5 Men Who Inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to Be a Leader

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967.

Martin Mills / Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr., once said, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."

King, the most prominent figure in the modern civil rights movement, worked in the public spotlight for 13 years—from 1955 to 1968—to fight for desegregation of public facilities, voting rights and an end to poverty. 

What men offered inspiration to King to lead these battles? 

Mahatma Gandhi is often noted as providing King with a philosophy that espoused civil disobedience and nonviolence at its core. 

It was men such as Howard Thurman, Mordecai Johnson, Bayard Rustin that introduced and encouraged King to read the teachings of Gandhi. 

Benjamin Mays, who was one of King's greatest mentors, provided King with an understanding of history. Many of King's speeches are sprinkled with words and phrases originated by Mays. 

And finally, Vernon Johns, who preceded King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, readied the congregation for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King's entrance into social activism. 

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Howard Thurman: First Introduction to Civil Disobedience

Howard Thurman and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1944
Howard Thurman and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1944.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

"Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

While King read many books about Gandhi, it was Howard Thurman who first introduced the concept of nonviolence and civil disobedience to the young pastor.

Thurman, who was King’s professor at Boston University, had traveled internationally during the 1930s. In 1935, he met Gandhi while leading a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” to India. The teachings of Gandhi stayed with Thurman throughout his life and career, inspiring a new generation of religious leaders such as King.

In 1949, Thurman published ​Jesus and the Disinherited. The text utilized New Testament gospels to support his argument that nonviolence could work in the civil rights movement. In addition to King, men such as James Farmer Jr. were motivated to use nonviolent tactics in their activism.

Thurman, considered one of the most influential African American theologians of the 20th Century, was born on November 18, 1900, in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Thurman graduated from Morehouse College in 1923. Within two years, he was an ordained Baptist minister after earning his seminary degree from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary. He taught at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio before receiving a faculty appointment at Morehouse College.

In 1944, Thurman would become pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. With a diverse congregation, Thurman’s church attracted prominent people such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Josephine Baker, and Alan Paton.

Thurman published more than 120 articles and books. He died in San Francisco on April 10, 1981. 

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Benjamin Mays: Lifelong Mentor

Benjamin Mays, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Benjamin Mays, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Domain

“To be honored by being requested to give the eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is like asking one to eulogize his deceased son — so close and so precious was he to me …. It is not an easy task; nevertheless I accept it, with a sad heart and with full knowledge of my inadequacy to do justice to this man.”

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 Mays as his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.” As president of Morehouse College, Mays held weekly inspirational morning sermons that were meant to challenge his students. For King, these sermons were unforgettable as Mays taught him how to integrate the importance of history in his speeches. After these sermons, King would often discuss issues such as racism and integration with Mays—sparking a mentorship that would last until King's assassination in 1968. When King was thrust into the national spotlight as the modern civil rights movement picked up steam, Mays remained a mentor who was willing to provide insight to many of King’s speeches.

Mays began his career in higher education when John Hope recruited him to become a math teacher and debate coach at Morehouse College in 1923. By 1935, Mays had earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. By then, he was already serving as Dean of the School of Religion at Howard University.

In 1940, he was appointed the president of Morehouse College. In a tenure that lasted 27 years, Mays expanded the school’s reputation by establishing a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, sustaining enrollment during World War II, and upgrading faculty. After he had retired, Mays served as president of the Atlanta Board of Education. Throughout his career, Mays would publish more than 2000 articles, nine books and receive 56 honorary degrees.

Mays was born on August 1, 1894, in South Carolina. He graduated from Bates College in Maine and served as a pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta before beginning his career in higher education. Mays died in 1984 in Atlanta. 

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Vernon Johns: Preceding Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Public Domain

“It is a heart strangely un-Christian that cannot thrill with joy when the least of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars.”

When King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954, the church’s congregation was already prepared for a religious leader who understood the importance of community activism.

