On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Two days later, after the first day of a boycott to challenge bus segregation, its organizers discussed whether they should end the boycott. They put off a decision and headed to a protest rally at Holt Street Baptist Church, where lightning struck. Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor lacking almost any background in social activism, electrified the Holt Street gathering with a sensational address. King had no time to prepare his speech, but like Parks, he had prepared for this moment without knowing it. She was a department-store seamstress who acted spontaneously on December 1, though she was also the secretary of the local NAACP and knew that a plan existed to challenge bus segregation. He was uniquely suited to inspire and hold together America’s greatest liberation movement. Had King not lived in Montgomery, someone else would have had to emerge to lead the civil rights movement. But had King lived anywhere else, lightning would not have struck in Montgomery.

He did not come from nowhere. Long before King burst on the national scene, there was a tradition of black social-gospel leaders who tried to abolish Jim Crow and the mania of racial lynching, refuted the racist culture that demeaned their human dignity, and formed a succession of protest organizations. They showed that progressive theology could be combined with social-justice politics in black-church contexts. They refused to give up on the black churches, even as a chorus of black and white intellectuals contended that black churches were hopelessly self-centered, provincial, insular, anti-intellectual, and conservative. The black social gospel is strangely overlooked, but it provided the theology of social justice that the civil rights movement preached and sang, and without it King would not have known what to say when lightning struck in Montgomery.

To black social gospel leaders, the Gandhian revolt was thrilling without qualification, whatever one made of the strategic factors.

King’s role models were black social-gospel leaders who came of age in the 1920s, and their role models were founders of the black social gospel. Both groups were enthralled in the 1920s by the spectacle of unarmed people of color rebelling against British colonialism in India. They noted the parallels and debated the differences between Indian and black American oppression. In the early going, they didn’t know that Mohandas Gandhi was deeply influenced by Booker T. Washington, or that Gandhi took white supremacy for granted during his earlier campaign for equal rights in South Africa, counting South Africa’s wealthy Indian Muslims and poor indentured Indian Hindus as white. To black social gospel leaders, the Gandhian revolt was thrilling without qualification, whatever one made of the strategic factors. Reverdy Ransom, in AME Church Review, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, future Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays, in the Pittsburgh Courier, and future Howard University President Mordecai Johnson, on the lecture circuit every week, talked about Gandhi constantly. For many, the “Gandhi issue” reduced to one question: Where is our Gandhi?

Every call for a Gandhi-like savior evoked cheers, caveats, and rejoinders. India was different from the United States, and Gandhi was different from any conceivable black American equivalent. India had traditions of holy figures who fasted and sacrificed for a cause. Too much focus on moral heroes was disabling. Gandhi spoke for India’s entire working class, a far cry from the African-American situation. Gandhi rebelled against colonialism and untouchability, not the Indian caste system, but Jim Crow segregation was like the caste system. Black Americans had more to lose by opting for civil disobedience, because black Americans were a small minority in the United States and they had real economic gains to lose.

W.E.B. Du Bois was America’s leading proponent of global solidarity for non-white peoples. He did more than anyone to inform African Americans about Gandhi’s campaigns and importance, and he did it with colorful, quotable zingers. Yet Du Bois was also a leading exponent of every objection just summarized. Du Bois said nothing came close to India in exposing the rotten tyrannical core of European imperialism. He lionized Gandhi repeatedly as the apostle of an almost miraculous anticolonial revolution. He treasured Gandhi as the world’s leading enemy of white supremacy. But Gandhi-like civil disobedience, Du Bois judged, would not work for black Americans, who needed to stick with agitation and publicity.

