In His Own Words

Excerpted from: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King; edited by Dr. Clayborne Carson.

I was born in the late twenties on the verge of the Great Depression. which was to spread its disastrous arms into every corner of this country for over a decade. I was much too young to remember the beginning of this depression, but I do recall, when I was about five years of age, how I questioned my parents about the people standing in breadlines. I can see the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anti-capitalistic feelings. My mother confronted the age-old problem of the Negro parent in America: how to explain discrimination and segregation to a small child. She taught me that I should feel a sense of “somebodiness” but that on the other hand I had to go out and face a system that stared me in the face every day saying that you are “less than,” you are not “equal to.” She told me about slavery and how it ended with the Civil War. She tried to explain the divided system of the South — the segregated schools, restaurants, theaters, housing, the white and colored signs on drinking fountains, waiting rooms, lavatories„as a social condition rather than a natural order. She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. Then she said the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: “You are as good as anyone.” At this time, Mother had no idea that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a struggle against the system she was speaking of.

I had grown up abhorring not only segregation but also the oppressive and barbarous that grew out of it. I had seen police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice of the courts. I can remember the organization known as the Ku Klux Klan. It stands on white supremacy, and it was an organization that in those days even used violent methods to preserve segregation and keep the Negro in his place, so to speak. I remember seeing the Klan actually beat a Negro. I had passed spots where Negroes had been savagely lynched. All of these things did something to my growing personality.

My parents would always tell me that that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him. The question arose in my mind: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years.

I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice. Although I came from a home of relative economic security and relative comfort, I could never get out of my mind the economic insecurity of many of my playmates and the tragic poverty of those living around me. During my late teen’s, I worked two summers (against my father’s wishes — he never wanted my brother and me to work around white people because of the oppressive conditions) in a plant that hired both Negroes and whites. Here I saw economic injustice firsthand, and realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro. Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.

Of course I was religious. I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice.

The lessons which I was taught in Sunday school were quite in the fundamentalist line. None of my teachers ever doubted the infallibility of the scriptures. Most of them were unlettered and had never heard of biblical criticism. Naturally, I accepted the teachings as they were being given to me. I never felt any need to doubt them „ at least at the time I didn’t. I guess I accepted biblical studies uncritically until I was about twelve years old. But this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being. I had always been the questioning and precocious type. At the age of thirteen, I shocked my Sunday school class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Doubt began to spring forth unceasingly.

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals as a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.