About Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was both man and symbol. His leadership and struggles put him into positions of power throughout his life, even during his 27 years as a political prisoner of Nationalist South Africa. He can be compared to many world leaders, including Ghandi, George Washington, perhaps even Lenin. One interesting parallel can be easily drawn to Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the American Civil rights movement, advocate for desegregation, Baptist preacher, and a concurrent with Mandela until King was assassinated. Their most defining differences lay in their religious or secular preferences, and in connection, the scope and depth of their embrace of non-violent means to their respective ends.

Both were advocates of democracy; they wanted equal civil rights for their citizens, particularly voting rights. Mandela fought a system that had removed government recognition of African citizenship. Complete disenfranchisement of the natives prevailed for the duration of his prison stay. His was a goal of universal adult franchise. Eventually, in his construction of the new South Africa, those he worked with settled upon a parliamentary government. With proportional representation in parliament, this wasn’t an inordinate change from the structure of the former government, but with a major caveat—now African citizens (as well as all other races) were given the right to vote or run for parliament.

While Mandela fought established national laws discriminating against the majority, King’s position was different, because it he sought enforcement of national, constitutional rights that were being violated. He advocated that local and regional systems of segregation be struck down as unconstitutional. He also preached that these segregationist practices were incompatible with Christianity. King appealed effectively to the Christian sensibilities of the nation; he knew that whatever religion individuals might claim, culturally, the United States was largely a Christian nation as the general sense of morality that abounded in the U.S. lay largely in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

An analysis of their origins and families reveals more. Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. His father changed both his own and his son’s names when they were thirty-four and five, respectively. King Sr. had grown up in a poor household, and his father had been a drunk. He had worked hard and married Alberta Williams. Her father, A.D. Williams, was a preacher, who offered King Sr. the chance to become assistant preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. 1 King Jr. was taught by his father and often involved at the same church, of which his father had become Head Pastor. He went to public school, skipping 9 th and 12 th grade, and entered Morehouse College at 15 years of age. 2

He was very attached to his family, particularly his grandmother, upon whose death King flung himself out of his upstairs window. Miraculously, he wasn’t seriously hurt, but his grandmother’s death challenged his faith. 3 He grew skeptical in his teen years and throughout college of the existence or importance of a personal God, as well as an afterlife, although he didn’t deny such outright. Despite this, he sought how religion could be useful for the protection of the oppressed and the poor for the improvement of their social and economic state. In his search, some of his ideas have been suspect of being stolen. This has some degree of truth, but he had an oratorical skill and a national opportunity for bringing these ideas to life that surpassed by far the originators’. 4

He went on to Boston University, receiving a doctorate in philosophy, and shortly thereafter King received an offer for a job preaching at Dexter Baptist church. This was in the summer of 1954. In the fall he accepted the position, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Here he led the Montgomery Improvement Association in the famous bus boycott that was originally planned as a single day event. But when found so effective, it stretched into over a year—381 days. 5

During the boycott, he was inundated with verbal assaults—sometimes it was more than he could take. Once, during a sermon, he was overcome emotion. Two other preachers led him to his seat, and the sermon was cut short. 6 His home was bombed, and he received numerous threats of violence. His anxieties skyrocketed. Eventually, King had a powerful prayerful experience which reaffirmed his faith in a personal God. Even so, his sermons remained focused on the Social Gospel for which he became famous. 7 He became content in the knowledge that he would likely be killed, but faced such with a resolute calm because he felt morally supported by his people, and more importantly, by his God.

During the Civil Rights struggle, King became preoccupied with thoughts of his own death. He expressed such in his public speaking. He foresaw his martyrdom and predicted it publicly, and in a brilliant stroke he began incorporating automortology into his oratory. This practically guaranteed his martyrdom, not by causing his death, but by making sure that the public reaction to his death would be dramatic, because he had ‘prophesied’ it.> 8 Despite his certainty of his own demise, King continued to promote his message of racial equality and non-violence. Ironically—when he died, there were riots all over the United States. His death vaulted him into status as a national hero.

Where King had spiritual heritage in his father and maternal grandfather as Baptist preachers, Mandela had a royal heritage. He was a lesser son of the Xhosa Chief, one of many South African tribes. When Mandela was young, His father, the former chief, died a poor man living in a shack, having had almost everything taken from him by the Apartheid regime. 9 Mandela was born to the Ixhiba house, which traditionally had the responsibility of resolving political or royal disputes, a fitting heritage for a man destined to peacefully transform his country into a democracy. 10 And this despite some two centuries of the oppression of the native people by the Afrikaners and the English.