W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1911

Black social gospel ministers of the 1930s and ’40s were schooled in this debate over the meaning of the Gandhian revolution and the applicability of the Gandhi example. Some agreed with Du Bois about the limits of Gandhi’s approach in the United States. Some were the opposite, spurning black internationalism while pining for a Gandhi-like rebel. Most agreed with Du Bois that Gandhi was singularly exemplary regardless of how one came out on strategic considerations, and nearly all agreed with Du Bois that the protest tradition in black politics represented by the National Association of Colored People, of which Du Bois was a founder, needed to prevail. Mordecai Johnson folded a pro-Gandhi section into his stump speeches in 1930 and delivered it tirelessly for the next thirty years. Benjamin Mays and spiritual theologian Howard Thurman had personal encounters with Gandhi in India that shaped their activism and teaching. All were major influences on King before and after Montgomery.

Johnson, the first black president of Howard, was a graduate of Morehouse College, the University of Chicago, Rochester Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School. A legendary speaker on the social-gospel lecture circuit, he espoused liberal theology, democratic socialism, anticolonial internationalism, civil rights progressivism, anti-anti-Communism, and Gandhian nonviolence. One of Johnson’s trademark lectures on Gandhi made a riveting impression on King. But Johnson was consumed by Howard University and embattled there. Many Howard professors looked down on ministers, claiming that Johnson ran the university in tyrannical preacher fashion. Some choked on his politics too, as did many alums and outsiders. Johnson prevailed over his critics, guiding Howard until his retirement in 1960. His sparkling lecture career and persistent battling for racial justice established the gold standard for Mays, Thurman, and King. But Johnson’s long embattlement at Howard disqualified him from the role that fell to King.

Doctrines that got in the way of preaching about social evils, social justice, and God’s favor for the poor and oppressed were useless and distracting.

Like Johnson, Mays was a schoolmaster disciplinarian and quintessential social-gospel progressive. He grew up viciously oppressed in South Carolina, clawed his way to an education, and earned a PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Then he served as dean of the School of Religion at Howard, forming a social-gospel trio with Johnson and Thurman that lifted the university. Then Mays took command of Morehouse College, where he mentored King. Mays implored black churches to adopt his combination of social-gospel theology and racial-justice politics, and he pushed the American and international ecumenical movements to deal with racism. At bottom, Mays was a moralist and, as he said, “a race man.” Theologically, by his lights, he stuck to what mattered, preaching about the kingdom of God, the social ethical teaching of Jesus, the sin of individuals and society, the way of the cross, and the providential grace of God, very much like Johnson. Mays emphatically rejected conservative claims that the social gospel substituted progressive politics for Christian doctrine. To him, doctrines that got in the way of preaching about social evils, social justice, and God’s favor for the poor and oppressed were useless and distracting.

Thurman had the usual Southern-black childhood experience of never imagining that a friendly relationship with a white person was possible. The Klan controlled politics in his hometown, Daytona Beach, and the entire state of Florida had only three public high schools for black children. His life changed when he heard Johnson give a stirring speech at a YMCA Conference. Listening to Johnson, Thurman found a model of who he wanted to be. He took Johnson’s path to Morehouse and Rochester Seminary, joined the faculty at Howard after Johnson became president, and became a star performer on the lecture circuit. 

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. addressing the citizens' committee mass meeting, Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

The trio of Johnson, Mays, and Thurman, upon establishing black internationalism and Gandhian nonviolence at Howard, compelled Howard professors to reconsider their low opinion of theologians, religion, and the School of Religion. All three came up through YMCA ecumenism. For them, the path to Gandhian internationalism ran through Protestant missionary societies, especially the YMCA and its youth activist offspring, the Student Christian Movement. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Thurman was supposed to be the answer to the Gandhi question. He heard it constantly on the lecture circuit.

But Thurman did not have the temperament to be a political leader, or even the willingness to speak for racial justice in the manner of Johnson and Mays. Political advocacy felt crude to him, and he tired of the classroom too. Increasingly he gave himself to his inward mystical spirituality. He disappointed his friends and spouse by accepting a ministerial call to an interracial congregation in San Francisco, applying to himself the advice he gave to others, his best-known saying: “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and do it. For what the world needs is people who are fully alive.” Thurman had his greatest influence on the black freedom movement in the early 1940s, on the lecture circuit, where he fended off the Gandhi question. Then he became a sage and author, exerting a different kind of influence. And his influence grew after he was gone.

