He changed the face of American society, and his courage and achievements are an inspiration to millions of people. But who inspired him?
In this post, we’ll look at the people who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and what their famous protégé can teach us about mentorship today.
One of the main things we associate with Dr. King is the principle of non-violence. But the person who taught him that principle often doesn’t get so much attention: his professor at Boston University, Howard Thurman.
Thurman had travelled the world in the 1930s to explore religion, and met Gandhi in 1935. He learned all about the philosophy and practice of non-violence, and shared those lessons with his protégé.
King acknowledged many different people as teachers and mentors, but Thurman was central because of what he taught King about Gandhi’s philosophy, which King later put into practice in the struggle for civil rights.
The Courage to Stand Up
Another of King’s mentors, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, taught him a lot about courage. Rustin was one of the few public figures in the 1940s and 1950s to be openly gay. This was tremendously hard at that time, when laws against homosexuality were still on the books, and hostility towards gay people was intense.
A 2013 White House announcement awarding Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom said: “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
Rustin’s homosexuality even caused him to be ejected from the civil rights organization he’d founded with his protégé, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but King himself never lost sight of his mentor’s worth to the movement. When he needed someone to organize the 1963 March on Washington, it was Rustin he enlisted. King’s “I have a dream” speech changed the course of history, but much of the behind-the-scenes work was done by his mentor, Bayard Rustin.
A Father Figure
Another key mentor for King was Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where King was a student. Mays was the son of slaves, and gave King a strong sense of the historical context in which he was fighting.
The two remained close after King graduated college and started becoming a leader in the civil rights movement. King sometimes used his mentor’s words in his speeches, but Mays never complained or asked for credit. He was happy to let his protégé borrow what he needed from him, and supported King even when King became more well-known than Mays was himself.
After King’s assassination, he gave a moving eulogy at the funeral of his protégé:
“To be honored by being requested to give the eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is like asking one to eulogize his deceased son — so close and so precious was he to me …. It is not an easy task; nevertheless I accept it, with a sad heart and with full knowledge of my inadequacy to do justice to this man.”
Lessons from Dr. King
Here’s what Martin Luther King, Jr.’s experience as a protégé can teach us about mentorship:
- It can be valuable for proteges to have different mentors over time and through various challenges as each mentor can teach something new.
- The best mentors are happy to see their protégés become more famous or successful than themselves, and don’t try to hold them back.
- Mentors can have a real impact on their protege’s success, often providing guidance and nuggets that are timely and relevant to their unique situations.
It seems appropriate to end with a quote from Dr. King himself, some words that are very pertinent to the topic of mentorship:
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Could you be mentoring the next MLK? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.