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A Psychological Profile of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series

When we consider the lifespan psychological development of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there are several overlying themes to not only explain “the man who would be King” but also the worldviews and paradigms that influenced King’s psychology reciprocally & bi-directionally until his death. King’s public, storied, biography is well known. He was a staunch advocate for civil rights within a nation on the verge of modernity with regards to civil liberties & social egalitarianism. He achieved some lasting success with effecting certain changes in laws governing desegregation and voter rights but he also experienced declining popularity and support during the last years of his life; this was largely due to the rising militant attitudes during the late 1960s and the dwindling confidence of the efficacy of King’s non-violent paradigms. Hence, the United States was not only impacted by MLK Jr. but our nation also contributed largely to King’s behavior and development over his lifespan. King thus, cannot be completely understood psychologically without considering the strong influences of his environment.

The easiest way to psychologically evaluate Martin is to evaluate the archetypical constructs and roles he assumed in his adult life and work backwards to understand how he developed and essentially answer “what made Martin?”

What we know of Martin is that he was a Christian Minister and that he was a strong advocate for civil rights reform via the means of non-violent civil disobedience. We also know that he was an exceptionally intelligent individual and a brilliant orator who earned a PhD in Systematic Theology. We also know of Martin as a family man with a wife and 2 children. We also know of a man that sought to balance or reconcile various social and political groups despite great resistance from such groups on both sides of the racial divide. Lastly, we also know of man who was also plagued by periods of fear and despair and foreboding of his own imminent death towards the end of his life.

So if we attempt to carve out an archetype for this man from a strictly secular, psychological perspective, we need to determine what biological and environmental developmental factors would derive an exceptionally intelligent, altruistic, Christian minister who valued family and wanted to improve civil rights disparity to promote an egalitarian society to the extent of his own mortality. Hence, we need to consider not only his early biological and nurturing influences but also the role his religion & philosophical worldviews played in his reason and in his actions.

In his relatively short lifespan as a Christian minister as well as an agent for civil rights, Martin exhibited both dissatisfaction and hence disequilibrium with social aspects of his environment that, in his view required change. But let’s first understand why someone like Martin or anyone for that matter, would adopt an altruistic and very dangerous behavioral paradigm like non-violent civil disobedience during a very turbulent and socially transitive period in the history of the United States of America. Although there were several key variables of nature that influenced the path of Martin’s life, his life can serve as a penultimate study in Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory (Berk, L.E. 2012), Erickson’s Psychosocial Development Theory (Karkouti, I. M. 2014), Bowlby & Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory (Bretherton, I. 1992), Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory (Jorgensen, G. (2006) and lastly but most importantly, Ecological Systems Theory (Rosa, E. M., & Tudge, J. 2013).

Pre-Natal and Biological Influences:

Martin Luther King Jr. had been born “Michael King Jr.” on the morning of January 15, 1929. Michael was an African-American born into a fairly atypical middle-class African American family of five in Atlanta, Ga; Michael had 2 brothers. Michael’s parents were both well-educated and prominent within their community. King’s biographer describes their community as analogous to an industrious “bourgeoisie African-American community” in the heart of segregated Atlanta. (Lewis, D. L. (2013)

The elder Michael King Sr. was a strong willed man not prone compromise. He was a prominent minister and community leader in Atlanta, GA and an early advocate for African-American civil rights. He became actively involved with and led the Atlanta chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during Mike Jr.’s childhood. Together with his wife and King’s mother Alberta Williams-King, the Kings prompted their son towards a sense of autonomy and a strong self-concept on a level which would greatly benefit Martin throughout his life. In raising Michael junior along with his brothers within a religious household and an authoritative parenting style, they instilled within the young Michael, a strong respect for education and self-determination and religious & moral grounding. Per (Darling, N. 1999), an authoritative parenting style is thought to be the most psychologically and socially beneficial for the child throughout their lifespan as it fosters bi-directional communication between the parent and child and yields greater autonomy and self-regulation within the child with positive benefits to be reaped across their lifespan.

Michael’s mother Alberta Williams-King, was educated in music and was the daughter of a slightly more affluent family. Michael’s maternal grandfather was also a noteworthy minister in the post-civil war south of Atlanta. Hence, Michael Jr.’s family were above average in intelligence and inclined to progress forward with civil rights reform even before Michael’s birth. King’s biographer asserts that King was made, not born (Lewis, D. L. (2013) and that he was destined to differentiate himself from others because of his parents and the socially progressive nature of his immediate community. Berk, L.E. (2012) explains that children of higher socio-economic status (SES) and educated parents tend to be more sociable and stronger with academic achievement than children of lower SES families. This according to Berk, is attributable to the more learning conducive and bi-directional communication environment for their children that more educated and stable income parents typically provide.