For a long time the symbol of church-based racial justice militancy was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. His father was a famous social gospel pastor at the Abyssinian Church in Harlem, and in 1930 he joined his father at Abyssinian. Powell became a prominent community leader, crusading for jobs and affordable housing. In 1938 he succeeded his father as pastor at Abyssinian, preaching social-gospel progressivism. In 1944 he became New York State’s first black representative in Congress and the first from any Northern state besides Illinois since Reconstruction.

Powell ended business as usual in the House of Representatives. Stubbornly, proudly, defiantly, by himself, sometimes gleefully, he forced the House to deal with racial segregation, week after week. He blasted segregation and challenged segregationists to defend their policies. He condemned racist language on the House floor, defied segregationists in his party, and goaded liberals to take a stand against racial caste. He added “Powell Amendments” to bills proposing federal expenditures, denying federal funds to segregated jurisdictions. The Powell defunding strategy was engrafted in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Powell steered much of the Great Society legislation through his congressional committee.

For most of his career, Powell was the only nationally prominent black politician, period. He had a vivid theological imagination, a liberal theology steeped in romanticism, and a devoted following at the Abyssinian Church. But Powell clashed with King and other civil rights leaders, offending King in 1960 with a malicious threat that severed King’s alliance with pacifist and movement-organizer Bayard Rustin for three years. When Rustin, King, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph pulled off the historic March on Washington in 1963, they kept Powell off the speakers’ platform, and Powell’s congressional career ended badly in 1971. He was charismatic and arrogant, righteous and corrupt, and religious and cynical. He mystified allies and enemies alike with his contradictions. Among black social-gospel leaders, only King accomplished more than Powell, but Powell damaged his own legacy.

Among black social-gospel leaders, only King accomplished more than Powell, but Powell damaged his own legacy.

The person who tried hardest to play the Gandhi role was James Farmer. When Montgomery erupted in 1955, Farmer had been trying for fourteen years to spark a civil rights revolution with exactly the Gandhian tactics that King subsequently employed, working with the same movement professionals who joined King. Farmer studied in the late 1930s under Thurman and Mays at Howard, where his father taught theology. In 1941, while working as an organizer for the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Farmer tried to convert FOR to Gandhi-style agitation against racial segregation. The following year he co-founded CORE—the Congress of Racial Equality—a scrappy, scattered, interracial offshoot of FOR. Both organizations were small leftwing groups with little chance of scaling up. In addition, Farmer worked with trade unions that did the minimum, or less, for racial justice.

Farmer tried and failed to win for his organizations some of the spotlight that fell on Randolph, America’s only prominent black labor leader. He and Randolph never quite worked together, although each had something the other needed, and Farmer cut himself off from churches not belonging to his leftist orbit. Farmer, Randolph, Du Bois, and many others were shocked when America’s Gandhi turned out to be a young Baptist minister lacking any activist experience. Years later Farmer recalled, “We knew what we were doing, but no one else did.” CORE, to him, seemed like a flea gnawing on the ear of an elephant. Not only did CORE’s numerous sit-ins and pickets fail to bring the beast to its knees. It was hard to pretend that the beast even noticed.

Pauli Murray, a lawyer who became the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, was involved in those early demonstrations during the same period that she was the only female member of her class at Howard Law School. In my second volume on the black social gospel tradition, Breaking White Supremacy, I had a difficult time placing her in this story. Diane Nash, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer were easy to place, because they were movement organizers. They were marginalized for being female, but very much on the scene. Murray, on the other hand, overlapped the entire story of the black social gospel in the civil rights movement, but never gained entry. For a while I sprinkled her into every chapter, showing what excluded her this time or that time. But that diminished her importance, so I held her entire story until the end, making her life a commentary on a tradition that silenced women.