King succeeded Vernon Johns, a pastor and activist who had served as the 19th pastor of the church.

During his four-year tenure, Johns was a forthright and fearless religious leader who sprinkled his sermons with classic literature, Greek, poetry and a need for a change to the segregation and racism that characterized the Jim Crow Era. John’s community activism included refusing to adhere to segregated public bus transportation, discrimination in the workplace, and ordering food from a white restaurant. Most notably, Johns helped Black girls who had been sexually assaulted by white men hold their attackers accountable.

In 1953, Johns resigned from his position at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He continued to work on his farm, served as editor of Second Century Magazine. He was appointed as the director of the Maryland Baptist Center.

Until his death in 1965, Johns mentored religious leaders such as King and Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy.

Johns was born in Virginia on April 22, 1892. Johns earned his divinity degree from Oberlin College in 1918. Before Johns accepted his position at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he taught and ministered, becoming ​one of the most prominent Black religious leaders in the United States. 

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Mordecai Johnson: Influential Educator

Mordecai Johnson, first African-American president of Howard University and Marian Anderson, 1935
Mordecai Johnson, first African-American president of Howard University and Marian Anderson, 1935.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

In 1950, King traveled to the Fellowship House in Philadelphia. King, not yet a prominent civil rights leader or even a grassroots activist yet, became inspired by the words of one of the speakers—Mordecai Wyatt Johnson.

Johnson, considered one of the most prominent Black religious leaders of the time, spoke of his love for Mahatma Gandhi. King found Johnson’s words “so profound and electrifying” that when he left the engagement, he purchased some books on Gandhi and his teachings.

Like Mays and Thurman, Johnson was considered one of the most influential Black religious leaders of the 20th Century. Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree from Atlanta Baptist College (currently known as Morehouse College) in 1911. For the next two years, Johnson taught English, history, and economics at his alma mater before earning a second bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. He went on to graduate from Rochester Theological Seminary, Harvard University, Howard University, and Gammon Theological Seminary.

In 1926, Johnson was appointed the president of Howard University. Johnson appointment was a milestone—he was the first Black person to hold the position. Johnson served as the University’s president for 34 years. Under his tutelage, the school became one of the best schools in the United States and the most prominent of the historically Black colleges and universities. Johnson expanded the school’s faculty, hiring notables such as E. Franklin Frazier, Charles Drew and Alain Locke and Charles Hamilton Houston.

After King’s success with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Howard University on behalf of Johnson. In 1957, Johnson offered King a position as dean of Howard University’s School of Religion. However, King decided not to accept the position because he believed he needed to continue his work as a leader in the civil rights movement.

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Bayard Rustin: Courageous Organizer

Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin. Public Domain

"If we desire a society in which men are brothers, then we must act towards one another with brotherhood. If we can build such a society, then we would have achieved the ultimate goal of human freedom."

Like Johnson and Thurman, Bayard Rustin also believed in Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy. Rustin shared these beliefs with King who incorporated them into his core beliefs as a civil rights leader.

Rustin's career as an activist began in 1937 when he joined the American Friends Service Committee.

Five years later, Rustin was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

By 1955, Rustin was advising and assisting King as they spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

1963 was possibly the highlight of Rustin's career: he served as deputy director and chief organizer of the March on Washington

During the Post-Civil Rights Movement era, Rustin continued to fight for the rights of people throughout the world by participating in the March for Survival on the Thai-Cambodian border; established the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Rights; and his report, South Africa: Is Peaceful Change Possible? which ultimately led to the establishment of the Project South Africa program. 

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Lewis, Femi. "5 Men Who Inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to Be a Leader." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/men-who-inspired-martin-luther-king-jr-4019032. Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). 5 Men Who Inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to Be a Leader. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/men-who-inspired-martin-luther-king-jr-4019032 Lewis, Femi. "5 Men Who Inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to Be a Leader." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/men-who-inspired-martin-luther-king-jr-4019032 (accessed June 10, 2023).