self-help.

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