Influential Encounters

Conversation 6 from America Will Be! Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy

By Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda

IKEDA: A positive family environment can be a crucible for character building. In addition, positive social encounters can be a source of inspiration for realizing our full potential.

I want to explore the influences that were important for Dr. King and especially to shed light on the kind of people Dr. King’s parents were and the influential encounters he had with people in his youth.

Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, the son of Martin Luther King Sr., a Baptist minister, and his wife, Alberta. Did you ever meet Dr. King’s parents?

HARDING: I knew both his parents. It is important to realize that his mother, Mrs. Alberta Williams King, was the daughter of the minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church. As she grew up, she became a musician in the church, playing the piano and organ. She had a long history in the congregation. This is important in understanding just how embedded her son was in the life of the congregation.

IKEDA: He grew up observing his mother devote herself to the service of others. A mother’s example is imprinted on a child’s mind and influences his or her entire life. The way Dr. King felt about the church is clear from his comment, “The church has always been a second home for me.” (1)

He also expressed appreciation for his mother, who, he said, “instilled a sense of self-respect in all of her children.” (2) As a child, he learned at his mother’s knee all about the history of black people in America. She explained why black people were in a position of such inequality, and she would tell her son, “You are as good as anyone.” (3)

These kind words of motherly love and confidence surely provided her son powerful emotional support. What is great about motherhood is its fiercely courageous spirit, which valiantly protects and nurtures life, even in the face of life’s worst storms.

HARDING: Dr. King’s mother was obviously very proud of him. I talked with her a number of times. I especially remember when I met with her after the assassination, when we were beginning to establish the King Memorial Library. She had carefully stored years and years of church bulletins, and she pulled out boxes and boxes of them from under her bed for us.

As you may know, not long after Martin’s assassination, she was killed by a deranged man. He came into the church and shot her as she was sitting at the organ.

IKEDA: It’s a terrible tragedy, isn’t it? She was a noble martyr who had encouraged many. Her achievements will endure forever, alongside those of her son. It was a shame she didn’t live for many more years.

HARDING: It was a great pity. She was a kind and calm person and had a solid and focused way about her. It’s important to know that after she gave birth to Martin, her own mother, Jennie Williams, helped her to raise the children. So, Alberta King’s mother—Martin’s grandmother—was also an important presence in his life.

Grandmother Williams was important to King. She encouraged him to think of himself as having the capacity to become a great leader.I have read a lot of research that suggests that maternal grandmothers have a profound influence on the development of their grandchildren. This certainly seems to be borne out in the lives of many of the people I’ve worked with, especially those engaged in social change.

So, Grandmother Williams was important to King. From everything I know about their relationship, she encouraged him to think of himself as having the capacity to become a great leader.

IKEDA: Dr. King was raised by two outstanding women who showered him with love and encouragement, and this is undoubtedly why he developed into such an influential leader.

This reminds me of the words of one of my friends, the well-known Argentine champion of human rights Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. In 2001, at a meeting held in the United States, Dr. Esquivel was one of five Nobel Peace Prize laureates in attendance. The conference moderator asked each one to answer the question, “Who is the hero who has had the most profound meaning in your life?” The responses included President George Washington, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, playwright William Shakespeare, and the scientist Madame Curie. When it was Esquivel’s turn, he proudly answered, “My hero is my grandmother.” She was a wise indigenous woman.

Dr. Esquivel was three when he lost his mother, and so he was raised by his maternal grandmother. His grandmother had endured many hardships growing up and had been unable to attend school. However, she had an uncanny insight into human character. She would give Dr. Esquivel accurate advice about the people he knew, saying, “That’s a good person—he knows how to see you and hear you.” Or, of another person she would say: “Watch out for him. He doesn’t look at things straight on. He’s ready to claw you at any moment.” (4)

Dr. Esquivel told me, with a heart filled with profound appreciation for his grandmother and all the precious people who live ordinary yet exemplary lives of service to society, that he had proclaimed her his hero.

HARDING: My interest in maternal grandmothers began perhaps fifteen years ago when Rosemarie and I led a summer seminar at the Iliff School of Theology. We asked the participants to remember who had encouraged them to take the path of creating social change. We noticed that, almost without exception, they said that their maternal grandmothers had been important in encouraging them, in believing in them, and in letting them know that they were on the right path. Of course, there are always exceptions, but we discovered that the common experience was of maternal grandmothers being the most important in encouraging the youth.

IKEDA: That’s a valuable testimony to the important influence that a grandfather’s or grandmother’s rich experience can have on a child’s development. However, in contemporary society, because of changes in family structure and lifestyle, children have few opportunities to learn the precious wisdom and understanding of life that grandparents can impart. This is regrettable.

