Raab in Forbes: 10 People Who Inspired Martin Luther King

As originally published on Forbes.com

10 People Who Inspired Martin Luther King (And He Hoped Would Inspire Us)

On March 31, 1968, just days before his assassination, in one of his final public appearances, Martin Luther King gave a great speech, and while it is not as famous as others, it is my favorite.  It is bathed in the optimism and confidence that has made Dr. King an enduring and universally admired figure.  It was a short speech by comparison but deeply personal and inspiring.  It is beautiful.

One of the reasons I love this speech is what it teaches us about Dr. King’s inspiration.  Volumes are written on the libraries of the great men and women of history.   We want to read what those we admired read.  Perhaps what inspired them will inspire us; what made them great will help make us better.

So what writers and works inspired King?  He told us in this 1968 speech and in others at the end of his life.  He saw the community of humanity as broad, moral, and extending beyond his own struggle.  Excluding The Bible, which he quoted often, his literary references go back nearly four centuries and cover at least four continents.  Better than most, Dr. King peppered his addresses and writings with powerful proverbs, quotations, and complex metaphors, some of which he explained and others which would speak for themselves.  He used these to inspire us and to summon us to better things, painting the picture of an inexorable march toward truth that bound us all (of any race) together.  Here are ten people whom King quoted, some often, and whom he continued to quote until the end.

1) Thomas Carlyle.  On more than one occasion, Dr. King said, “We shall overcome, because Carlyle is right, ‘No lie can live forever,’” as he did in March of 1968.   Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish writer and historian during the Victorian era.   After his first great work, Sartor Resartus, in which one man is followed on his own search for truth, Carlyle moved to history and wrote a book entitled The French Revolution.  In this, Carlyle saw morality, truth, and justice in the great events in history.  Dr. King is quoting this history book.

2) William Cullen Bryant.  In combination with his quote of Carlyle, King would add, “William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”  Bryant was an American poet and long-time editor of the New York Evening Post.  King here referred to his poem “The Battlefield,” which compares the lifelong struggle for truth to soldiers at war.  The broader context, comparing truth to victory and error to defeat is: “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again; The eternal years of God are hers;  But Error, wounded, writhes in pain, And dies among his worshipers.”

3) James Russell Lowell. Along with Carlyle and Bryant, King would add one final quotation to this section of his speech, and he did so here: “We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’”  Both Lowell and Bryant were among the first American poets to rival their British counterparts in popularity.  They belonged to a group we now call the Fireside Poets.  This quotation is from “The Present Crisis,” Lowell’s 1845 work about the slavery crisis that inspired Dr. King and also was the inspiration for the NAACP’s main publication, The Crisis.

4) John Donne. A few weeks before his March 31 speech, speaking at Grosse Point High School, Dr. King quoted Donne in saying, “‘No man is an island.’”  Donne was an English poet who wrote around the turn of the 17th century.   King explained the context, his inspiration: “The tide that fills every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And [Donne] goes on toward the end to say, ‘any man’s death diminishes me because I’m involved in mankind. Therefore, it’s not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’ Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

5) Gandhi.  Earlier, in a 1962 religious sermon in Los Angeles, King counseled against anger and hate, saying, “There is another way… as modern as Gandhi saying through Thoreau, that ‘non‑cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.’”  King read the works of Gandhi and quoted him throughout his life.  There is a direct line of the teachings of civil disobedience and peaceful demonstration from Dr. King through Gandhi and to numbers 6 and 7 on this list.

6) Henry David Thoreau.  The above quote is actually referencing Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, an essay by the Transcendentalist author, who wrote Walden but also wrote this text on the obligation of the people to non-violently disobey laws they believe are unlawful.  ”No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau,” King wrote in his autobiography.

7) Leo Tolstoy.  In his own writings, Dr. King pointed to the Russian writer as a primary source of his inspiration. King read Tolstoy and his religious texts, as well as War and Peace, as did Gandhi before him.

8) Washington Irving.  On March 31, the same day as his other speech, Dr. King also addressed an audience at the National Cathedral in Washington, saying: “The most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution.”  ”Rip Van Winkle” is the famous story by the 19th century storyteller, Washington Irving, about a man who goes to sleep while King George III rules the colonies and wakes up in a new world where George Washington is President.  King continued in this speech, “All too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

9) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Carnegie Council describes an address that King gave a few months before his death to the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He said, “May it not be that the new man the world needs is the non-violent man? Longfellow said: ‘In this world a man must either be an anvil or the hammer.’ We must be hammers shaping a new society rather than anvils molded by the old.” Longfellow was also one of the Fireside Poets.

10) Ralph Waldo Emerson. Also shortly before his death, in October of 1967, Dr. King spoke to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. He said, “Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, ‘If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’ This hasn’t always been true — but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil.” Emerson, like Thoreau, was a Transcendentalist author who was among the intellectual leaders of the movement. They opposed slavery and spoke out against it before the Civil War.

I have omitted from this list Jesus and The Bible.  These warrant special mention because Christian religious texts are Dr. King’s strongest source of inspiration and appear in nearly every major address he gave.  As an example, on March 31, he said, “We shall overcome because the Bible is right, ‘You shall reap what you sow.’” This is a paraphrase of Galatins 6, verses 7-9: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”

For those who want more on this subject, I recommend ”Martin Luther King’s Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric,” by Wolfgang Mieder.

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