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Education As Empowerment


(A Celebration of the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Why is there a holiday named after him?  Clearly, he was not an ordinary man, for we don't declare national holidays to honor ordinary men.   Martin Luther King, Jr. was loved, admired, and respected by people all over the world, but he was not loved, admired, or respected by all people.  How was he different?  He was different because of who he was, and what his life symbolized!  He was a prominent and profound black man in America, a country that has struggled with the issues of race throughout its history and continues even until today!

Because of his participation and extraordinary leadership in the civil rights movement, Dr. King holds a special place in the hearts of many people around the world.  During those brief 12 years of his public life, he submitted to being drafted to lead the Montgomery bus boycott; led marches all over the south, and then into the north at places like Albany and Chicago; became a leading spokesperson against the war in Vietnam; led the 1963 March on Washington, suffered beatings, bombings, and jailings, harassment and sabotage from the FBI, assassination attempts, and ultimately assassination.  In the face of all of this, he remained a dedicated and committed advocate of nonviolent resistance as the most effective tool in the struggle for social change.  He had to possess extraordinary courage to practice nonviolence for, to him, it meant more than simply not fighting back; it meant refusing to even hate those who opposed him. When Dr. King was hit, he didn't hit back. When he was cursed, he didn't curse back.  When he was spat upon, he didn't spit back.  When people said hateful things about him, he didn't retaliate.  He loved his enemies.

In recognition for his prominent leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and his steadfast advocacy and use of nonviolence as a means, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this country, the efforts of Dr. King and those who were in the struggle were rewarded with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  More than any other single individual, Martin Luther King, Jr. was associated with the Civil Rights struggle and, ultimately, its successes. That is why he is so revered by many and why we now celebrate a holiday in his honor.

            The Bowie Clergy Association has chosen as our theme for today's celebration "Education as Empowerment."  To empower means to authorize, or enable, or permit.  Empowerment, therefore, means the state of having the authority, or having been enabled, or having permission, (having been made more confident or assertive).  Since we are, today, celebrating the life of this great world citizen, Martin Luther King, Jr., and we are simultaneously asserting that education can mean empowerment, it follows that we can ask how education empowered Martin Luther King, Jr.  Let us examine, then, for a few minutes, the role that education played in empowering the life of this great man.

How was education empowering in his life?  Well, consider that King left high school at 15 years of age, having skipped the 9thand 12th grades, and went on to Morehouse College, graduating in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology.  He received the Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951 and went on from there to Boston University from which he received the Doctor of Philosophy in Systematic Theology in 1955.    So we see that certainly from the standpoint of accumulated credentials, King was a well educated man.  So, at the very least, we can infer that he thought that all of this education would be useful at some point during his life.

In point of fact, King really believed from a fairly young age that education was empowering.  Consider his article, "The Purpose of Education," printed in the Morehouse student newspaper in 1948 when he was a 19 year old senior.

"And I say to you, my young friends, doors are opening to you--doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers - and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, "If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door."

This hasn't always been true - but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don't drop out of school. I understand all the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you're forced to live in - stay in school."[1]

It was during King's days at Morehouse that he read and re-read Henry David Thoreau's essay "On Civil Disobedience" through which he made his "first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance."[2]   He wrote, "I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau."[3]

". . . my college training, especially the first two years, brought many doubts into my mind. It was then that the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. More and more I could see a gap between what I had learned in Sunday school and what I was learning in college. My studies had made me skeptical, and I could not see how many of the facts of science could be squared with religion."[4]

Clearly, King's mind was being re-shaped and molded anew.  He questioned what he had been taught and what he read, and searched within himself to discover his truth and what he would believe.

Dr. King's years at Crozer Seminary also had a pronounced impact on his intellectual development.  Consider his words: 

"Not until 1948, when I entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, did I begin a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil. I turned to a serious study of the social and ethical theories of the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. All of these masters stimulated my thinking-such as it was- and, while finding things to question in each of them, I nevertheless learned a great deal from their study.

I spent a great deal of time reading the works of the great social philosophers. I came early to Walter Rauschenbusch'sChristianity and the Social Crisis, which left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me as a result of my early experiences.  Of course there were points at which I differed with Rauschenbusch.

In these passages, we can see clearly that King's mind is being stretched by new ideas, his thought horizons being expanded, and his reservoir of accumulated knowledge of philosophical approaches and strategies and tactics for achieving social change was growing rapidly.

While at Crozer, King also read Karl Marx, Lenin, and Nietsche.  Listen to his words: 

"During this period I had about despaired of the power of love in solving social problems. I thought the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt. I felt that the Christian ethic of love was confined to individual relationships. I could not see how it could work in social conflict."[5]  "Then one Sunday afternoon I traveled to Philadelphia to hear a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University."[6]  He preached about the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  "Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously."[7]   "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale."[8]

These passages reveal that King had a rather voracious appetite for history's intellectual giants.  He studied and pondered them and used them to shape and strengthen his own intellectual foundation for the social activist ministry that would become his trademark.  Listen to this next passage.