In the Soka Gakkai, we have many community activities attended by members of all ages. Our elderly members make these occasions to nurture our youth with care and compassion. In this way, young people can learn and benefit from their elders’ rich fund of experience and wisdom, an important educational resource. The older members, in turn, are reinvigorated by contact with the young and also learn many new things.

Moving on, let me ask you about Dr. King’s father, who followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law to become a minister. Dr. King once said, “I have rarely ever met a person more fearless and courageous than my father. . . .” (5)

HARDING: King often spoke of his father’s courage and fearlessness. In the black community, prior to the civil rights movement, the role of ministers was to speak their minds and work for change because they were essentially supported economically by the black community, whereas teachers and people in other occupations, who considered themselves much more vulnerable to white power, could not express their ideas freely and had to circumscribe their activities for fear of losing their jobs.

So, King’s father had the opportunity to be more independent and bold in his role as a minister. Even though many pastors chose not to take any risks, it was clear that Martin Luther King Sr. had decided to speak out courageously for what he believed.

What’s the Purpose of Education?

IKEDA: A father’s courage is passed down to his children. There is a well-known story about Dr. King as a boy riding in a car with his father. A policeman stopped them and, speaking to Dr. King’s father in an insulting, paternalistic manner, even going so far as to call him “boy,” demanded to see his driver’s license. The older King pointed to his son and fearlessly retorted: “This is a boy. I’m a man, and until you call me one, I will not listen to you.” (6) The policeman was at a loss for a response to the father’s dignified, dauntless manner and so left as quickly as he could.

In an era when most people responded to the terrible wall of racial discrimination by suffering in silence, King’s father showed great strength. It is not difficult to imagine how his father’s courage nurtured a resolute spirit of justice in King’s young heart.

HARDING: One point I want to mention in relation to King’s father is that he was not necessarily the best model for Martin in terms of leadership style, given that he was part of the traditional black church. That is to say, by and large, the black church was not a democratic institution. It was a patriarchal one, and King had to wrestle with this and develop his own spirit and his own understanding of the kind of organization and the kind of country that he felt we must create.

IKEDA: Dr. King also resisted the pressure of family members who hoped that he would become a minister like his father.

HARDING: When King first went to college, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to follow the path of his father and become a pastor. But he knew that he could not embrace his father’s conservative theology and biblical literalism.

IKEDA: Dr. King’s view about entering the ministry changed as a result of his encounters with some of the professors at Morehouse College, didn’t it? I have heard that he was profoundly influenced by the college president, Benjamin Elijah Mays, a leading scholar in the philosophy of black liberation.

HARDING: To provide some background, I want to make several important points about President Mays. One is that Mays had been a minister for many years before he entered the University of Chicago to study religion and sociology, and so he had successfully combined a life of scholarship and religious service.

Mays was also a master rhetorician. He had a magnificent command of language and the spoken word. In those days, all Morehouse College students were required to attend chapel service three times a week. At least one of those days was set aside for President Mays to talk with the all-male student body.

Central to his discussions with the students was his belief in their future role as leaders. This was one of his major themes—he told them they were preparing to be leaders not only of the black community but of the nation and the world. This was a powerful message to deliver during the 1940s and 1950s.

Mays helped students to see that their education was not simply about preparing for a job but about becoming more fully human.President Mays made a point of inviting people with broad experience and various racial backgrounds to the campus to speak to the students at the chapel assemblies. He became known as an inspiring leader who expanded the students’ world and helped them to see that their education was not simply about preparing for a job but about becoming more fully human. All of these things about Mays impressed and attracted King.

IKEDA: Toda taught that meeting distinguished, talented people provides the best education for young people. Accordingly, I invite prominent leaders, artists, and intellectuals from all over the world to the Soka schools and Soka University, and each encounter is a living education for the students.

President Mays described his university’s mission in these terms:

It is not sufficient for Morehouse College to produce clever graduates, men fluent in speech and able to argue their way through; but rather honest men who can be trusted in public and private life—men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting these ills. (7)

President Mays’s statement shines with the light of truth, addressing with crystalline radiance the important question, “What is the purpose of education?” When young people awaken to the real purpose of education, they can find a sense of mission and purpose, and their lives can glow with vitality and a powerful motivation. Their budding talents flourish rapidly, and their minds are set ablaze with a passion to seek truth. Dr. King’s encounter with President Mays represented the dawn of a new awareness in his life.

HARDING: President Mays was well respected in white and black educational and religious circles. He also published an important sociological work. (8) All of these factors made Mays attractive to King.

Perhaps most important, President Mays, as a scholar and a minister, had forged a path balancing a life of scholarship and one of religious calling. This was significant and powerful for King.

IKEDA: Dr. King aspired to become a minister when he was in his fourth year at Morehouse College. After graduation, he studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, then did his doctorate at the Boston University School of Theology. During this period in King’s life, were there other significant and enlightening encounters for him?

