Martin Luther King's Manic-Depressive Illness: A Source of His Greatness and Despair

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH


October 26, 2015

In This Article

The Weight of the World

Few doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr, was a wonderful leader, and that his nonviolent philosophy is important for our world. But his example has not been followed well. One reason may be that we don't understand what he meant by his nonviolent approach. One way to get at that approach would be through better understanding of the psychology of nonviolence, and one avenue might be through appreciating the role of depression in that psychology. It has been shown that depression enhances empathy, and Dr King's politics can be seen as that of radical empathy, even toward one's enemies. He didn't wish to end segregation alone, but rather to end racism by changing the mind of a racist culture.

To begin to understand this psychology of nonviolence, we can ask the question of whether or not Dr King himself ever experienced depression. This is not meant to diminish him or his achievements, but to better appreciate how great he was, and to see that his depression could be viewed as a source of his greatness as well as of his despair.

In late 1967, Martin Luther King Jr was sitting around the dining room table in the upper Manhattan brownstone of his personal physician, Dr Arthur Logan, who had a serious concern: "Martin, I think you're depressed," he said. "I think you would benefit from specialist treatment by a psychiatrist."

Dr King looked around the room. His two close advisers, Stanley Levison and Clarence Jones, heard the medical advice with discouragement. Levison, Dr King's closest white adviser and a former Communist Party activist, was very influential. King trusted Levison's political instincts. Jones, much younger than the other men, was very close to Levison and had become King's personal lawyer.

So there they were: King's personal doctor, his lawyer, and his closest political tactician, struggling with the idea of what to do about King's clinical depression. That he was very depressed, no one in the room doubted. For about a year, King had become the opposite of his usual self. Before, he had been bubbly and upbeat; now he was morose. Before, he had been optimistic; now he was fatalistic, convinced not only that he would die soon but also concerned that the whole civil rights movement would prove to be a failure. Before, he had been high energy, needing only 4-5 hours of sleep nightly and yet able to handle massive amounts of air travel and speechifying; now, though he kept up the same busy schedule, he was exhausted most of the time. Increasingly, he turned to alcohol for support, with multiple glasses of hard liquor having become a nightly norm. He had increased his cigarette smoking. He was engaged in even more sexually impulsive activity than previously.

Most of all, he knew he would be killed, and he was expecting it constantly around the next corner. He was ready to die, expected to die, and almost seemed to want it.

The fact that Dr King was severely down, even clinically depressed, has been established by prior historians. Most observers rationalize King's depression by describing the many stresses of his life: the civil rights movement was in danger indeed—threatened by the Black Power movement on its left and, ever since Dr King came out strongly against the Vietnam War, deserted by President Lyndon Johnson and the liberal Democratic establishment on its right. King's poll numbers had fallen drastically, such that less than one third of the American public had a positive opinion of him. He was receiving more and more death threats. He knew he was risking his life daily, and for what? No one seemed to be listening to him anymore. In short, he had plenty of reasons to be depressed.


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