50 years later: The theology of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 2018, at 6:01 p.m. local time, Memphis, Tenn., will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Schools, think tanks, churches and other organizations will hold memorials, conferences, symposiums, concerts and more to mark the anniversary of King’s passing. Many will note that in the five decades since his death, no other religious figure has emerged as such a singular and prophetic voice of religious and moral theology.

What was King’s theology and how did it develop? What was new and unique about his theology? Where do we see it carried on today? Who are the leaders that carry his theological banner? Is his theology evident in contemporary issues such as the Black Lives Matter and Dreamer movements, and how? How does his theology urge people to respond to contemporary issues?

This edition of ReligionLink features scholars, authors, religious leaders and others who can discuss King’s theological legacy. Special note: This is by no means a comprehensive list of those who can discuss King or have an opinion about his life and theology. It is intended as a reporter’s starting point.


  • The Atlantic has a monthlong special edition that looks at King’s legacy in many areas of American life. The edition will be added to and updated almost daily through April 4, 2018.
  • Read “This Theologian Helped MLK See the Value of Nonviolence” by Paul Harvey for the Smithsonian, Jan. 12, 2018. The takeaway: The Rev. Howard Thurman, an African-American pastor who traveled to India in 1935 and met Mahatma Gandhi, was influential in King’s thinking about nonviolent resistance. King is said to have carried a copy of Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited during the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • Read “Telling the Story of Civil Rights: A Conversation in Baltimore” by Casey N. Cep for The New Yorker, May 11, 2015. The takeaway: a conversation between civil rights historian Taylor Branch, author James McBride, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and the television writer David Simon, who are all collaborating on a series about King and the civil rights movement for HBO.
  • Read “MLK’s Philosophical and Theological Legacy” by Justin Dyer for the Witherspoon Institute’s “Public Discourse,” Jan. 16, 2012. The takeaway: a look at the theology behind King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
  • Read “King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” a 2009 essay by Be Scofield for Tikkun, reprinted on Medium.com on Oct. 13, 2017. The takeaway: Scofield charts King’s struggle with the idea of the supernatural divinity of Jesus.
  • Read “The Shot that Echoes Still,” a reprint of James Baldwin’s April 1972 essay “Malcolm and Martin” with a new introduction by Michael Eric Dyson. The takeaway: The theologies of King and Malcolm X were once polar opposites, but as both men matured, similarities in their ideas emerged.
  • Read “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” written by King between 1949 and 1950. The takeaway: Scholars say this essay shows King’s move away from the Baptist theology of his youth.
  • Read “The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology,” written by King  in 1948. The takeaway: King begins to develop a theology that asks what Jesus has to say to the 20th century.


National sources

  • William J. Barber

    The Rev. William J. Barber II is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and president of Repairers of the Breach, a national ministry for civil rights and social justice. In 2013, Barber began a campaign on behalf of the poor that instigated “Moral Mondays” — acts of civil disobedience and mindfulness designed to highlight the plight of the poor. He serves on the board of the NAACP.

    Barber is often mentioned as someone who carries on King’s theology and struggle.

    Contact: 919-735-9059.
  • Taylor Branch

    Taylor Branch is the author of the multivolume series America in the King Years, which covers 1954 to 1968. Branch is an expert on every aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and the broader civil rights movement. He is currently working with David Simon on developing a television series based on his King books. Contact via his publisher, Simon and Schuster, or through his literary booking agency, Lyceum Agency.

  • J. Kameron Carter

    J. Kameron Carter is an associate professor of systematic theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School. He recently participated in a panel on Black Lives Matter hosted by the school.

    Carter is a keynote speaker for St. Louis University’s King symposium.

  • James H. Cone

    James H. Cone, Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998. He is widely considered to be one of the founders of black liberation theology, which frames Christianity as a means out of oppression.

    In his article “The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” written for the Union Theological Seminary Review, Cone identifies four major movements and people that influenced King and places them within the context of the civil rights era.

  • M. Shawn Copeland

    M. Shawn Copeland is a professor of theology at Boston College. She researches theological and philosophical anthropology and political theology, as well as African and African-derived religious and cultural experience and African-American intellectual history. She teaches courses on theology and the body, political theology and black theology.

    She will speak about King as a public intellectual at St. Louis University’s symposium on King.

  • Juan M. Floyd-Thomas

    Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is associate professor of African-American religious history at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and a member of the cultural resources team for the African American Lectionary. He is also an expert on religion and protest music and black religious experience in America.

  • Forrest Harris

    Forrest Harris is director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on African-American Church Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., as well as an associate professor of the practice of ministry. He teaches courses on the theology of ministry in the black church tradition and can discuss liberation theology and social justice.

  • Paul Harvey

    Paul Harvey is a professor of American history at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He wrote Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South From the Civil War Through the Civil Rights Era and co-edited (with Philip Goff) The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945. Harvey is working on a history of religion, race and American ideas of freedom.

    Harvey has written about the influence the Rev. Howard Thurman had on King’s commitment to nonviolence.

  • Susannah Heschel

    Susannah Heschel is a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. She teaches courses in contemporary Jewish life and history and is an expert on the Holocaust and on Jewish feminism.

    Heschel’s father was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who knew and marched in Selma with King. She knew King and has spoken and written of her father’s interactions with him, and said she became a scholar of religion because of King.

  • Dwight N. Hopkins

    Dwight N. Hopkins, University of Chicago theology professor, has written about black theology of liberation and also about gun control. Black liberation theology, he says, is aligning more closely with black churches and developing partnerships with liberation theologians in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

    Hopkins can place King’s theology in the context of global theologies.

  • Jonathan Judaken

    Jonathan Judaken is a professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. He is an expert on different forms of racism, especially anti-Jewish and anti-black racism.

    In March 2018 he moderated a Yale Divinity School panel on living King’s legacy today.

  • Shaun King

    Shaun King is a former church pastor, activist and journalist who focuses on social justice and racial justice issues. He is currently a writer-in-residence at Harvard University’s Fair Punishment Project. In 2018, he was the keynote speaker at Washington State University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Contact via his agent, Josh Katz.

  • Mark Noll

    Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and one of the most cited authorities today on evangelicalism in America. He co-founded the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, where he taught for many years. Noll’s many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

    Noll has called King “the most important Christian voice in the most important social protest movement after World War II.”

  • Paul B. Raushenbush

    The Rev. Paul B. Raushenbush, an American Baptist minister, is senior vice president at Auburn Seminary. He is the author of Teen Spirit: One World, Many Paths and wrote a teen spirituality advice column on Beliefnet.com in which he answered teens’ questions on subjects from the spiritual implications of tattooing to abstinence to interfaith dating.

    King was deeply influenced by the social gospel theology of the Rev. Walter Raushenbush, who was Paul’s great-grandfather.