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela; he received the name ‘Nelson’ from a mission school teacher when he was young. As a boy he was quiet and reserved; he was expected to learn from observation and the examples and stories of his elders. As he got older he enjoyed sports and the occasional practical joke. He wasn’t noted as a particularly serious student by his teachers. He attended a boarding school and was instructed in a strict British curriculum, which he said later did not portray his culture or ancestors very accurately. But this education and his early tribal experiences instilled in him a respect for institution and authority that remained with him throughout his life. 11

Mandela eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Africa, and began working in the legal profession. 12 He broke new ground in establishing the first black legal firm in Johannesburg. 13 In the 1950’s Mandela was accused of treason and communist conspiracy, along with over 150 others. They were mostly trumped up charges. Interestingly enough, Mandela had been initially opposed to communism, quite strongly. 14 The resulting trial was long and arduous, and it backfired in the sense that it became a sort of convention for freedom fighters fighting the Apartheid regime; while each of these men were on trial, they had a chance to collaborate with each other.

During this time, two sides to Mandela were revealed quite clearly. On the one hand, he had enormous respect for institution, especially the legal system. The lawyer in him was polite, affable, and confident in the courtroom. Yet he was truly a radical, a revolutionary. He was head of the Umkhonto we Sizwe or the MK. This translates to “Spear of the Nation” was a paramilitary organization. In addition, his rhetoric outside the courtroom was often inflammatory and dramatic. 15 The African National Congress became banned after the aforementioned treason trial and Mandela went underground. In 1962, he was caught and arrested upon returning from Europe; he had been seeking support both politically and militarily.

At the subsequent Rivonia Trial Mandela was charged with leaving the country illegally, as well as inciting a 3 day stay-at-home strike. Mandela defended himself in court, and stated that he would call as many witnesses to the stand as did the State. But when the time came, he did a turnabout, and said that he would call no witnesses. He knew that the charges were true, and he was not about to make a mockery of the court by trying to fight them. The magistrate replies in Mandela’s autobiography,

“Have you anything more to say?”

Mandela replied, “Your Worship, I submit that I am guilty of no crime.”

“Is that all you have to say?”

“Your Worship, with respect, if I had something more to say I would have said it.” 16

His prison stay thereafter did not stop him from fighting the Apartheid regime, but the experience was difficult and demoralizing. In his autobiography, he states, “Nothing is more dehumanizing than the absence of human companionship.” He retained much influence despite being in prison, and completed another bachelor’s degree in Law through correspondence courses with Oxford University. 17

While in prison, Mandela’s standing as a prisoner fluctuated in response to both his own attempts to organize with other prisoners and obtain information from the outside world. He also affected a change in the Warden, known asa commissioner. Some of these commisioners, like Badenhorst, were bent on demoralizing the prisoners. Others, like Badenhorst’s replacement Willemse were more reasonable. 18 Mandela believed that ‘the moral high ground’ throughout his imprisonment would enable him to befriend his captors, and he did so with many of the warders and officers at the prison. 19

Mandela’s prison stay made him a potent example, and he became a sort of living martyr. The Apartheid regime did all they could to suppress any information about him—including laws against displaying photographs of prisoners. Despite these tactics, and indeed perhaps because of them, Mandela became a symbol of freedom to the people. The Nationalist government were worried that if he were killed, they might regret it later—this they were convinced of to some degree because of British and U.S. influence.

While their backgrounds were similar in some ways, from a national political perspective, the populations they represented were different. King was representing less than twenty percent of the population (perhaps as high as 35 or 40 throughout the southern states), and sought aid from the national government in struggles with local leaders and entrenched repressive conditions and traditions. Mandela and the ANC went head to head with a single unified government using both civil disobedience and threats of violence, and eventually represented roughly seventy percent of the population. This was key to Mandela’s influence being so powerful.

