Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most prominent faces of the civil rights movement and his legacy and mission continues to live on. He dedicated his life to equality and justice, fighting against oppression and segregation through nonviolent protests and action. Dr. King’s words and methods continue to resonate with all those seeking justice in the United States and around the world.
He accomplished so much and made many strides for change with his 39 years of life. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), helped organize the “March on Washington,” where he gave his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech, led the Selma to Montgomery March, and was the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize at 35 years old. His leadership resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact on the world is momentous and is often taught in classrooms as early as grade school. We know about his accomplishments in the civil rights movement, but what about his life before that?
Before Dr. King became the face of Black History, he was a student at Morehouse College. He entered Morehouse as an early-admission student at the age of 15 in 1944 and graduated in 1948 as a man ready to change the nation. It was at Morehouse that he furthered his knowledge of social justice and philosophy that would help guide his work in civil rights.
Here are 5 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr’s HBCU Experience!
1. HBCU Family Legacy
Dr. King wasn’t the first one in his family to attend Morehouse College. He comes from a legacy of Morehouse men, starting with his grandfather, Rev. Adam Daniel Williams (class of 1898), and his father Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. (class of 1930). His family legacy continued with his brother, Rev. A.D. Williams King, (class of 1960), and with his sons Martin Luther King III (class of 1979), and Dexter Scott King (attended 1979 to 1984). Dr. King’s mother Alberta Williams King, attended high school at Spelman Seminary and received her teaching certificate at Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute, now Hampton University, and continued her studies at Morris Brown College. His sister, Christine King Farris is also an HBCU alum as she received her BA in economics from Spelman College in 1948 on the same day King received his BA in sociology from Morehouse.
2. He Shared A Deep Bond With The The School’s Famed President, Dr. Benjamin Mays
Dr. Benjamin Mays was Morehouse’s president from 1940-1967 and is widely regarded as the architect of the college’s reputation, according to the university. King described Mays as “one of the great influences in my life.” Mays introduced Dr. King to Gandhi’s teachings and his method of nonviolent protest. According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, Mays challenged Morehouse students to struggle against segregation rather than accommodate themselves to it. In his weekly chapel address and newspaper columns, Mays urged the students to be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings and the injustices of society” and to “accept responsibility for correcting these ills.”
Mays and Dr. King remained close until King’s death in 1968. Mays delivered King’s eulogy. “Our friendship goes back to his student days at Morehouse College,” Mays said. “It was my desire that if I pre-deceased Dr. King he would pay tribute to me on my final day. It was his wish that if he pre-deceased me I would deliver the homily at his funeral. Fate has decreed that I eulogize him. I wish it might have been otherwise, for, after all, I am three score years and ten, and Martin Luther is dead at thirty-nine.”
3. He Became Deeply Interested in Political & Social Issues at Morehouse
In his autobiography, Dr. King said that “there was a free atmosphere at Morehouse, and it was there I had my first frank discussion on race.” During his freshman year, his interest in social and political issues grew. He read Henry David Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” and made his first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. “Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times,” Dr. King said.
The summer before his junior year King wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, responding to several racially motivated murders in Georgia. In the letter, King summarized the goals of black citizens: “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations”
While at Morehouse, he worked with organizations that were trying to make racial justice a reality and joined the Intercollegiate Council, an interracial Atlanta student group that met monthly to discuss various social issues. Through participation in this organization, Dr. King saw white people as “allies” for the first time. “I had been ready to resent the whole white race, but as I got to see more of white people, my resentment was softened, and a spirit of cooperation took its place,” he said.
4. He Was Very Involved in Extra Curricular Activities
According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, a friend of King’s, Walter R. McCall, recalled that King was an “ordinary student” during his time at Morehouse: “I don’t think he took his studies very seriously, but seriously enough to get by.” Although King didn’t have exceptional grades, he was a very involved student. King was president of the sociology club, a member of the debate team, student council, glee club, minister’s union, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. King also joined the Morehouse chapter of the NAACP. He won second prize in the John L. Webb oratorical competition in 1946 and 1948 and played on the Butler Street YMCA basketball team.
5. He Was Influenced By His Morehouse Professors To Accept The Call Of Ministry.
In his autobiography, Dr. King admitted that although his parents instilled in him the “urge to serve humanity,” he didn’t start out with an interest in ministry, and instead considered becoming a lawyer or a doctor. As a sociology student, he said that his studies made him skeptical and he saw the gap between what he learned in Sunday school and what he was learning in college. It wasn’t until he studied a course in Bible that he realized there were truths within the Book that “one could not escape.” He was influenced by Dr. George Kelsey, a professor of philosophy and religion, and Morehouse president, Dr. Benjamin Mays. “Both were ministers, both deeply religious, and yet both were learned men, aware of all the trends of modern thinking. I could see in their lives the ideal of what I wanted a minister to be” Dr. King said. He entered ministry his senior year of college with an inescapable “sense of responsibility.”