Infancy and the Early Childhood Period (Ages 0-10)

Little is known about the Michael King Jr. in the years of his infancy through toddlerhood. King himself wrote in his autobiography that he was told by others that he was healthy both physically and mentally and that he was a bit precocious. He also writes that his parents and his early childhood environment made it possible for him to maintain positive views towards humanity and the world (King, M. L., & Carson, C. 1998). One can speculate that his development during this years followed a normal or exceptional path and, if we assume a classical developmental theory, for example that of Piaget’s theory of development, Michael would have progressed through his sensorimotor (and pre-operational stages rapidly. Per Piaget, the sensorimotor stage (from ages 0 – 2) is where the child begins to become aware of their sense world and make their first attempts to either assimilate within it or accommodate themselves to it (Berk, L. E. 2012). Assimilation is simply integrating harmoniously within their environment. Per Piaget’s theory, when a child cannot assimilate within something or someone within his/her environment, they will attempt to accommodate or change themselves to meet the needs of their environment. A good example of accommodation is when an infant/toddler child first tries to eat a large piece of fruit. The child will invariably open his/her mouth wider to “accommodate” themselves to the food object. The pre-operational stage is where the child learns to understand their symbolic, representative nascent language however, the child typically remains egocentric or myopic in their viewpoints.

King had both a strong aural and visual memory by the age of 5 as he not only could recite entire biblical passages but also had a strong ability to memorize song melodies, rhythms and lyrics (Lewis, D. L. 2013). Another of King’s biographers cites an incident at age 5 that illustrates Martin’s more advanced stage of cognitive development. Ling, P. J. (2015) refers to an incident where the a 5 year old King expressed reservations about matters of Christianity and doubt about perhaps the most critical tenant of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Piaget’s If we consider this from the lens of Piaget’s theory, the young King illustrated at this stage, signs that he had advanced rapidly from the Pre-Operational stage towards the stage of Concrete Operations perhaps 2 years prior to an average child’s progression towards this stage. The Concrete Operational stage is where the child beyond their own egocentric views and begins to demonstrate logic and reasoning skills. Consider that for King to argue against the resurrection, he would have had to reason, for example, that it was not possible or that it perhaps contradicted his view of reality even at his young age. Both suppositions support the King’s ability to demonstrate a fairly advanced logical reasoning ability and thus support his moving to the concrete operational stage earlier than the average child.

The year 1934, was also a critical year for the young King as, 5 years after Michael Jr.’s birth, Michael’s father changed both his and his son’s name to Martin Luther King after attending a conference in Berlin back in 1935 in which the notable founder of the Lutheran denomination that influenced the Baptist church was much discussed.

Hence the psychological “stage” was set by his father, for the now young Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK Jr.) to differentiate his future self from others. MLK Jr. would not be a follower but a leader for his community (Lewis, D. L. 2013).

During his early childhood, Martin’s relatively light or blended skin complexion along with his family’s financial well-being as middle class citizens and their social prominence within the then segregated southern community, may have made Martin more prone to transcending any hardline racial differentiation between himself and children of other races. According to Lewis, D. L. (2013), the young Martin would however, experience an early turning point when white childhood friends were soon prevented from associating with Martin because of the racial bigotry of their parents. The biographer cites that this incident represented one of the first emotionally painful experiences in Martin’s early development.

Berk, L. E. (2012) asserts that children do not typically differentiate themselves according to their race until the ages between 5 to 7 where such appearances are likely pointed out to them or reinforced by their peers and caregivers. In typical development, Berk also asserts that the ages 7 to 8 represent pivotal “racial” developmental stages in a child where they may demonstrate either “in-group” racial favoritism or else their “out-group” prejudices may dissipate. For example, according to Aboud, F. E. (2003), white children between the ages of 5 to 7, tend to view themselves as more entitled and/or advantaged over children of other races. These early prejudicial feelings tend to dissipate in our modern society but per Troop & Pettigrew (2005), more enhanced social interactiveness between racial groups is needed for children to understand cross-cultural values, attributes and to form early friendships. This view is essentially the view held by the young Martin Luther King Jr…


