Christian Influences On Martin Luther King Jr.

As Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day, few are aware of the Christians whose courageous lives influenced his life. Today we learn the rest of the story. 

Rosa Parks: A Woman of Great Conviction

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement” according to the U.S. Congress. On December 1, 1955, Parks became famous for refusing to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a White passenger. 

Her actions started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was one of our nation’s largest movements against racial segregation. In addition, it helped to launch Martin Luther King, Jr., who was involved with the boycott, to prominence in the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks has had a lasting worldwide legacy. 

Daniel Alexander Payne: The Rosa Parks of His Day

Seventy years earlier, Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) engaged in a similar, but lesser-known act of civil disobedience. Had his actions been more widely reported, Payne might today be known as the “Father of the Former-Day Civil Rights Movement.” 

Born to free Black parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Payne was an early leader in and the official historian for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Leaving the South in 1834, Payne studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, and then ministered for over fifty years as a pastor, educator, and influential bishop. 

Payne’s ministry returned him to the South in the twilight years of his life. When he was in his seventies, he refused to stay on a train where he would have been seated in Jim Crow conditions. Standing his ground and confronting the White authorities on the train, he said to them, “Before I’ll dishonor my manhood by going into that car, stop your train and put me off.” 

Payne describes the scene after he left the train. “The guilty conductor looked out and said, ‘Old man, you can get on the platform at the back of the car.’ I replied only by contemptuous silence.” 

Payne then carried his own luggage, walking a great distance over “a heavy bed of sand” to his next speaking engagement in the deep South. Payne literally walked the talk. By doing so, he was the predecessor of later-day Civil Rights leaders such as Parks. 

The Father of Daniel Alexander Payne: Dare to Be a Daniel

How did such courage develop in Payne’s life? Where did such conviction emanate from in his background? 

Payne himself credits his father as the man who started him on his purposeful life. 

“I was the child of many prayers. My father dedicated me to the service of God before I was born, declaring that if the Lord would give him a son that son should be consecrated to him, and named after the Prophet Daniel.” 

And now you know the rest of the story. 

Payne marveled at the sense of self, the sense of masculinity, that his father conveyed to him. His father did so not only by naming, but also by modeling. Of his father, Payne testifies: 

“He was an earnest Christian and a class leader, having two classes under him—what used to be called the Seekers’ Class and the Members’ Class. He was a faithful observer of family worship; and often his morning prayers and hymns aroused me, breaking my infant sleep and slumbers.” 

Linked by Legacy: From Payne to Parks to King

Similarly and ironically, Rosa Parks’ courage was embedded in her through her upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she was mentored during her lifelong active membership. Here she heard of the inspiring exploits of AMEC Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. In 1995, she published her memoirs, Quiet Strength, which focused on the role that her faith played in her life. Parks also noted the impact on her life of her mother, a teacher, who home-schooled her until she was eleven. 

Daniel Alexander Payne, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all lived courageous, exemplary lives of racial reconciliation. Each stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them. We trace the legacy from Daniel’s father, to Daniel, to Rosa, and to Martin. And ultimately to the Bible’s Daniel. 

Join the Conversation

Do you think we would be talking about MLK Day if not for Daniel Alexander Payne, his father, Rosa Parks, her mother, and the Bible’s Daniel? 

Who has provided a spiritual legacy of courage that you have followed in your Christian life? 

Note: This material is based upon the book Beyond the Suffering.

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