Many times, inspiration for great leaders comes at a young age. Years before Martin Luther King Jr. became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the Nobel Peace Prize recipient for combating racial inequality, he was a teenage boy working at a summer job. In his autobiography, he wrote, “Just before going to college I went to Simsbury, Connecticut, and worked for a whole summer on a tobacco farm to earn a little school money to supplement what my parents were doing.” In some ways, this point of his life didn’t look too different from that of teenagers today who are preparing to go off to college. But King faced a number of obstacles at the hands of racial inequality and realized that he would need to fight for change.
After that summer working in Connecticut, King returned to Atlanta and its segregationist policies, which strengthened his resolve to fight for racial justice. He , “The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.” This experience was a formative part in King’s journey to becoming the influential activist we think of today, but that journey likely began much earlier—maybe even the day he was born.
King had a happy, healthy childhood; when he was born, the doctor even said that he was a “one hundred percent perfect child” from a health standpoint. His parents rarely argued, and though they weren’t confrontational, they taught him from an early age that he—and all people—should be treated with respect, which would require him to stand up for himself and others in the face of injustice. In his autobiography, he recalled how his mother told him, “You are as good as anyone” and said that he needed to have a sense of “somebodiness” in order to “face a system that stared [him] in the face every day saying you are ‘less than,’ you are ‘not equal to.’”
He took this advice to heart throughout college, when he combined the lessons he’d learned from his parents with the lessons he’d learned in church. His father was a minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and King said he admired his father’s “genuine Christian character.” Following in his footsteps, King became an ordained minister in February of 1948, and by June of that year, he earned his bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Morehouse College. It was in college that King fully took up the cause of racial justice, noting the influence of Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” Even as a college student, King was already publishing articles to express his views on racial justice. In a 1946 letter to the editor in the Atlanta Constitutional, he wrote, “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”
In 1951, King pursued a doctoral degree at Boston University’s School of Theology. This is where King’s views about nonviolence really solidified. He left the university with what he described as a “positive social philosophy,” and one of that philosophy’s primary tenets is the use of nonviolent action to fight against oppressive structures and policies.
Throughout his years as a student to his years as an activist and minister, King steadfastly held to the beliefs about the importance of education. In his essay titled, “The Purpose of Education,” he discussed how a good education is not just one that teaches young people academic skills:
“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. Education without morals is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere. It is not enough to have the power of concentration, but we must have worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. It is not enough to know truth, but we must love truth and sacrifice for it.”
King’s legacy lives on, not only through his important work as an activist, but also in the form of his values that sparked a movement. His lifelong pursuit of justice shows that no one is too young to fight for what they know is right.