On Martin Luther King Jr., His Movement & His Mentors

Today we celebrate one of the greatest Christian saints of all time: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The Rev. C.T. Vivian reflects on the non-violent resistance methods pioneered by Gandhi and adapted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Video by Voices of the Civil Rights Movement. 

King had at least three mentors: Jesus, Howard Thurman, and Gandhi. One thing that made him great was his deep ecumenism, insofar as he humbly learned from a Hindu saint, Mahatma Gandhi, how to apply Jesus’ teachings to battling injustice—using a method called non-violent resistance.

Under King, that resistance brought down almost a century of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and other evil structures that perpetuated racism and slavery even after the Confederacy lost its Civil War. Marching, facing firehoses, police dogs and police on horseback, filling jails, beseeching courts, politicians and presidents, ordinary citizens and church-goers of the movement MLK Jr. led, applied Gandhi’s spiritual practice that had taken down the British empire in India, without firing a shot.

Mahatma Gandhi (center) during his first public non-violent resistance action, the 24-day Salt March of 1930, which protested the British monopoly on salt. Source unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

Father Bede Griffiths, a wise monk and observer of India who lived fifty years in an ashram there, said this about Gandhi: He “was deeply influenced by the gospel, not only directly through the New Testament, but still more indirectly through Ruskin and Tolstoy.” 

Through its Indian adaptation, “the social gospel of Christianity” underwent “a most significant transformation.” Gandhi demonstrated how the principles of the Sermon on the Mount can be applied to social and political life in a way which no one before him had done: he made the beatitudes a matter of practical concern in a way which few Christians have realized. Or accomplished.  

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto (the first official presidential photographer). Wikimedia Commons.

One Christian did realize it: MLK Jr., with a powerful team behind him, implemented and adapted Gandhi’s practice based on the Sermon on the Mount, to American history. Courage as well as vision and intergenerational moral outrage steered to a greater good, accomplished what the civil rights movement achieved.

The immense sacrifices of that movement—including King’s and others’ martyrdoms—are in jeopardy today, sixty years later. Racism does not just disappear, it morphs into new forms. Each generation has to step up to challenge it in its own way.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 204-215, 248.

See Fox, “Deep Ecumenism,” in Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance, pp. 228-240.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: View of the crowd at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photo from the US National Archives at College Park, MD. Wikimedia Commons. 



Queries for Contemplation

What does the courage and holiness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his many co-marchers and non-violent resisters mean to you, this election year of 2024?


Recommended Reading

Christian Mystics: 365 Readings & Meditations

As Matthew Fox notes, when an aging Albert Einstein was asked if he had any regrets, he replied, “I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life.” The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.
“Our world is in crisis, and we need road maps that can ground us in wisdom, inspire us to action, and help us gather our talents in service of compassion and justice.  This revolutionary book does just that.  Matthew Fox takes some of the most profound spiritual teachings of the West and translates them into practical daily mediations.  Study and practice these teachings.  Take what’s in this book and teach it to the youth because the new generation cannot afford to suffer the spirit and ethical illiteracy of the past.” — Adam Bucko, spiritual activist and co-founder of the Reciprocity Foundation for Homeless Youth.

The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance

In what may be considered the most comprehensive outline of the Christian paradigm shift of our Age, Matthew Fox eloquently foreshadows the manner in which the spirit of Christ resurrects in terms of the return to an earth-based mysticism, the expression of creativity, mystical sexuality, the respect due the young, the rebirth of effective forms of worship—all of these mirroring the ongoing blessings of Mother Earth and the recovery of Eros, the feminine aspect of the Divine.
“The eighth wonder of the world…convincing proof that our Western religious tradition does indeed have the depth of imagination to reinvent its faith.” — Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story and Journey of the Universe.


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8 thoughts on “On Martin Luther King Jr., His Movement & His Mentors”

  1. Avatar

    Richard Rhor’s and Mathews DM for today are in sync with one another, complimenting each other as well as deepening our understanding of the creative nature of non-violence, through the resistance of non-compliance to injustice; which confronts crissises, by exposing truth in its raw nakedness. Injustices unveiled in this manner result in the unfolding, evolving emergence of change and transformation becoming… even if only in what first appears as incremental movements forward.

    I think of Neil Armstrongs words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” People like Ghandi, MLK, Thurman and many others have embodied the living Spirit and essence of the human potential contained within those words… right here on Earth. Never underestimate the small step of new beginnings… you never know just what they may lead to.

  2. Avatar

    We always seem to hear and read stories written about the most famous non-violent peace activists, like MLK Jr and Gandhi and their most shining moments. But what did it take to get them into the ‘state of being’ to bear such fruit? What was their long, enduring and painful at times journey that got them through to their visible ‘breakthroughs’ if we are to call them that? What were the seeds sown in their hearts and what are the same seeds that we can all sow? Everything we sow, whether resulting in either ‘good, bad or indifferent outcomes’, all start out as small seeds that we nourish and grow.

    There is never a time that we can’t be planting and growing ‘our seeds’. Inaction is still a conscious or unconscious choice of action. Being ‘inert’ is a choice. Stubbornness, pride and the need to be ‘in control’ and deny change, are all actions. Do we choose to be conscious and aware / awake or put our heads in the sand / fall asleep? Every moment we are choosing peace and non-violence or not. All is our choice, our accountability, our responsibility, never to be left in the hands of a few ‘highly esteemed leaders’, elsewise we are facing the same issues 60 years later. — BB.

  3. Avatar

    Your last paragraph where you stated that racism doesn’t disappear but morphs into new forms hit me in a way that was most disturbing because the evidence is clearly there. I thought about how often (in church and elsewhere) we have prayed for an end to racism. If racism is part of the human condition, which it appears to be, should we be praying for something else, maybe something more practical? Are laws and their application the only device we have? I do want to think that God can change the human heart if we only ask. Must racism in some form go on forever?

  4. Avatar

    On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, thank you Matthew for reminding us of the deep ecumenical spiritual roots of his civil rights movement based on universal Love~Truth~Peace~Justice~Healing~Transformation~Compassion… for All our sisters and brothers around the world.
    We are All evolving in our hearts~Souls and Lives with one another with-in Our SOURCE~COCREATOR’S SPIRIT of DIVERSE LOVING ONENESS to help bring about/manifest GOD’S DIVINE Queendom~Kingdom on Earth as it is in HEAVEN….

  5. Avatar

    This prayer from Howard Thurman really helped me recently. I can see how this prayer bloomed in MLK Jr, and is still blooming

    Lord, open unto me
    Open unto me — light for my darkness.
    Open unto me — courage for my fear.
    Open unto me — hope for my despair.
    Open unto me — peace for my turmoil.
    Open unto me — joy for my sorrow.
    Open unto me — strength for my weakness.
    Open unto me — wisdom for my confusion.
    Open unto me — forgiveness for my sins.
    Open unto me — love for my hates.
    Open unto me — thy Self for my self.
    Lord, Lord, open unto me!
    Amen.

  6. Avatar
    Katherine Sogolow

    Thanks for this post. Rachel Maddow’s book PREQUEL is a sobering testament to the depth and endurance of institutional prejudice that grips our country and the world to this day, which we must counter with reconciliation and deep empathy.

  7. Avatar

    “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” — Martin Luther King Jr., from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Considering the incendiary cooperation of white evangelicals with the movement begun by the former president, this statement (made in one way or another by Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) feels more and more relevant all the time. And I am more and more challenged. As a Christian (but not a white evangelical), what does this require me to do? I believe I have been cooperating with good, but what does it mean for me to stop cooperating with evil?

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