Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not only an internationally renowned civil rights leader, but was also a public sociologist par excellence. King was born into a family and local community of socially involved ministers, deeply dedicated to issues of racial justice, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, located in the now famous Auburn Avenue black community in Atlanta, who along with peers such as the Rev. William Borders, pastor of the Wheat Street Baptist Church, and John Dobbs, informally called the Mayor of Sweet Auburn, created a community culture that was highly critical of the racial status quo. It was in the Auburn Avenue community that King developed his lifelong commitment to social justice that would become refined as he was educated and went through the experiences of being a leader of a powerful social movement. This is important to keep in mind since often, while analyzing the contributions of King, it has been common to forget, or to undervalue, the influences of his community of origin. It was here that he was exposed, at an early age, to highly educated black men who took bold public stances against the racial oppression of their day.
His time at Morehouse College as an under graduate (1944—8) coincided with the most influential years of Benjamin E. Mays, the institution’s president, who was a practical theologian and public sociologist who published what was considered to be, for many years, the seminal text on the sociology of the black church. Mays, who was appointed as Morehouse president in the early 1940s, transformed this remarkable liberal arts college for black men into a sociological learning community teaching social justice and egalitarian values which permeated the culture of the campus and were reinforced by Mays’s mandatory Tuesday Chapel talks to Morehouse men. Besides the leader ship of Mays, the ideas and insights of Walter Chivers, the longtime chair of the Morehouse department of sociology in which he majored, had a profound influence on King. Chivers was the chief black community researcher for Arthur Raper’s (1933) The Tragedy of Lynching, l of public sociological activist research in the South. From the 1940s until the late 1960s, when he retired, Chivers directed the More house Family Institute, which sponsored annual conferences designed to translate academic knowledge about family issues for black community members who would be invited to these campus events. Chivers’s approach would have a profound influence on how King subsequently valued the capacity of sociology as a discipline to bring about social transformation.
King would learn as well the importance of careful empirical sociological research from spending a summer working as a research assistant for the Afro Caribbean Quaker sociologist Ira de A. Reid, who was on the Atlanta University Center faculty for a brief time. It should be mentioned that the reflective sociological reasoning typical of the culture of Morehouse College also involved the department of religion, which included professors such as S. M. Williams, who encouraged Morehouse students not only to study religious ideas, but also to be active in addressing questions of social inequality in a Jim Crow society. King’s profound ethical and sociological critiques of race in American society, such as The Letter from Birmingham Jail and his ”I Have a Dream” speech, were shaped by an older Morehouse professor, Howard Thurman, who was a theologian with a strong sociological imagination, as best seen in his book Jesus and the Disinherited (1949). (While Thurman was dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, he would introduce King, then a doctoral student, to the ideas of Gandhi.)
Thus, wherever King turned in the More house curriculum there was the emphasis on thinking sociologically to promote the public good of racial justice. Surviving papers from King’s Morehouse and Crozier Seminary days reveal a young man with a keen sociological approach to theology and community justice issues. This pattern would continue in his sermons, which also tended to have a deep reflective sociological focus. That King identified himself as a sociologist can be seen in his willingness to write prefaces to sociological texts such as Daniel Thompson’s (1963) classical study of the black leadership class. He also wrote at least one essay on the use of the behavioral sciences in efforts to transform communities and societies. King’s first book, Stride Towards Freedom (1958), was a personal ethnographic account of the origins and development of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is still a seminal handbook on how to organize a local social movement. It also includes one of the first sociological discussions about non violence as a means to achieve what would be eventually called restorative justice. Lastly, when King went to Stockholm in 1964, one of the people he most wanted to see was Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist whose monumental An American Dilemma (1944) had greatly influenced his views on race as a social and moral problem in the US.
King’s leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1960s, like his command over the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the mid 1950s, demonstrated his skills as an applied public sociologist. His capacity to manage men and women with strong personalities and his extraordinary ability to delegate authority as a self effacing leader were amazing. He was also a master of the media during an age in which television was beginning to become the dominant force in mass communications. If it were not for King’s skill at dealing with the media, as well as his political acumen, his movement would not have been nearly as effective as it was. When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was being increasingly criticized, as his movement began to falter outside the South and due to his opposition to the Vietnam War. Also, as indicated in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he was beginning to turn, at least since the early 1960s, to economic questions, which made many traditional supporters of his movement, including those in the media, increasingly uncomfortable. That is to say, he began to inch closer to the perspectives of emerging Black Power leaders who were advocating black economic empowerment.
King’s ability to take academically challenging theological and sociological ideas and translate them effectively for mass appeal made him a most unusual example of what a public sociologist does, and for whom. Nevertheless, the most distinctive dimension of King’s sociology was his integration of spiritual and inter faith concerns into his social analysis of racial problems and other important issues during his time, such as poverty and war. His sermons, lectures, and books have fascinating illustrations of how his spiritual values are intertwined with his astute sociological analyses. In doing this, King’s approach provides a model for those sociologists interested in the ethical and spiritual dimensions of human experiences, and an example for those theologians wishing to understand the sociological context for religious studies.
- King, M. L., Jr. (1958) Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Harper, New York.
- King, M. L., Jr. (1964) The Quest for Peace and Justice. Nobel Prize Lecture, December 11.
- Mays, B. E. (1933) The Negro’s Church. Arno Press, New York.
- Myrdal, G. (1944) An American Dilemma. Harper, New York.
- Raper, A. F. (1933) The Tragedy of Lynching. Arno Press, New York.
- Thompson, D. C. (1963) The Negro Leadership Class. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Thurman, H. (1949) Jesus and the Disinherited. Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, Nashville.
Back to Sociology of Race