From the ages of 10 to 14, MLK Jr. experienced much civil rights turmoil locally and became more progressively aware of his differential appearance as an African-American in the still largely “Jim Crow”, segregated state of Atlanta. During these years, the impact of individuation (Boucher, H. C., & Maslach, C. 2009) became a more prominent factor in Martin’s development. Individuation refers the act of becoming aware of one’s self-concept and hence, the attributes that differentiates the individual from others. The quasi apartheid, segregated south forced Martin to view himself as different from white children in appearance on the one hand but also from the point of view of his affluence of character, progressiveness and the intelligent parenting he received. Martin was indeed different. This also created a state of cognitive disequilibrium with respects to Martin’s intelligence and egalitarian religious/moral upbringing versus the racial prejudices and civil rights violations ripe within his larger environment. Michael’s mother frequently discussed the injustices of the south’s divided social order and how he was not to ever think that this was nature’s intent but rather this condition was manufactured by ignorance. (Ling, P. J. 2015). Martin’s early teen years brought with them a sense of angst and early stages of social justice inspired thought. His first foray into public speaking came when he was 14 and delivered a racially charged speech on “The Negro and the Constitution”. (Lewis, D. L. 2013).

Even at this stage, if we consider aspects of Piaget’s theory, Martin’s development during his adolescence illustrates an important psychological driver/theme that permeated most of his life. Piaget refers to the aforementioned behaviors of assimilation and accommodation when progressing from one stage of development to the next (Berk, L. E. 2012). According to theory, a child is either in a reposed state of cognitive equilibrium where he/she demonstrates more blending or assimilation into their environment. However when a child experiences something different, a state of cognitive disequilibrium will incite the child’s cognitive or a physical accommodation or change in some attribute within themselves in order to reconcile with his/her environment. While Piaget mainly refers this assimilation/accommodation principle with younger child trying to move between the earlier stages of development, his theory is analogous to Martin’s cognitive view of racial inequality and racial prejudices. Even during his adolescence, Martin was in a state of disequilibrium and he could not assimilate or accept the racial strife within his environment. His biographer cites many of his later adult speeches ripe with statements alluding to such disequilibrium. His most prominent “I Have A Dream Speech” (Lewis, D. L. 2013) given later as an adult, is not only demonstrative of King’s phenomenal oratory talent but it also illustrates his view that the world needed change as opposed to assimilation or accommodation. As is stated later in this paper, King viewed the current society as “sick” and his intention was not to assimilate or accommodate to his environment but to change it instead.

During Martin’s teen years, we also see further emergence of his self-concept. Although King’s biographer points out that the Kings were not rich, they were nevertheless a part of a more relatively affluent African-American community in the south that prompted progressiveness of education, religion which transcended to strong religious values and hence family values. A strong yet authoritative parenting style as well as a grounded religious and family values upbringing can, per Berk L.E., (2012) foster a more normal psychological self-concept. This psychological progression towards self-efficacy became more apparent with Martin when he wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution arguing for the rights of all citizen’s civil rights and citing the current injustices of racial inequality (Ling, P. J. 2015), Only when a child possesses a dominant self-concept can he/she migrate beyond the boundaries of their own egocentrism and demonstrate more advanced reasoning capabilities. This is what Piaget referred to as the stage of formal operations. There is some controversy surrounding this stage as well as evidence does not support that most adults achieve this stage but rather remain in the previous stages; from a traditional developmentalist’s perspective, it is conjectured that most adults don’t progress past Piaget’s stage of Concrete Operations (Berk, L.E. 2012). It is thus a testament to Martin’s advanced intelligence that he achieved the more advanced state such a relatively young age.

Early Adulthood:

Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development essentially ends at the stage of formal operations and thus, the theory does not refer to adulthood across the total lifespan of an individual; Therefore, we can view Martin’s adolescence and early adulthood periods through the lens of Erik Erikson’s theory of Psychosocial Development (Karkouti, I. M. (2014). Erikson offered an 8 stage theory of development that focus highly on the formation of an individual’s identity via a pathway where progression from one stage to the next is contingent upon an individual’s resolution of conflicts which arise from their sense experience. Erikson’s theory is similar to Piaget’s in that each of his 8 stages are associated and thus, thought to be correlated to a specified age range; The first 3 stages encompass the first 6 years of a child’s life and development between each stage is a function of the child’s ability to resolve 3 basic emotional conflicts (Trust, Shame/Doubt, & Initiative/Guilt). However the strength of Erikson’s theory and perhaps the concept that differentiates from Piaget’s the most relates to the stages progressing from adolescence through later adulthood; these are the stages where the most profound identity formation and individuation occur within an individual; aspects of his/her external environment play a large role during these remaining stages that prompt an individual’s intrinsic self-regulation to reconcile with elements within his/her external world conflicts

