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To Mordecai W. Johnson

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Author: King, Martin Luther Jr.

Date: July 5, 1957

Location: Montgomery, Ala.?

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry


Nearly two months after offering King the deanship of Howard University's School of Religion, Howard president Mordecai Johnson wrote on 3 July that he was still “eagerly awaiting” King's decision.1 In the following reply, King informs Johnson that he has decided to turn down the position at Howard because his “work in the South is not quite complete.” Johnson replied on 3 August, supporting King's decision: “There are indeed vast possibilities of a non-violent, non-cooperative approach to the solution of the race problem in the South; and this undertaking is challenging beyond measure.Intellectually and spiritually, you are fitted for the work; and I believe that God will give you all the strength which is needed day by day to go forward with it."2

Dr. Mordecai Johnson, President
Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Dear Dr. Johnson:

I must apologize for being so tardy in replying to you concerning the matter which we discussed a few weeks ago.3 Absence from the city on several occasions and the emergence of several unexpected responsibilities account for the delay. I can assure you that my failure to write you immediately was not due to sheer negligence, but to the inevitable pressures of an overcrowded schedule.

I have thought and prayed over the decision many, many times since I talked with you last. After giving this offer every consideration I have come to the conclusion that my work in the South is not quite complete, or at least I have not been able to do several of the things that I would like to see done before leaving. The vast possibilities of a non-violent, non-cooperative approach to the solution of the race problem are still challenging indeed. I would like to remain a part of the unfolding development of this approach for a few more years. When I talked with you the other night I felt that many of my obligations and desires in the South could be fulfilled by June of 1958. But now I have the feeling that it will take longer. In the light of the above mentioned considerations I find it necessary to decline your gracious offer to serve as Dean of the School of Religion. Please know that I regret this very deeply. This has been one of the most difficult decisions that I have had to make in my brief career. The difficulty of the decision stems from the fact that the deanship of such an outstanding school of religion is something that the greatest of men will find challenging and attractive.

Words are inadequate for me to express my deep appreciation to you for considering me for such a significant position. It gives me a deep sense of humility to know that you at least feel that I can fill the post. I must thank you also for being so patient during my moments of decision. I will always remain indebted to you for your encouraging words and Christian generosity.

With warm personal regards.

Yours very truly,
M. L. King, Jr.,


1. See also William Stuart Nelson to King, and King to Johnson, both dated 2 May 1957. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (1890-1976), born in Paris, Tennessee, earned a B.A. (1911) from Morehouse College and another B.A. (1913) from the University of Chicago. After graduating from Rochester Theological Seminary (1916) he earned an M.Th. (1922) from Harvard University, a D.D. (1923) from Howard University and also graduated from Gammon Theological Seminary (1928). Johnson briefly taught English at Morehouse and served as pastor of churches in Mumford, New York, and Charleston, West Virginia, before being named the first African-American president of Howard University in 1926. Three years later he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. An admirer of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Johnson visited India in 1950 and later spoke about Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha as a method of social change at Fellowship House in Philadelphia to a gathering that included King, then a student at Crozer. King later wrote that Johnson’s talk was “so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 96).

2. In 1958 King was again offered a position at Howard (see King to Daniel G. Hill, 23 June 1958, p. 430 in this volume).

3. King and Johnson may have discussed the position when King attended the commencement services at Howard University on 7 June.

Source: MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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