Physically, they were different. Mandela was tall—six foot two! King was short, if they had met, Mandela would have towered a full 7 inches over King. In their speaking they had different styles. King’s sermons were powerful spiritual oratory, filled with the fiery impassioned speech common to the preachers of the ‘Bible Belt’. The energy with which King spoke abandoned him at times, leaving him overwhelmed on more than one occasion. Mandela was more down-to-earth, and mild-mannered; his was a voice that instilled peace and calm, yet his words and prose remained secular. But the Mandela whose voice was so clearly calm was one that had been tempered, and cooled by his long prison stay. His earlier speeches had been more intense and provocative. Mandela’s struggles were different, he had many long years in prison to cope with. It seems that he never really feared for his life the way King did.

For both men, the means by which they got to their goal was critical. Both considered and rejected violence as a means to their ends. 20 Mandela’s unflinching actions and prose were rendered from experiences in his youth that taught him that even in victory, one can be gracious to those who have lost. He was remarkably good at this, and very consistent. Despite his good track record, his treatment of Nationalist President and uneasy ally F.W. de Klerk was not as exemplary (de Klerk probably didn’t merit any better treatment than he got, but that is exactly the point). 21 King’s message to his followers was not one of ‘black power’, unlike his rival, Malcolm X. 22 Instead, King preached Christian love for the white man, and exuded a polite expectation of respect. Mandela has been portrayed as a bit of a young hothead, being rash and demanding, and he was the head of the ANC’s paramilitary wing, the Youth League, from early on as well as the MK later. 23 From this point of view, the fact that ultimately he succeeded in achieving a peaceful revolution is a bit ironic. Although calling it that might be inaccurate—while Apartheid crumbled, law enforcement became scarce, and crime rates, including the murder rate, shot sky high.

Returning to King’s beliefs about religion and democracy, it may even be that King truly believed that a Christian foundation was and is necessary for a democracy to thrive. Mandela never was so obviously religious, and his and King’s schooling even reflected this difference. Again, King had degrees in sociology, divinity, and philosophy and had studied Christianity in depth, where Mandela’s degrees were in legal areas. Mandela advocated a sort of secular religion of human rights, whereas King’s social gospel was distinctly Christian.

King tied his philosophy of non-violence to his faith, and it showed true under various circumstances. In one instance, at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting a “two-hundred-pound young white man…rushed the stage” and assaulted King. King spoke calmly to the young man even as he was pummeled. When others intervened, King asked them not to harm the young man. 24 In a bit of contrast, Mandela maintained boxing as a hobby well into middle age. 25

As each of them advocated non-violence they drew on Gandhi’s work and ideals. But King was more consistently true to this. Although his policies and advocacy for non-violence were only cemented during the Montgomery bus boycott, this was at the very beginning of his career as an activist . 26 He maintained this position as the only one that could affect the true change that was needed. Mandela finally asked for a suspension of the armed struggle in South Africa after he had been freed from prison, nearly at the end of his career.

Both men were born into relatively wealthy families, and both men were natural leaders. However, King was vaulted into prominent leadership when he was young—only 26, and suddenly at the forefront of a movement that had been on the rise for quite some time. Almost overnight, he became leader of roughly 40,000 citizens in the Montgomery bus boycott (Some accounts claim more, possibly 50,000). 27 Mandela, on the other hand was with his movement from almost it’s infancy—he became leader of the Congress Youth League just out of college, when the ANC numbered only a few thousand. Both employed civil disobedience as an economic weapon—quite effective when employed across large populations. But the influence Mandela wielded grew stronger than King’s in the long run. It would need to be, in order to dismantle and rebuild an entire nation. Indeed, Mandela can be seen as having held the ANC as a very large club. Never did he swing it with full force, but it was always an intimidating weapon. “Make South Africa Ungovernable”, was the mission of the ANC. 28 This phrase has been often credited to Thabo Mbeki, a colleague and political ally of Mandela.

Both men won the Nobel Peace prize. King in 1964, just before the passage of the Civil Rights act. 29 Mandela shared the prize with F. W. de Klerk in 1992, both a potent symbol of the change that had been affected and the a reminder of the uncomfortable alliance into which they were locked. F.W. De Klerk remains a virtual unknown in comparison with Mandela, yet it was he who agreed to Mandela’s freedom. Mandela’s legacy became a global one, in part because he was viewed as carrying on in the tradition of King and Malcolm X.