MLK Jr. gained early admission to Moorehouse College at the age of 15 and while he initially set out with a goal of becoming a medical doctor, his religious beliefs and philosophical worldviews posed a conflict with such a career path. Martin did not for example, agree with statistical principles used to determine as viable predictors of scientific outcomes. Martin’s worldviews were also not fully developed and he also confessed to having disdain for White Americans for the social injustices that he had witnessed or had been made aware of.

If we apply Erikson’s theory during this stage, Martin would be in the 5th stage (Adolescent stage) where the adolescent/teen looks at his external world, his peers, caregivers, and other important individuals and influences and begins to question their self-concepts, and begin to form/strengthen their values and how they define themselves and build new social relationships with like-minded others. It was during this important period that Martin then met one whom he described as the most important influence of his life. The President of Moorehouse College was Benjamin E. Mays. Mays was an African-American Baptist Minister and a progressive advocate for civil rights. It was through Mays that Martin learned of the principles of non-violent disobedience first suggested by the White civil war era author & abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau and used robustly in actual practice by Mahatma Gandhi in India. It was at this point that Martin embarked upon a path that would inform the remainder of his lifespan. It was during Martin’s period at Moorehouse College that he decided to fully pursue a ministry and later obtained his doctorate in Systematic Theology from the Crozer Seminary.

Martin married Coretta Scott at the age of 24 and they had 4 children. During this most important and final stage of his life, Martin rose to the height of his prominence as possibly the most important civil rights leader of the 20th century. He effected integrative changes in voter rights, desegregation of schools, services and other remnants of the now antiquated Jim Crow laws that permeated the segregated southern states.

Erikson’s theory would assert that Martin’s strong sense of self prompted him towards the six stage known as Intimacy vs. Isolation. Per Erikson, it is only when an adult exhibits a strong and grounded sense of their identity that they are more inclined to seek out stronger romantic and life partner relationships. (Karkouti, I. M. 2014)

Main Psychological Themes:

Martin’s Moral Beliefs and Moral Development Theory:

Both Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg posited within their moral development theories that humans go from more elementary stages of moral adherence to the principles of their caregivers, and then segue on to more socially acceptable morality practiced by others around them (Berk, L.E. (2012). Both theories also state that smaller percentages of adults achieve a true state of morality relative to the intrinsic reasoning and value basis of the individual. In Martin’s case, Kohlberg’s 3rd stage (Post Conventional Morality Stage) can best explain his reasoning and the psychological drivers of his moral objectives. Kohlberg’s theory asserts that individuals within this stage at or near adulthood, may elect to go against the norms of morality and ethical practices within their environments if/when they reason that the rules/laws undermine the interests of those it claims to represent (Jorgensen, G. 2006). Further going against the tide will also be evident, per this theory, if the individual has already formulate their own set of “universal principles” of morality. As an avid practitioner of Christianity, Martin indeed had such a universal set of moral principles and beliefs that did strongly go against the conventional “Jim Crowism” of the southern states. But Martin’s morality was driven not only by secular behavioral science principles but also by the paradigms of his faith. Miller, J. G. (2005) explains that often the concepts or tenants of moral principles that lay within every culture are conjoined with that cultures religious principles.

Morality was also a strong part of how Martin viewed others within society. Martin held the belief or worldview that humans are inherently moral and that environmental elements create immorality. Ling, P. J. (2015) explains that King’s view was that society was “sick” and required social change and intervention to improve its ethics and morality. At the same time, the means he chose to effect social change (non-violent civil disobedience) indicated another assumption on his part in that all humans must have some level of empathy which can lead to moral behavioral reform.

We can also speculate that, King, in his quest to “correct” societal ills, was again trying to reconcile his self-concept to his environment. The patterns of racism obviously caused King cognitive disequilibrium that required resolution. (Miller, J. G. 2005)

There were major aspects of Martin’s professional career as both a minister and civil rights activist leader that bi-directionally impacted his psychology and behavior. Martin wanted to correct the social integration injustices by acts of civil disobedience geared towards increasing the integrative participation and political representation of the African-American community. He believed that unless a “changing of the guard” occurred within the local and broader political arena, substantial change would not occur. Again, his view was that we must change the external world to achieve equilibrium within.

