MLK’s Mentors & Influencers
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. locks arms with his aides as he leads a march of several thousands to the court house in Montgomery, Ala., March 17, 1965. From left: Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Foreman, King, Jesse Douglas, Sr., and John Lewis (partially out of frame). (AP Photo)

We do most historical figures, and ourselves, a grave disservice by the way deceased giants are taught and presented to us in books, movies and interviews.

Consistent with the United States’ penchant for promoting “rugged individualism,” historical figures are, more often than not, taught as if they committed to their courageous acts as if assured of the outcome. They were not.

“These women and men history-makers and game-changers, had no guarantees their actions would lead to a particular victory,” said Randy Mwenda Brown, senior pastor of Shrine Atlanta. “Presenting their actions as such strips them of their humanity, and ignores the very real human doubts, fears and challenges they had to muster up the courage to face.

They had no guarantees that their lunch counter protests, marches along dangerous, southern highways would produce a changed society. Yet, they stepped out on faith and acted anyway.”

Brown says the other problem with how many historical figures are taught is that they are presented as singular individuals acting alone.

Anthony Carter, a minister in the United Church of Christ, says this approach robs both the historical figure and those learning about them.

“When we teach the Brother Malcolm, Mary McCleod Bethune or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did what they did as if on an island, it ignores their need for a group, their need for community, their very human need for supports on each and every weak and leaning side.”

Carter suggests that the western view of relying on others for support as a weakness is at fault for this way of teaching historical figures as if they had no support system or mentors they often leaned on for support and guidance.

“I, however, view a person’s ability to connect with and utilize the help of those in the family, community or organizations, as a sign of true strength and wisdom,” added Carter.

To this point, the Defender shares some of the most influential mentors of King, as he is most often the victim of teachings presenting him as a lone wolf with no connections or supports.

Dr. Benjamin Mays

When King was a student at Morehouse College, Benjamin Mays was president of the school. Mays, who was a prominent educator and Christian minister, became one of King’s mentors early in his life. King characterized Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College while he was a student, as his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.” During the regular morning sermons Mays presented to Morehouse students he integrated the importance of history into his messages in a way that left an indelible impression upon the young King. From there, King regularly went to Mays to discuss thebig social challenges of the day. From those discussion grew a mentor/mentee relationship between the two. Mays remained a King mentor until King’s death (assassination) in 1968.

Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, speaks at the Jeannette Rankin news conference on Jan. 3, 1968. (AP Photo/Jack Harris)

Ella Baker

Ella Baker, one of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements most often overlooked leaders, is said by some to have challenged King more than any other person. One scholar contends that even though Baker had a long history of grassroots organizing and believed she had much to offer the movement in terms of leadership and organizing, she was relegated to lesser duties due to a culture of male chauvinism in which some scholars say King fell victim to, like many other Black men during that period. But her positions must have impacted King. For, she was one of the most impactful mentors of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group of young activists who pushed King, the SCLC, NAACP and other elder-led civil rights organizations to take more progressive stances on the issues of the day. Though King clashed with SNCC on various occasions regarding tactics, he grew to work with and respect one of SNCC’s most progressive leaders—Stokely Carmichael. Such a powerful working relationship could not have flourished without the consistent insistence from Baker that the “old heads” get out of the way and let the young people (SNCC) do their thing.

Howard Thurman

Most people are quick to name Gandhi as the biggest influence upon King and his commitment to nonviolent, civil disobedience, but it was actually Howard Thurman who first introduced this strategy to King. Thurman was one of King’s professor at Boston University, and had personally met Gandhi in the 1930s. Thurman’s 1949 book ​Jesus and the Disinherited lifted up nonviolence civil disobedience as the perfect tool for the civil rights movement, and backed up his position with scriptures from the New Testament. Thurman went on to become known by many in historical and theological circles as the greatest theologian the United States has ever produced. His teachings not only inspired and impacted King, but countless women and men who played pivotal roles in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Vernon Johns

Few know that King succeeded Vernon Johns as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Even fewer know that Johns was a legendary pastor and activist in his own right. Johns’ sermons during the lead-up to the 1950s-60s Civil Rights Movement were considered so fiery and critical of white Christians for their abuse of Black people, and Black Christians for their hand’s off attitude towards the budding movement, that whites bombed Johns’ church and home multiple times. As for John’s Black and “boozhie” congregants, they were so tired of him demanding they involve themselves in the movement for Black civil and human rights that they fired him. There hope was to replace him with someone they could better control; a young preacher who would stick to preaching on Sundays and leading Bible Class on Wednesdays. They thought King was that person, but history shows he become even more of a local, national and international activist than even Johns. But what seemingly no one knows, is the fact that Johns remained a mentor to King and other religious leaders until his passing in 1965.

Mordecai Johnson

Like Mays and Thurman, Mordecai Johnson was considered one of the most influential Black religious leaders of the 20th Century. Long before King because the national spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson’s speeches were said to have inspired King to increase his study of Gandhi and his teachings. King described Johnson’s words as “profound and electrifying.”

Bayard Rustin. 1968 AP photo.

Bayard Rustin

There would be no successful Civil Rights Movement without the organizing genius of Bayard Rustin, a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who not only advised and assisted King in his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was the deputy director and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington

Malcolm X in 1963. AP

Malcolm X

The way King and Malcolm X are taught in most K-college classrooms presents them as polar opposites on strategies and aims for Black people and the movements impacting their lives. However, a closer read and/or hearing of King’s writings and speeches given during the last three years of his life often have him sounding more like Malcolm X and even Malcolm X. That Malcolm X impacted King’s leadership and worldview should not be surprising, as Malcolm influenced entire generations of individuals and organizations in the U.S. and abroad regarding the importance of self-reliance and self-determination.

Coretta and Martin. AP Photo, March 22, 1956.

Coretta Scott King

In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. by Clayborne Carson, King said, “My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle. While she had certain natural fears and anxieties concerning my welfare, she never allowed them to hamper my active participation in the movement. In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope. I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Corrie, I could not have withstood the ordeals and tensions surrounding the movement.” In addition, one of King’s most powerful positions, his opposition to the Vietnam War, was said to have been inspired by his wife’s ardent stance against the war.