When Martin Luther King, Jr., went to the Fellowship House of Philadelphia one Sunday afternoon in 1950 to hear Mordecai Wyatt Johnson preach, he was treated to a message on Gandhi “so profound and electrifying” that he was propelled to buy “a half-dozen books” on the nonviolent revolutionary (King, 96).
Johnson was born in Paris, Tennessee, on 12 January 1890, to the Reverend Wyatt and Carolyn Freeman Johnson. He earned his BA from Atlanta Baptist College—now Morehouse College—in 1911 and was a professor of English, History, and Economics at Morehouse from 1911 to 1913. He went on to obtain a second BA from the University of Chicago (1913), a BD from Rochester Theological Seminary (1921), an STM from Harvard University the following year, a DD from Howard University (1923) and a second DD from the Gammon Theological Seminary (1928). Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1916, he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia, from 1917 to 1926. In 1926, Johnson became the first African American president of Howard University, a post he held for 34 years.
Viewed as a somewhat polarizing figure during his presidency at Howard, Johnson had what most close associates and relatives considered a “Messianic Complex.” One phrase he offered frequently on public occasions was, “The Lord told me to speak, but He did not tell me when to stop” (Logan, 249). Such command and conviction captivated King when he heard Johnson speak, in 1950, of his journey to India and of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.
Following the Montgomery bus boycott, Johnson awarded King an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Howard University. Expressing his admiration for King’s spiritual, moral, and political leadership, Johnson described King as a man who had “revitalized religion in America” so that a “weak and conforming Christian church” could become “an instrument of redemptive social power” (Johnson, 15 July 1957). When Johnson offered King the deanship of Howard’s School of Religion in 1957, King declined due to his commitment to nonviolent action in the South. Johnson understood and lauded King as “intellectually and spiritually” fit for the work (Johnson, 3 August 1957).
Johnson retired from Howard University in 1960, but continued to speak out on issues relating to the Cold War and the plight of Third World nations. Like King, Johnson believed that the United States could combat Communist influences through generosity as opposed to militarism, insisting that a policy of economic aid and political involvement would be far greater for these nations than armed conflict.