Martin therefore mobilized and worked with his civil rights activist groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Montgomery Improvement Association to form protest actions in form of high profile boycotts of bus services, & marches and acts of integrative occupation of select businesses and locations within heavily segregated southern states. For example, the early freedom rides to enforce bus integration and voter registration drives to increase African-American voters were Martin’s attempt at changing his environment to accommodate both himself and others of his race. Martin’s protests were often met with violent, brutal beatings of unarmed protesters by the police and although this method to extrapolate the population’s guilt was by Martin’s design, witnessing such brutality undoubtedly instilled a heightened state of internal tension and fear within him

The backlash he received from his enemies was both formidable and unrelenting. Several attempts were made upon his life and frequent death threats were the norm. Martin’s biographer cites that Martin experienced 30 arrests largely for his acts of civil disobedience and 2 instances of attempted murder (Lewis, D. L. 2013). He was also vehemently pursued by corrupt law enforcement elements throughout the remainder of his adult life. Much of this rejection had been expected by Martin but perhaps the most difficult rejection came from the more militant members of his own race. There was a large component of African-Americans that were growing progressively dissatisfied with certain failures and perceived acquiescence to government forces that Martin experienced during this period.

Therefore, during his early adult period, we can see much in the way of psychosocial conflicts between Martin and his external world that remained largely unresolved.

King’s life ended at the age of 39 with an assassin’s bullet when Martin had been searching for an alternate solution to racial and socio-economic disparity in his attempts to effect more comprehensive social change and to appease the masses who were growing concerned about his perceived failures and/or comprises. (Ling, P. J. 2015). His views evolved over the course of his brief lifespan and they were influenced bi-directionally by his environment. King’s biographer asserts that King’s height of prominence as a civil rights advocate was between the years of 1960 to 1965 (Ling, P. J. 2015), thereafter, the growing impatience and militancy of African-America for more rapid changes in civil rights reform effected a decline in King’s popularity. This relatedly effected a change in King’s beliefs and behaviors on a broader scale. Per Lewis, D. L. (2013), King initially believed that by influencing changes in localized, segregated states within the United States, civil rights reforms could be implemented however, during his final adult years, King changed his reasoning and behaviors towards the broader political arena. While King was admittedly not an advocate of socialism as he thought it contradicted the freedom of religion, he began to reason that, while militancy was not the answer to societal ills, perhaps the design of government was indeed an issue. (Lewis, D. L. 2013).

Other Psychological Perspectives on Martin Luther King’s development:

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory:

As mentioned earlier within this paper, King’s parents were very nurturing and thus a positive influence on King’s early development. However, when we take a psychological theory typically applied to parenting and take it within another concept such as the domain of religion, it can serve to explain the “caring” influence of religion on the individual. Now, let us evaluate the psychological aspects of adhering to a paradigm of religion. King was fundamentally a preacher and Christianity thus permeated the core of his development. Hence, to consider King’s psychologically, it is impossible not to consider his religious upbringing and beliefs. However, strictly from a secular lens, Christianity can be analogous to or aligned to Bowlby & Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory (Bretherton, I. (1992). Bowlby & Ainsworth asserted that failures in cognitive bonding between a caregiver and a child can lead to maladaptive social behaviors and other mental health issues. Their theory further asserts that, a child can and often will turn to an alternate/substitute caregiver or even inanimate objects such as a doll when a parent is not available. Within this theory, the key is that a child’s attachment behavior targets “someone” or “something” to reinforce the child’s sense of security and hence, their self-concept and identity. Granqvist, P. (2014) further asserted that a belief in a deity can be deemed as a variant of Attachment Theory if we consider that religious believers consider the paradigm of “God” as both a “safe haven” as well as a foundation for emotional groundedness and self-concept.

