How Martin Luther King Jr. found his Love-Force

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on any of the topics or subjects discussed below.

By Keegen Kuehne

A black and white picture of Martin Luther King Jr. looking at the camera and posing with his hands up and books in the background.
Image Description: Martin Luther King Jr. Posing with his personal library in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama.[1]

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember the life and accomplishments of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King is known as the man who led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, including the March on Washington in 1963, where he gave his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech, which sent shockwaves around the world. Apart from being a force and proponent for social and economic justice, he is also known as the man who translated Gandhian nonviolence principles into a Christian and American context. How is it, then, that MLK developed his own form of nonviolent resistance and how does it resonate in our world today?

King was born in the heavily segregated southern Atlanta, Georgia in 1929 to parents Delia and James Albert King.[2] Growing up, King’s family was poor and this allowed him to “[see] economic injustice firsthand” and allowed him to grow up “deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.”[3][4] By growing up in poverty, King understood what it meant to be disenfranchised and disadvantaged by society, not only for his ethnicity, but also for his socioeconomic status. This upbringing motivated him to become a highly educated man, graduating from Morehouse College, the Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University.[5]
King was an extremely devout man of Christian faith as well. This was exhibited through his studies in the Crozer Theological Seminary and his involvement in the Christian ministry.[6] Apart from being a pastor, husband, and father, King also took on a leadership role in his local chapter of the NAACP, the Montgomery Improvement Association, and helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.[7] His leadership and influence would only continue to grow, as he would one day lead the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

King recognized the problem of segregation, socioeconomic disparity, and racism, but was initially conflicted about how to approach these problems. Through his studies, King came to be unimpressed with the philosophies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche in particular. King wrote that he read Marx “from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial yes and a partial no.”[8] This was largely due to Marx’s positions of “metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism.”[9] However, he believed that Marx’s critiques of capitalism presented valid points, in that capitalism “contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches.”[10] This resonated with King, although he didn’t agree with communism and thought something was missing if he wanted to make true social change for Black people in America. Thus, King did not exclusively borrow from Marx to develop his form of nonviolent resistance and would instead continue to seek intellectual fulfillment by studying other philosophers.

While studying at the Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948-1950, King was introduced to pacifism, Gandhian ideas, and the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, which led him to “[develop] his ideas about nonviolence as a method of social reform.”[11] Niebuhr was a focal point during King’s last year in theological school and he became interested in Niebuhr’s assertion that “there was no intrinsic moral difference between violent and nonviolent resistance.”[12] He realized that Niebuhr’s logic for dismissing nonviolent resistance solely rested on the belief that a totalitarian tyranny was incapable of having moral conscience.[13] This arguably pessimistic and realist conviction of Niebuhr is precisely where he and King differed. Through King’s study of Gandhi, he concluded that Niebuhr’s interpretation of pacifism as “a sort of passive nonresistance to evil expressing naïve trust in the power of love” fell short.[14] When King found that Gandhi “resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resistor,” but with love rather than hate, he recognized Gandhi’s brilliance and began to conceptualize and plan how he would utilize this approach.[15]

King’s exposure to Gandhi was accentuated from a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, who spoke of Gandhi’s life and teachings. This is where King’s interest in Gandhi spiked and he “bought a half dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.”[16] He was particularly compelled by “the whole concept of “Satyagraha” (Satya is truth which equals love, and āgraha is force; “Satyagraha,” therefore, means truth-force or love-force)” which was used by nonviolent activists during The March on Washington in August 1963.[17]

Through King’s rigorous study of Gandhian philosophy, his “skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and [he] came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.”[18] This was significant to King because he had previously believed that a “more realistic approach seemed necessary” when approaching conflict between individuals, but after reading Gandhi he saw “how utterly mistaken [he] was.”[19] This resonated with King because he had finally found the “method for social reform that [he] had been seeking for so many months,” which he couldn’t find in other philosophies.[20] King’s philosophical and religious research shows how important it is for individuals to gather information from various sources rather than one singular voice. It’s hard to imagine what the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would have looked like if MLK had never been exposed to Gandhi’s teachings.

Activists in the 1960s Civil Rights movement utilized King’s interpretation of “Satyagraha,” or love force, to practice nonviolent civil disobedience in protest against the United States Government. By reflecting on our past, we can begin to ask ourselves how we can borrow from King’s teachings to make change using our own love-force. King’s intellectual journey exploring nonviolent resistance fortified his heart and mind before he moved against his enemy with love.

[1] Michael Orchs Archives, photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. archived in 2007, photograph, Getty Images.

[2] Editors, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,”, accessed 2/3/22.

[3] Stanford University, “Family History of Martin Luther King Jr.,” in King Encyclopedia, accessed 2/3/22.

[4] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward freedom; the Montgomery story. (New York: Harper & Row, 2010), p. 77-78).

[5] Editors, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward freedom; the Montgomery story. (New York: Harper & Row, 2010), p. 82.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stanford University, “Crozer Theological Seminary,” in King Encyclopedia, accessed 2/3/22.

[12] Ibid., p. 85.

[13] Ibid., p. 86.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward freedom; the Montgomery story. (New York: Harper & Row, 2010), p. 84.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 85