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Who Mentored Martin Luther King Jr.?


“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”  These are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As we celebrate his life and legacy on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Big Brothers Big Sisters takes a look at those people who served as mentors to the civil rights leader. Dr. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first of three historically African American Fraternities to partner with Big Brothers Big Sisters.  The Alphas have been leaders in national efforts to recruit African American male mentors. Many know King was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and the concept of non-violent resistance, but there were mentors who led King to learn more about the Indian leader.

The first of those is Howard Thurman who was a scholar and a religious leader.  The Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground is a good place to begin to understand the man: he was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote numerous books, and in 1944 helped found a multicultural church: Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. According to Common Ground, Thurman travelled the world to explore religion and during those journeys met Gandhi in 1935. Thurman shared Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence with Dr. King while King was a graduate student at Boston University.

The second, so called mentor to King was Bayard Rustin. In an article from Legacy.com entitled “10 Facts About Bayard Rustin”, author Linnea Crowther says Rustin exposed King to the works of Gandhi after Rustin spent time with members of Indian leader’s movement in India.  Rustin recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership and helped the civil rights leader organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

According to the Stonewall Museum and National Archives, Rustin said after the passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964–65, there needed to be a focus on the economic problems of working-class and in particular unemployed African Americans.  He felt that the civil-rights movement had left its period of "protest" and had entered an era of "politics.”

A third mentor to King was Benjamin Mays.  Based on historical notes from the Mays House Museum, Mays was the son of slaves and that truly left an impression and gave him the drive to succeed and continue to strive in higher education. He went on to be the dean of the school of Religion at Howard University in 1934, where he met Howard Thurman, also a professor there. It was Thurman who urged Mays to travel to India to meet Gandhi.

Mays moved on to be the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta from 1940 to 1967, and it was there where he met his famous student, Martin Luther King, Jr.  In 1944 Martin Luther King was admitted to the college at age 15 and Mays became so close to Dr. King, that later in life he referred to King “as a son” and would go on to deliver the eulogy at King’s funeral.


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