9 Lessons from Journals of Martin Luther King Jr

There is more to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy than the recognizable “I have a Dream” speech. One hidden gem of Dr. King’s legacy is in the depths of his 10,000+ journals, diaries, sermons, letters, and notebooks left behind.

Together, these journals and writings, provide an intimate glimpse of the youngest person (up until 1964) to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. Like other successful people who kept journal, Dr. King maintained this habit throughout his short but remarkable life.

It is hard to separate the Dr. King we know today from his habit of reading, writing, and journaling.

Below are the lessons we can learn from Dr. King’s journals, diaries, notebooks and letters.

Dr. Martin Luther King Diary Journal from 1954
Dr. King’s 1954 Diary. Source: King Collection

Setup your environment to encourage journaling

Dr. King put an enormous effort into developing his mind. One way he did that was to setup his work environment that would encourage journaling — and activities that support deep thinking. This rare picture of Dr. King’s office provides a glimpse of how his sophisticated mind developed — surrounded with countless of writings, notebooks, books, journals, and letters.

Dr. King, Jr. is pictured reading and reflecting at home in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. King, Jr. is pictured reading and reflecting at home in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Journaling or writing did not stop from the comfort of home or office — he even journaled while in jail or from his hotel while traveling.

This habit of reflection and supporting environment is also shared by other successful people who kept journals — like Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Today’s environments are full of distractions — TV, emails, social media, internet browsing, and instant messaging — would Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein, or Leonardo Da Vinci allow such distraction in their work environment? Most definitely not.

Reflect with the following questions in your journal to enhance your environment;

  • Does my environment to encourage more journaling time? If not, what is a small improvement I can make to my environment?
  • Do I have an outlet for journaling when it is most needed — during meetings, change in emotions, making a decision, or reflecting on an event?

Collect your rejections and use them to persevere

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s son, Martin Luther King III, was rejected admission into a school due to being the “first formal Negro (applicant)…”. This letter of rejection by the school and a draft of the reply by Mrs. Coretta King was found in Dr. King’s collection — hinting that he kept that rejection as a reminder of why he is fighting to progress civil rights.

This photo released by Sothebys shows a draft reply from Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Lovett School on February 25, 1963 after it rejected their application to enrol young Martin III. Source: Sotheby's Auction
A draft reply from Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Lovett School on February 25, 1963 after it rejected their application to enrol young Martin III. Source: Sotheby’s Auction

Caption: This photo released by Sothebys shows a draft reply from Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Lovett School on February 25, 1963 after it rejected their application to enroll young Martin III. Sothebys via AP & News

We all have experienced rejections in various areas of life — from job search, college admissions, personal life, or from people who are the closest to us — family. However, how many of have channeled the energy from rejections to keep moving forward?

Reflect in your journal about rejections with the following questions;

  • What was your most recent rejection and what can you learn from it?
  • How has a rejection — just or unjust — made you more certain about your goal?

Build onto the learnings from school

Dr. King built upon his learnings throughout his schooling — from college to his doctorate. Here is a “Blue Book of Examination” found in his collection. It is on the subject of “Bible” — a course he took at Morehouse College, dated 1946 — when he was 17 years old.

Martin Luther King's Blue Book of Examination
Martin Luther King’s Blue Book of Examination

In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, he remembered the Morehouse College’s President, Benjamin E. Mays, as “one of the great influences in my life”. He also said that Professor George Kelsey, who taught King the two-semester bible course referenced above, had taught him “to see that behind the legends and myths of the book were many profound truths which one could not escape.”

Reflect in your journal about lifelong learning with the following questions;

  • What learnings or subjects from school can you revisit, review, or build upon?
  • What teachers inspired you to and how can you continue to live out their teachings? Also, do contact them and say hello!

Learn by taking notes, asking questions, and reflecting

A notable survivor found in Dr. King’s collection was a group of more than 800 handwritten index cards. Dr. King began to write these cards with facts, quotes, notes, and references from his student days. He kept these cards with great care — in order and alphabetized by author’s name.

The index cards covered a wide range of themes — theology, history, book notes, sociology — which collectively provided the building blocks for his awe-inspiring sermons, speeches, and his philosophy of non-violent resistance.

One can only try to estimate the amount of hours invested in maintaining such a meticulous notes and writings — and putting them into practice through his work.

