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The act created the Civil Rights Commission, established the Civil Right Division of the Justice Department, and empowered the federal government to seek court injunctions against obstruction of voting rights.1 The same month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to escort nine black students to Little Rock Central High, a previously all-white high school. A thousand paratroopers are sent to restore order, and troops remain on campus for an entire school year. In early February of 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King depart for a month long trip to India, whereas the guests of Prime Minister Nehru, studied Gandhi s techniques of nonviolence. During his lifetime he had a life and vision. They were to building a world community of justice, peace, brother and sisterhood between all of the races of the world. Dr. King was an earnest student who took the subject matter of the course seriously. Dr. Martin Luther King grew up in a religious environment. Dr. King has stated many times that the problem of race is indeed America s greatest moral dilemma. During his life, Dr. King was undoubtedly aware of many black religious leaders who combined academic erudition with a thorough grounding in African-American religious traditions. While at Crozer Seminary, King often debated theological and political issues with J. Pius Barbour, a family friend and Morehouse graduate, who had graduated from the seminary a decade before King s arrival. When Thurman became Boston University s Dean of the Chapel, he developed a personal acquaintance with King, Jr., who was then attending the university. Benefiting from this extensive exposure to proponents of African-American social gospel, King was able to perceive theological training as a means of reconciling his inclination to follow his father s calling with his desire for intellectual respectability. King s descriptions of his decision to enter the ministry reveal that he had accepted the social mission of the church even though he had not yet resolved his theological doubts. He realized that the Baptist religion he had absorbed during his youth had derived mainly from daily contact with church life rather than from theological reflection. Growing up in the church provided a substitute for orthodox theological convictions; born a Baptist, he never felt the need to affirm all the tenets of the denomination. The consistency of King s basic religious and political convictions throughout his life suggest that his collegiate training was not a changing experience but was rather a refinement of preexisting religious attitudes. Recognizing that a Ph.D. Degree from a northern university would set him apart from most other Baptist ministers, he approached his graduate education with skepticism and perhaps even a touch of cynicism, self-consciously acquiring academic credentials that would add intellectual respectability to ingrained beliefs rooted in early religious experiences. King s rejection of scriptural literalism did not lead him away from the Baptist church but toward an increasing interest in liberal theology. His understanding that religious belief could be rooted in reason also enabled him to think more seriously about an idea he had previously rejected; becoming a minister. Dr. King s father had always wanted both of his sons to follow his career choice, to serve as a pastor in their congregation. A crucial period in King s deliberations about his career came during the summer of 1947, when he led religious services for his fellow student workers at a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut. Even before leaving Atlanta he had received his preaching license, and more than he had during his 1944 stay in Simsbury he welcomed the opportunity to lead the weekly religious gatherings at the farm. After several weeks of deliberation, he telephoned his mother from Simsbury to tell her of his intention to become a minister. By the time he returned to Morehouse for his final year, he had pushed doubts out of his mind. His initial inclination to become a doctor or lawyer was overwhelmed by a feeling where he wanted to serve god, but at the same time help people. The decision was the culmination of his experiences. My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. During my senior year in college I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become.2 Once the decision was made, King s friends recognized its inevitability, given his experiences, contacts, and abilities because he knew intuitively how to move an audience. King resolved to become a minister, but he continued to reject the anti-intellectualism that he associated with fundamentalism. His additional critical study of biblical texts and religious practices was driven by a desire to strengthen the rationale for a decision he had already made. King s graduate school education should be viewed within the context of his struggle to synthesize his father s Christian practices and his own theological skepticism. King eclectically drew upon the writings of academic theologians as he moved away from Christian liberalism toward a theological synthesis closer to aspects of his father s religious faith, particularly toward a conception of God as a source of support in times of personal need. Rather than becoming more liberal in college, he became increasingly skeptical of intellectualized conceptions of divinity. As he continued his studies, King found his initial attraction to liberal theology going through a state of transition. His personal experience with a vicious race problem had made it very difficult to believe in the essential goodness of man for him. While remaining wary of his father s conventional religious beliefs, King was becoming, he acknowledged, a victim of eclecticism, seeking to synthesize the best in liberal theology with the best in neo-orthodox theology. King conceded that he was still quite confused as to which definition of God was the most adequate. Its emphasis on the reality of personal religious experience validated King s own religious experiences. King reaffirmed his belief that every man, from the ordinary simple hearted believer to the philosophical intellectual giant, may find God through religious experience. By the time King entered Boston University, he was learning how to use his theological training to enrich his preaching and, in the process, return to his roots as a Baptist preacher. King s academic theological studies at Crozer had encouraged him to question many aspects of his religious heritage, but by his final year King had also become skeptical of many tenets of theological liberalism. The church of his parents and grandparents had imparted an understanding of God and of the purposes of Christian ministry that could not be displaced by theological sophistication. Given the academic environment in which he attended graduate school, it is hardly surprising that King s theological writings did not explicitly draw upon the insights of African-American religion. Yet, although King s graduate school writings understated the degree to which his attitudes had been shaped by African-American religious writings, he was certainly aware of the publications of Kelsey and Mays and probably those of Thurman and Borders. Once accustomed to contrasting the religious emotionalism of his father s religion with the intellectual sophistication he saw in the writings of white academic theologians, King became aware during his graduate research that orthodox Christianity was not necessarily anti-intellectual. Overall, King s theological development in seminary and graduate school reflected his lifelong tendency to incorporate the best elements of each alternative. As when choosing between capitalism and communism or between power politics and pacifism, King sought to synthesize alternative theological orientations: an adequate understanding of man is found neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo-orthodoxy, but in a synthesis that reconciles the truths of both. King described his graduate training as an attempt to bring together the best in liberal theology with the best in neo-orthodox theology3 in order to come to an understanding of man. His enormous respect for the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr derived from the pleasure he felt in finding a theological stance that synthesized faith and intellect. He probably heard echoes of his father s fundamentalism in Reinhold Neibuhr s neo-orthodoxy, which reaffirmed the limits of human perfectibility. Neibuhr provided an intellectual rationale for King s recognition of the limitations of liberal theology. By the time he finished his course work, King had come to affirm some of the enduring values of his religious heritage, particularly conceptions of a divine goodness capable of acting in history.


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