HARDING: Many of the characteristics that I mentioned of President Mays also match Dr. Howard Thurman of Boston University. Dr. Thurman was a spiritual and intellectual hero to many people in the black community. Parenthetically, Dr. Thurman was a friend of Martin’s father from their days as students at Morehouse.

Over the years, Dr. Thurman became a public figure and visited black churches, black schools, and black retreat centers on regular speaking tours. In those days, this was a common practice. Through these events, he shared his message with a wide audience. Dr. Thurman was another great black orator who inspired and uplifted his audiences.

IKEDA: Dr. Harold Case, Boston University president at that time, invited Thurman to become dean of the university’s Marsh Chapel.

Incidentally, I had the opportunity to meet with Victor Kazanjian, Wellesley College’s dean of International Education and Religious and Spiritual Life, who is Case’s grandson. Kazanjian is an intellectual leader who passionately believes that education can change the world.

In the course of our conversation, the professor mentioned the friendship between President Case and Dr. Thurman, and recalled that it also influenced him. In 1953, Dr. Thurman assumed the position of dean of the chapel. He became the first black person to hold such a position in a major, long-established, predominantly white university. President Case’s firm decision to welcome Dr. Thurman as dean—in the face of widespread, irrational opposition—has been hailed as a decision of national importance. So, we can see how Dr. King would have been influenced by Thurman.

Awakening the Adversary

Thurman believed that Gandhi’s movement had a message for the black community in the United States.HARDING: Regarding Dr. Thurman’s influence on King, it was significant that in the 1930s, Dr. Thurman and his wife traveled to India, where they had the valuable experience of meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. At that time, King was still a small child, but it was of some consequence that one of the first places that Dr. and Mrs. Thurman visited after their return from India was the King home.

IKEDA: This is a significant fact.

HARDING: Dr. Thurman believed instinctively that Gandhi’s movement, especially its courageous nonviolence, had a message for the black community in the United States. Even though it wasn’t until King entered the seminary that he began to grasp the significance of this message, I think King never forgot that Thurman had met with Gandhi, face to face, and had discussed the situation in India and in the United States, how they were related.

Dr. Thurman, like Mays, had always believed that religion and working for a just and compassionate world were two sides of the same coin and not separate in any way. This, I believe, was partly why Thurman had such an important influence on King.

IKEDA: When Dr. Thurman traveled to India and met with Gandhi, he asked, among other things, for Gandhi’s advice on advancing the nonviolent movement in the United States. Gandhi responded, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” (9) Gandhi’s words were prophetic and, in a way, reflected his most cherished hope for the future of humankind. They surely must have given Dr. Thurman cause for deep contemplation.

Approximately twenty years later, under the leadership of Dr. Thurman’s student, Dr. King, Gandhi’s concept of nonviolence became central to the movement for human rights and a powerful force in American society. I am moved by the passing of this baton—this commitment to the spirit of nonviolence, championed by Gandhi—to a new generation in America.

HARDING: One of the ways in which black people in the United States became open to the larger world was through independent black newspapers, which could be found in black households, black barbershops, black churches, and anywhere that black people congregated. These newspapers gave far, far more attention to Gandhi than any mainstream white newspapers. This was undoubtedly because he was a man of color challenging the white, Western power structure that dominated much of the world. Another reason was that Gandhi’s movement had a spiritual basis.

IKEDA: It’s thought provoking that a wide audience of ordinary people was exposed to the spirit of Gandhi through newspapers. Gandhi utilized newspapers to spread his message in India and in fact published his own newspaper, Young India, through which he instilled in Indian society his spirit of nonviolence.

Newspapers wield enormous power. When my mentor’s business was in dire straits, he and I formulated the vision for the Seikyo Shimbun, our organization’s newspaper. It is amazing to think that the Seikyo Shimbun, which we dreamed into being so long ago, celebrates its sixtieth anniversary in 2011.

Dr. King’s perspective was transformed when he absorbed the significance of Gandhi’s Salt March and his countless fasts, launched in protest to British rule. Before Dr. King encountered Gandhi’s philosophy, he had thought that Jesus’s message of loving one’s enemies was an individual ethic applicable only to interpersonal relationships. He had regarded the power of love as ineffectual in resolving social problems. King thought, for example, that a more realistic strategy of resistance was required in dealing with cruel, inhuman adversaries such as the Nazis or in resolving racial and ethnic conflicts.

However, studying Gandhi’s actions radically changed King’s thinking. As King explained:

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. 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 for so many months. (10)

Dr. King came to believe that love and nonviolence were the only realistic and moral weapons of use in fighting for freedom. As you mentioned earlier, religion and the movement for justice became closely interconnected.

The dictum to love one’s enemy is often interpreted as an instruction to not speak out against the enemy. However, this was not Dr. King’s understanding, was it?