Dr. Martin Luther King's Index cards on Life, Lincoln, and Existentialism. Source: Sotheby's Auction
Dr. Martin Luther King’s Index cards on Life, Lincoln, and Existentialism. Source: Sotheby’s Auction

Reflect in your journal about active learning with the following questions;

  • How can I use my journal to actively learn — notes, questions, and discussions about a topic? Examples include during meetings, reading a book, thinking, or watching a documentary

Read books that push your intellect forward

Dr. King’s personal library of books included approximately 1,000 books ranging from childhood books, to school and college texts, through classics of history, literature and philosophy and, of course, sociology and theology. Here is a complete list of the books found in his library.

[Martin Luther King's Bookshelf](https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/memphis-dr-kings-bookshelf/), Dexter Parsonage Museum, Montgomery, Alabama. Library of Congress
Martin Luther King’s Bookshelf, Dexter Parsonage Museum, Montgomery, Alabama. Library of Congress
King’s interest in a book is immediately visible by the quantity of his annotations. Some books receive only a signature of ownership, or a few cursory underlinings or marginal checkmarks. Others dramatically engaged his attention, and in these he either carried on a virtual conversation with the author. For example in Niebuhr’s, Moral Man and Immoral Society, the margins are crammed with King’s handwritten questions and comments.

He also took the printed text as a starting point for his own work (as in A Modern Anthology of Emerson, which bears on its preliminaries and first few text leaves a full autograph essay on Swedenborg and issues of slavery and freedom).

Reflect in your journal about reading books with the following questions;

  • How has been my reading habit? Am I exploring books or topics that fascinate me — even if they are comic books?
  • Do I reflect, connect, and expand on the topics that interest me?

Combine learnings from various fields to progress your thinking

The profound writings of Dr. King were a result of his ability to mature his mind — combining poetry, theology, philosophy, scripture, and many other fields. For instance, in the following excerpt from his Nobel Lecture, he elegantly emphasizes that the core of all human conflict — racial injustice, poverty, and war — emerge from the gap between a person’s “internal” and “external”;

“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external, the internal is the realm of the spiritual … expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”

Reflect in your journal about expanding your thinking with the following questions;

  • Have I exposed myself to various disciplines — science, poetry, philosophy, etc?

Explore a higher purpose through reflection — faith or spirituality

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”. — I’ve Been to the Mountaintop (Sermon), one night before his assassination.

A key to understand the sophisticated figure of Dr. King is the central role of faith in his life. “He was a churchman from beginning to end”, said Dr. J. Kameron Carter, professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School. Indeed, Dr. King maintained his role as a minister of the gospel, a responsibility he did not eliminate despite his devotion the advancing civil rights.

This commitment to faith is unavoidable by the 100s of sermons found in a “sermon box” in his personal library.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sermon Box
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sermon Box

Faith and spirituality has the power to focus on the greater good. This has been a constant theme throughout Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

Reflect in your journal about fait and spirituality with the following questions;

  • How have you explored faith or spirituality? Take this quiz to help you think and rank your spirituality.

Reflect on life events — both negative and positive

“I am in Birmingham (jail) because injustice is here” – Martin Luther King

Life is made of up positive, negative, and neutral events. Each of them allow for reflection instead of bathing in the glory of positive news or feeling down due to a negative event. This was true for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during various events — John. F. Kennedy’s assassination, rejections and setbacks, being awarded Nobel Prize, and being jailed for peaceful protests.

He accepts the Prize on behalf of a movement “which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize”; but he qualifies that the award is made in “profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time–the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

Instead of feeling crippled by a setback or defeat, Dr. King worked even harder when things were tough.

Re-visit and expand on your writing and work

Dr. King re-visited almost all of his work — as made evident by his annotations, corrections, and additions in his journals and papers.

Dr King often revisited and annotated his works. Here is a letter that he added p.s (post script) to.
Dr King often revisited and annotated his works. Here is a letter that he added p.s (post script) to.

Furthermore, his recognizable statement from the jail of “I am in Birmingham because injustice exists here” was made infinitely more direct by substituting “is” for “exists” – “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”.

King’s revisions also added his famous closing, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King.”


While many may look upon MLK day as a 3-day weekend, it is worth remembering how Martin Luther King Jr. lived and worked – especially with keeping a journal. His journaling habit should inspire us to reflect on his words, his legacy, and our own path ahead.

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