"But my intellectual odyssey to nonviolence did not end here. During my senior year in theological seminary, I engaged in the exciting reading of various theological theories."[9]   "The basic change in my thinking came when I began to question the liberal doctrine of man. My thinking went through a state of transition. At one time I found myself leaning toward a mild neo-orthodox view of man, and at other times I found myself leaning toward a liberal view of man."[10]

At Boston University, King continued his "intellectual pilgrimage" by studying more philosophy and theology.  There he wrestled with the notions of liberalism, fundamentalism, and neo-orthodoxy while continuing to develop his understanding of, and appreciation for, the "pacifist position."  He wrote,

"In 1954 I ended my formal training with divergent intellectual forces converging into a positive social philosophy. One of the main tenets of this philosophy was the conviction that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice."[11]


            We have a picture, then, of a committed social activist who fervently believed in, and espoused, a tactic of nonviolent resistance.  This tactic had strong intellectual underpinnings and had evolved in King over a period of years through focused personal research and a deep abiding desire to serve humanity.  Yes, Martin Luther King Jr.'s life story is a wonderful example of education as empowerment.  His education--from Morehouse College to Crozer Seminary to Boston University to India-enabled him to grow intellectually, develop broader perspective, form his personal philosophy and lead through serving his community, our nation, and the world!

We should now ask the question "Can education be empowering to us today?"  Of course it can!  It can open the doorway to whatever is important to us.  Just as it empowered Martin Luther King, Jr. to be an effective agent of social change, it can empower us to provide for ourselves and our families, and to assume positions of leadership in our communities across this nation and the world!  Recently, the U. S. Bureau of the Census released a report that highlights the benefits of post-secondary education.  It showed that in 2006 persons over 18 years old who did not finish high school had an average salary of $20,873.  Persons who finished high school but did not attend college had an average salary of $31,071.  Those with just a bachelor's degree earned an average of $56,788.  Workers over the age of 18 with a master's, professional, or doctoral degree took home an average annual salary of $82,320.

Clearly, education pays off and it can be empowering economically.

            Consider further, that today we live in the age of "the new economy"-(the network economy) a world where people work with their brains rather than their hands, a world where innovation and change are paramount and rapid, a world where "communications technology creates global competition."[12]   To be successful in this new economy, one needs to know how to acquire and sift through information; be able to see change coming and adapt to it so as to take advantage of it.  One also needs perspective that comes from some knowledge of history, psychology, and art.  And one also needs to know how to market oneself.  And since all of this will be changing, one needs to know how to be a life-long learner!  These characteristics are the result of a good and continuing education.  Empower yourself through education!

            This is a day of remembering and honoring the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We have certainly remembered him as we examined how his education served to empower his extraordinary life of service.  If, however, we end this celebration today after simply examining the way that his education empowered him, we would do his memory a disservice.  Yes, Dr. King was a well-educated man who gave his all, even his life for the benefit of others.  Yes, he was a preacher and a teacher.  He was an organizer and a leader.  He was not perfect as he struggled with his human frailties just as we do, but I believe that most importantly of all, King was a man of faith.  King was not just a man who wanted to and tried to do good, he was a man who had an abiding faith in an all-powerful, loving, and caring God, and he endeavored to submit his life to the will of his God!  King's life was really a testament to what God can do in the life of an obedient and faithful servant!  Listen to this quotation from his autobiography:

"If I demonstrated unusual calm during the recent attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace."[13]

These are the words of a man of faith!  If he were here today, I think that he would advise us as he advised himself on the eve before preaching his first sermon in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery:  "Keep Martin Luther King in the background and God in the foreground and everything will be all right."[14]

I believe that he would say to us that if we want to honor him that we should do so by trying to leave behind our own committed lives.  In his own words, King "tried to love somebody."  He said in his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech,  "It's alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day."  I believe that were he here today, he would be concerned about the achievement gap between children of color and white children in our public schools; he would be concerned about the millions of Americans who don't have health insurance and are therefore relegated to poor health; he would be concerned about violence and negative messages being transmitted to young people through music and videos; he would be concerned about immoral leadership in high places; he would be concerned about Coalition soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and about the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan!  Loving them would mean doing something to try to improve these situations and circumstances.  That's how we can honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As he did, we can exercise our faith and try to love somebody!

            Thank you.


Mickey L. Burnim

January 21, 2008


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., "What is Your Life's Blueprint?"  (

[2] Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12](Encyclopedia of the New Economy, 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.