HARDING: King knew that one of the critical aspects of the teaching to love one’s enemy is the desire to not only free oneself from the hardships and struggles imposed by the enemy but, at the same time, to hope that the enemy has an opportunity to break out of the trap he or she has created for him- or herself. Essentially, this is compassion.

It is through compassion that we understand that an important part of our purpose in this world is to help others by whatever means possible—and assist our enemies in recovering from their illness and suffering. Our childish understanding of love is inadequate to grasp the depth of what Jesus and Gandhi were talking about.

IKEDA: On this point, Gandhi said:

Satyagraha proceeds on the active principle of Love which says, “Love those that despitefully use you. It is easy for you to love your friends. But I say unto you, love your enemies.” (11)

Indeed, those inspired by genuine love and compassion never avoid moral struggle or yield to the forces of evil.

Nonviolent action is the struggle to elicit virtue and an awakening in the heart of the adversary. By transforming one’s spiritual state, one also transforms one’s opponent and society as a whole. It is, essentially, the struggle to save one’s opponent. This resonates profoundly with our Buddhist movement’s philosophy of human revolution.

HARDING: I can see that. It takes a mature understanding of both life and love to truly comprehend the intentions of mature individuals such as Gandhi, King, Thurman, and Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University and the one from whom King actually first learned about Gandhi’s beliefs. Their concept of love was completely different from the popular notion represented in words such as “My dear sweetheart, I think you’re wonderful, you’re beautiful.”

I remember Martin used to say: “We’re not called upon to like the enemy. We’re called upon to love the enemy.”

Love is not a means of controlling the other.Even in our personal relationships, we don’t recognize sufficiently that to love is to seek the best for the other. Love is not a means of controlling the other or seeking what we want from the other. It means helping the other find out who he or she is meant to be. Love is also enabling the enemy to find out who they really are.

IKEDA: The Lotus Sutra provides, through Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s example, a model for how the faithful should live. Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, who, as his name suggests, never scorned or ridiculed others, was a seeker of the Way who appeared long after the death of Awesome Sound King Buddha. This was a period in which the true teachings of the Buddha were in decline, a time of rampant discrimination and violence in society. In such an age, Bodhisattva Never Disparaging told the many people he met, “I have profound reverence for you,” (12) and taught that the precious life condition of Buddhahood was inherent in every person. But the arrogant, conceited people he lived among pelted him with verbal abuse and slurs, beat him with sticks and staves, and threw rocks and tiles at him.

Nevertheless, Bodhisattva Never Disparaging refused to be intimidated. Wisely avoiding the violence of his opponents, he continued to declare, “I have profound reverence for you,” and carried on his practice. The bodhisattva continued to believe and spread the teaching that even within those who persecute, there abides the Buddha nature, the highest possible state of life. He demonstrated this essence of the Lotus Sutra in his life and religious practice.

Buddhism teaches: “If one befriends another person but lacks the mercy to correct him, one is in fact his enemy,” (13) and “One who rids the offender of evil is acting as his parent.” (14) If you care about your adversary, you must correct his wrong thoughts and doings in order to prevent his unhappiness or misfortune. It is in this sense that I understand your description of the principle of love and nonviolence.

HARDING: I find your perspective interesting. The direction that King began to move in was based on a combination of the beliefs of Gandhi and Jesus Christ. It clarified the goal of the struggle, even in the midst of injustice and oppression. That is to say, the goal of the struggle is not simply to eliminate injustice and oppression but to create a new reality. This is the intent of the principle of nonviolence and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned previously (see Conversation Four), King eventually began to speak of these ideas in terms of how we must create the “beloved community.” By this, he meant that the ultimate goal of the nonviolent warrior is to create a situation in which enemies can become brothers and sisters, and new relationships are established.


1. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clayborne Carson, ed. (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2001), p. 6. This book was compiled after King’s death by Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, from King’s extant autobiographies, along with previously published and unpublished writings, interviews, and speeches.

2. Ibid., p. 3.

3. Ibid., p. 4.

4. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Daisaku Ikeda, Jinken no seiki e no messeji (Message for the Age of Human Rights) (Tokyo: The Institute of Oriental Philosophy, 2009), p. 181.

5. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 4.

6. Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, with a new introduction by Clayborne Carson (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), p. 6.

7. Walking Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., ed. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988), pp. 201–02.

8. Benjamin Elijah Mays, Seeking to Be a Christian in Race Relations (New York: Friendship Press, 1957).

9. Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 68 (New Delhi, India: The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1977), pp. 237–38.

10. King, Stride Toward Freedom, pp. 84–85.

11. Gandhi, The Collected Works, vol. 73, p. 148.

12. The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 308.

13. Nichiren, The Writings, vol. 1, p. 287.

14. Ibid.


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