King became known outside the United States as well, but never achieved similar global influence in his lifetime. As King was assassinated over 40 years ago, we have a chance to see the legacy he left behind after the Civil Rights Act was passed. As Mandela’s work was only recently ‘completed’ his post-political legacy has yet to be seen. His long imprisonment effected his standing similarly to the elevation effect of King that his assassination had. But Mandela’s legacy has yet to be observed in a comparable way. There have been only two presidents of South Africa after him, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, and only Mbeki has a history that is comparable enough to Mandela’s success so as to consider him any sort of successor. King on the other hand has children that continue to promote civil rights, including Martin Luther King III, Dexter King, and more notably Bernice King, who is the current President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King established after the bus boycott. 30 Of Mandela’s children, his daughter Zindzi and his 2 nd wife Winnie both supported his cause while in he was in prison, but have later been less publicly or directly involved in any continuing support of the ANC or even Mandela himself.

It seems that King was willing and had the opportunity to embrace both hope and non-violence in part because of the relative safety of the people he led, if not his own. Mandela on the other hand, was perhaps not afforded that same safety for his people, although ironically, his own personal safety was guaranteed to some degree by his captors. For this reason, it is then unquestionably true that Mandela’s commitment to non-violence extended only so far as it was considered effective, instead of King’s more universal approach. In all fairness, Mandela never claimed non-violence was the only way to freedom.

1 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr, (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 4-7.

2 Jacqueline Ching. The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, (New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2002) 18.

3 Michael Eric Dyson, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2008), 5; Oates,13.

4 Michael Eric Dyson, Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson , (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007), 27-29.

5 Troy Jackson, Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader, (Lexington, CT: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), xiii-xiv, 53, 55, 57.

6 Dyson, April 4, 1968 , 11.

7 Jackson, 111, 115.

8Dyson, April 4, 1968, 25-29.

9 Robin Benger, Madiba: The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela , DVD, Directed by Robin Benger. Toronto, ON, CBC Documentary Unit, 2004.

10 Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom , (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1994), 4.

11 Ibid., 4; Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3-5.

12 Lodge, 17, 20.

13 Nelson Mandela Foundation, “Nelson Mandela: Biography”, http://www.nelsonmandela.org/index.php/memory/views/biography/ , (Accessed April 19, 2010).

14 Tom Lodge, 44; Robin Benger, Madiba: The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela , 2004.

15 Tom Lodge, 64-65, 71, 90.

16 Mandela, 326-328.

17 Mandela, 334-336.

18 Lodge, 125-128.

19 Ibid., 122-123.

20 Tom Lodge, ix; A Celebration of Black History: The Rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. http://www.hulu.com/watch/54921/a-celebration-of-black-history-rise-of-martin-luther-king-jr (accessed April 18, 2010).

21 Tom Lodge, 205; Mandela, 596-597.

22 Oates,253, 423-424.

23Robin Benger, Madiba: The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela, 2004.

24 Michael Eric Dyson, April 4, 1968, 8-9.

25 Tom Lodge, 29.

26 Jackson, 119.

27 Ibid., 11; William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 163.

28Tom Lodge, Politics in South Africa: From Mandela to Mbeki, (Kenilworth, Cape Town: New Africa Books, 2002), 242-243.

29 Jackson, xix.

30 Ibid., 149.

4 Comments

Filed under Activism, History, Leadership, Philosophy, Politics

4 responses to “About Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela

  1. David

    Do you have a comment on Nelson Mandella’s visit to Toronto in 1990 (June 18). When he arrived at the airport as covered by CFTO television, Scarborough, Ontario, he was asked his opinion of Martin Luther King Jr. His response was “I spit on the grave of Martin Luther King”. This was broadcast on the 6 pm news – I saw it – but this section was cut out of the later 11 pm news

    • I’ve never heard that story. I searched through quite a lot of material when I wrote this, and never found any comments from Mandela disparaging MLK. Howeve, I didn’t look specifically for Mandela or King referring to each other.

      My only guess is that Mandela may have disliked something about Martin Luther King’s particular goals, or his efforts to reach them. He might have been frustrated with MLK’s commitment to non-violence. If you can find documentation on that statement, I would surely be interested.

  2. David

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the violence/ non violence was the issue. I suspect the story is not widely circulated due to the political impacts. However I’m guessing, and I agree with your surmise. I have looked for other documentation and couldn’t find any. Even CFTO were not forthcoming with admitting the change.

  3. Pingback: Nelson Mandela Was Dearer to me than I had Realized | One Modern Mormon

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