Marchers with SCLC sign for the Savannah Freedom Now Movement, during the March on Washington, 1963

The civil rights movement was a phase, from 1955 to 1968, of the black freedom movement, and it made King, not the other way around. There is no King without the black social gospel forerunners who inspired him and the civil rights activists who lifted him up. But King is the shining star of the civil rights movement. His brilliance electrified the Montgomery boycott on its first night and sustained that campaign against enraged opposition. Then he linked the two different movements that constituted the civil rights movement, personally fusing the fledgling, theatrical, church-based movement in the South to the venerable, professional, mostly secular movement in the North. Rustin and FOR stalwart Glenn Smiley rushed to Montgomery to offer Gandhian expertise, King met socialist organizers Randolph, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison through Rustin, and in 1957 Rustin persuaded King to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King stocked SCLC with high-voltage preachers who deferred to him: Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Joseph Lowery. Later he added Wyatt Walker, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and C. T. Vivian, eventually placing Andrew Young in charge of corralling an unruly crew.

King rightly figured that the movement needed a church-based organization dedicated to spreading protest wildfire. The NAACP was too formal, membership-based, and consumed with marching through the courts to light a fire. For a while, SCLC did not do much better; it took the student sit-in explosion of 1960 and the founding of the confrontational Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to push King’s organization into actual Gandhian disruption, not merely talking about it. Gradually King realized that his group needed to raise hell in the most hostile cities it could find, so he got more intentional about choosing combative personalities for it. SCLC became a fire-alarm outfit relying on street theater and heroic agitation, spurning the preference of Baker and SNCC for long-term, grassroots, community organizing. The preacher spellbinders of SCLC thus seemed older than they were, compared to SNCC. But both organizations stoked protest wildfire in ways that King’s leadership inspired. His ability to galvanize and personify the civil rights movement symbolizes why the black social gospel matters and what made him singularly important.

There is no King without the black social gospel forerunners who inspired him and the civil rights activists who lifted him up.

His Southern clerical-family upbringing and his graduate education at Northern theological schools prepared him to play this role. Any reading that minimizes King’s upbringing or graduate education misconstrues him, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel tradition he embraced. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him, and then at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, where the prominent Baptist preacher and writer J. Pius Barbour was his pastor. At Crozer and Boston University, King adopted a socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. He fashioned these perspectives into the most compelling public theology of the twentieth century, mobilizing religious and political communities that had almost no history of working together.

King’s understanding of democratic socialism and his commitment to it came straight out of the social gospel. As a student at Crozer Seminary and Boston University School of Theology he absorbed Walter Rauschenbusch’s seminal Christian socialist books Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), which argued that capitalism is hostile to democracy and inimical to Christian ethics. Rauschenbusch championed radical economic democracy—cooperatives, mixed forms of worker and community ownership, syndical-based unions, socialized banks, and nationalized monopolies and major industrial enterprises—contending that political democracy cannot survive without economic democracy. These arguments defined Christian socialism for decades after Rauschenbusch’s death in 1918, shaping the Christian socialists who influenced King. It mattered greatly to King that Johnson, Mays, Thurman, Farmer, and Barbour were followers of Rauschenbusch on political economy. Moreover, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote his most important works during his socialist phase, and King’s dean at Boston University, Walter Muelder, was a Rauschenbusch socialist. King lamented to insiders throughout his career that he could not talk about democratic socialism in public, a constraint that frustrated him immensely in his last years.

