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The Power of Empathy and Non-Violence

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta. Originally named Michael King Jr., he was the middle child of Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. A precocious student, he skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades and enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15. Initially he questioned religion, but in his junior year he took a Bible class, and his faith was renewed. After graduating, he attended the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn. King Jr. would also go on to Boston University for his doctoral study.

In 1953, Martin Luther King Jr. married Coretta Scott and would go on to have four children. Like his father and grandfather before him, King Jr. would become a Baptist minister. In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, he would become a pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Ala.

In 1955, Montgomery became a central location in the civil rights movement on Dec. 1 when Rosa Parks rode the bus home after a tiring day at work. As the bus continued on its route, it became more and more crowded. Eventually all of the “white section” section filled up. Although Parks was sitting in the colored section, the bus driver asked her to move when he noticed a few white men were standing. She refused.

Rosa Parks was arrested for breaking the Montgomery City Code. That night, Martin Luther King Jr. and other local civil rights leaders organized a citywide bus boycott. After 382 days of walking to work, harassment and violence the city of Montgomery finally lifted the law.

On the heels of victory, Martin Luther King Jr. and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 to help empower black churches in the south. The group would conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform. Part of King’s inspiration for non-violent protest was Mahatma Gandhi. In 1959, he visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India and increased his commitment to the civil rights movement in America.

However, it was not only Martin Luther King Jr.’s shared method of activism that connected him to Gandhi. Like Gandhi, King also experienced bouts with depression. While King’s bouts with depression are not as well documented as Gandhi’s experiences with the illness, the lack of evidence does not mean that he did not struggle. As a teenager it’s believed that King attempted suicide twice. As detailed in Time magazine in 1963 when he was named “Man of the Year,” his first attempt was after his brother accidentally knocked their grandmother unconscious after sliding down the bannister. King believed that she was dead and in despair he jumped out of a second-floor window. He landed unhurt. He went on to the do the same thing the day his grandmother did in fact die, only to end with the same result.

As Martin became an integral leader in the civil rights movement, his feelings of depression became more pronounced. As Nassir Ghaemi relates in his book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, “[i]n 1959, three years after beginning his public life, King felt depleted: ‘What I have been doing is giving, giving, giving, and not stopping to retreat and meditate like I should—to come back. If the situation is not changed, I will be a physical and psychological wreck. I have to reorganize my personality and reorient my life. I have been too long in the crowd, too long in the forest.”

The course of depression often comes in cycles and King’s symptoms appear to follow this pattern. As the civil right’s movement continued the stress continued to impact King. Leading marches in deeply divided communities continually placed King in situations that put his life in danger. However, despite all of this anxiety and fear, King maintained an air of calm and serenity.

Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.’s depression may have influenced his strategies in the civil rights movement. He created an analogy between he ideas and psychiatric treatment. Racism was the disease and America was the patient. People who live with depression often possess a great ability to empathize with others. In order to be successful, King realized that they must help people understand, not simply hate them. In 1964, in part because of King’s work, the Civil Rights Act was passed. It outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities and women. King won the Nobel Peace prize for his work utilizing non-violence.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was cut short on April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated outside a motel room in Memphis. In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as federal holiday. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states observed the holiday. King’s legacy continues to this day. At his second inauguration on Jan. 21, 2013, Barack Obama will be sworn in using two bibles: the one used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and one that Martin Luther King Jr. carried before he was assassinated in 1968.


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