Hence strictly from a secular psychological lens, King’s strong religious upbringing is aligned with the principles cited within this theory. As an example of King’s view of God as a “safe haven” as cited above, King’s arrest in 1960 on unreasonable and corrupt charges presented him with the possibility of having to submit to prison chain gang and violent mistreatment if his incarceration was prolonged. King’s biographer asserts that King frequently engaged in prayer during this time to assuage his fears. (Lewis, D. L. 2013). The psychological security of King’s religious belief is can further be illustrated in an excerpt from King’s famous speech “Sermon on the Mount”. Notwithstanding the obvious rhetoric within this sermon, King preached “I am not fearing any man for mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!” (Ling, P. J. (2015)

Ecological Systems Theory – Focus on Layers of Environment that Influenced King

Lastly, yet another way and perhaps the best way to psychologically evaluate Martin’s development is to consider his life through the lens of Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). As is discussed above, it is clear that Martin’s psychological development was inseparable from elements within his environment; Bronfenbrenner’s theory presents an interrelated multiple series of biological, psychological, social and environmental layers to describe the drivers or influences of one’s behavior. The first and inner primary layer known as the microsystem would be King’s parents and their positive bi-directional relationship on him as cited previously within this paper. The church was an example of a third party microsystem in King’s world as were his educational institutions. Yet another 3rd party component of King’s microsystem would be the aforementioned professor Benjamin E. Mays who guided King to Thoreau & Gandhi’s non-violent principles of civil disobedience to effect social change.

Bronfenbrenner asserts that the 2nd layer (the mesosystem) represents the interrelatedness between the microsystems. This would encompass King’s father and mother’s authoritative and nurturing parenting and its influence of King’s early positive social development and progressive education and religious paradigms. The church’s teachings as well King’s education’s influence on his progression towards becoming the famed civil rights advocate also represent components of King’s mesosystem.

Bronfenbrenner further points to the 3rd system (the exosystem) as a layer does not contain the person but influences them. A major player in King’s exosystem would have been his father’s involvement with the church and his early role as an advocate for civil rights. Martin progression towards advocacy for civil rights was influenced by his father’s societal roles and his associations and advocate groups.

Besides the microsystem, the fourth layer (the macro system) was however probably the most dominant force in King’s later development as this would have been a conglomerate of culture, race & religion during the tense times of civil rights unrest, the unjust laws, hatred, ignorance and always…the violence.

Bronfenbrenner’s last layer is known as the chronosystem and it includes both intrinsic and environmental influences such as a person’s age, characteristics and their temporal environment. (Berk, L. E. 2012). The chronosystem is really 2 sub-layers in that it can either encompass the timing of major events that influence a person’s development or the influence of the time period in which the person lives versus their potential development within an alternate time period. For example, in King’s case, he was both a producer and a product of the socially transitive 1960s which allowed someone like King to exist. Consider that if King had been born prior to or during the Civil War, we would never be celebrating his birthday as national holiday on January 15th. His birth coincided with the ideal chronology for the “man who would eventually be King”.

Using the ecological systems model, we can see within King’s development, a pattern of interrelated microsystems within his mesosystem influences of authoritative parenting, religious and grounded family values and education, on King’s religious & pacifist, altruistic ideologies within a macrosystem of a significant culturally and racially transitive environment of disequilibrium & violence on the horizon of modern social and legal reform. Although King only lived until the age of 39, King’s chronosystem was perhaps his age-influenced developmental and changing views/roles both intrinsically and externally. From an intrinsic standpoint, King was an exceptionally intelligent young man in disequilibrium with the social injustices within his environment.


This paper began with an objective of explaining the psychological theories that might explain the psychological development of Martin Luther King Jr. We have examined Martin through the lens of classical developmental theories of Piaget and Erikson & Bowlby/Ainsworth and segued to the more modern theories of Kohlberg and Bronfenbrenner. Within these lenses we can define Martin Luther King Jr. as an archetype of a social advocate. Jung describes an archetype as an unconscious and inherited cognitive image or thought (Jiang, Z., & Lemeng, H. 2013) however, King’s development and final stages can serve to represent the patterned psychology of a social advocate. As we have seen, King was exceptionally intelligent and educated, raised by nurturing authoritative parents, within an atmosphere of religious paradigms and thus, a strong, grounded sense of morality and self-identity. He was the “model leader” who acted with psychological introspection, and self-regulation, within an extraordinary & conflicted external world; Within Martin, we have a psychological “prototype” or formula of a social advocate. We can thus, use Martin’s actual development and life experience as a lens for the predictive value for future social advocates. Additionally, if we now know or at least can offer conjecture on “what made King?”, it may help us generalize and/or further refine at least some of the psychological theories cited within this paper.


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King, M. L., & Carson, C. (1998). The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books.

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