His commitment to personal idealism was nurtured by black-church preaching that he was “somebody” in God’s image and deepened by his studies at Crozer and Boston University. King chose Boston University because it taught personal idealism and half of America’s black doctoral students in religion went there. On Gandhian nonviolence, King was vague and uncertain until Montgomery erupted and Rustin rushed to Montgomery. King had a socialist-personalist-Gandhian model in Muelder, but more important, when King entered the ministry he had models of everything he cared about in Johnson, Mays, Thurman, and Barbour. If they could blend black-church religion, modern intellectualism, and social-justice politics, so could he; in fact, he was called to do so. King stuck to these commitments throughout his career, in changing configurations. He liked that he had a philosophical foundation, a variant of post-Kantian idealism, although he acquired critics who thought it quaint that he wanted one. He insisted repeatedly that he was committed to Gandhian nonviolence as a spiritual-ethical way of life, not merely a movement strategy, although he accepted Niebuhr’s critiques of both.

Martin Luther King, Jr. with Boston University President Harold C. Case

When King told the story of his intellectual development, he emphasized the white theologians and philosophers he read in seminary, which obscured the role of his cultural and religious formation. It took a great deal of scholarly deconstruction to correct the misleading account that King provided in playing to white audiences. Then scholars reacted to revelations about King’s sexual behavior and faulty citation practices by claiming that his graduate education was not much of an education and he never cared about it anyway. Some of our best King scholars, notably David Garrow, Keith Miller, and David Levering Lewis, demeaned King’s intellectual seriousness and his teachers by claiming that King only pretended to learn what his professors pretended to teach him. Others piled on by claiming, wrongly, that the liberal theology taught at Crozer and Boston was thin religious humanism not worth studying.

Personal idealism was a theory of the transcendent reality of personal spirit and the organic unity of nature in spirit. King’s teachers put a personalizing Christian stamp on strains of philosophical idealism deriving from Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Rudolf Hermann Lotze. King wrote a dense dissertation that defended the existence of a personal God and a moral order, identifying personality with self-consciousness and self-direction. He criticized impersonal theologies that conceded too much to materialism and positivism, explaining that moral truth, not merely a theological position, was at stake. I have much at stake in showing why King prized the personal idealism he studied and why it mattered to him for the rest of his life. Thus my book Breaking White Supremacy goes long on this subject.

If the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, racism is distinctly evil.

King’s mainstay in a turbulent world was the fusion of black-church faith and personal idealist theology that he brought with him to Montgomery—a belief in the divine ground and infinite value of human personality. He said so repeatedly, riffing for his entire career on the barrel of sermons he preached during his one year of parish ministry. If the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, racism is distinctly evil. Evil is precisely that which degrades and destroys personality. King was an exemplar of his twofold theme that freedom has no reality apart from power and that power is integral to hope and liberation. Freedom is participation in power. To King, the goal of the civil-rights movement was to transform the lack of power of black Americans into creative, vital, interpersonal, organized power—the ability to achieve a purpose. All could be free, but only if all were empowered to participate. King epitomized the black social gospel at its best and most radical, which made him the first in the line of what came to be called, shortly after his death, liberation theology.

I have framed my two volumes on the black social gospel to explicate the tradition of social-justice theology that led to King, and to emphasize King’s radicalism. I am therefore making a continuity argument about a wrongly overlooked tradition, but always in a way that emphasizes its multiple ideological and theological currents, some of which were quite conservative. King’s father, for example, identified with the social gospel in a broad sense of the category, and was a prominent pastor in Atlanta. But for all that Daddy King influenced his son, neither Daddy King nor any of his Atlanta civic leader buddies would have kept the bus strike going in Montgomery, or struck hard in Birmingham, or raised hell in Chicago, or opposed the Vietnam War, or spurned President Lyndon Johnson, or marched with garbage workers in Memphis, or called a Poor People’s Campaign of marchers to Washington, D.C. The King movement must be continually re-narrated, refashioning what happened and why it fell far short of Martin’s Dream of a decent society, much less the Beloved Community.

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include his first volume on the Black social-gospel tradition, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award; and his second volume, Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award. This article is based on volume three, A Darkly Radiant Vision, to be published in 2023 by Yale University Press.

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Published in the October 6, 2017 issue: View Contents
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