A king raised by wise men: the student days of Martin Luther King Jr.
A white guy, another young man studying to be a preacher, had pulled a gleaming pistol from inside his clothes. He wanted Martin to come to his room right now and rearrange his furniture that had been flipped over as a prank. And he wanted an apology. Both were important enough to blow away Martin for.
King, who was called both "M.L.," and "Mike" in his college days at Morehouse and here at mostly white Crozer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia, was, at 20, younger than the average student. Yet, at a muscular 5' 7" and 175 pounds, he stood broad-chested in his dormitory doorway while the whim student ranted in his North Carolina drawl. King knew the only way he could defuse the anger of this man who thought himself wronged was with quiet, rational logic.
By now, M.L. was a master wordsmith. A preacher for three or four years, he made congregations back at his daddy's Ebenezer Baptist Church weep at the grandiloquence of his soaring calls for them to transcend the indignity of being African-American in the 1950s. But this was truly the speech of his life.
Apparently, King kept his antagonist engaged in discussion, denying any part in the prank, probably asking whether the man's own future wouldn't be in jeopardy were he to commit this murder. Hearing the commotion, one dorm resident, and then another, and then a hallway-full spilled out to see what was wrong.
In a moment, they were commanding the southerner to "put the gun down!" Most of Crozer's dorm students played along occasionally in these raids, where, to ease the constant strain of busting books, students would lightly trash others' rooms, turning over chairs, desks, and beds, and then revel in how ticked off the victim would be upon finding the mess. The southerner himself had played the game. Why get so crazy about it, and why accuse King? Obviously it was because he was African-American. And to the men's classmates, it was obviously unfair. They were all around him now. "Put the gun down!"
Outmanned and humiliated, the southerner lowered his aim, and stormed back to his room. The fact that M.L. was alive was proof that words could sometimes soothe the savage in the human beast. And the fact that word spread of his calm courage and that white students soon began looking up to him and eventually elected him president of his senior class, taught him a lesson in leadership that took deep root. Stand your ground, stay cool, and appeal to your opponent's reason. Actually, there was one more element in the equation which M.L. had had no control over, but which this episode taught him was a powerful factor in confronting racism; always enlist an outside, coercive authority--be it a bunch of classmates, or later the President--who can force an unwilling opponent to do the right thing.
M.L. King Jr. was not born non-violent. He was, in fact, "a bit of a hellion;" a teenager who could easily resolve differences by kicking butts wrestling, as a childhood homeboy later recalled. "Let's go to the grass" was the gauntlet he'd throw down to challenge other boys to put up or shut up.
But he was usually a peacemaker. Peace, after all, was probably a condition he was acutely desirous of, growing up as he did in the long, authoritarian shadow of his namesake, Martin Senior. Daddy ruled his wife, three children, and two-story brick home with old-fashioned, patriarchal severity. He was a no-nonsense man who had worked his way up to become a self-shaped pillar of the community and pastor of one of Black Atlanta's most respected congregations, complete with six choirs.
His second child, Martin Jr. was an intellectual prodigy. He graduated from high school after his junior year and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen. He really never needed to find work getting his hands dirty because his father could have hooked him up an office job at some company run by his many contacts. But Jr. preferred unloading boxcars during the summers and rubbing shoulders with manual laborers, to suffer their humiliations at the hands of white bosses.
As excellent a student as M.L. had been in his segregated high school, he was below-average at "The House." He entered college reading only on an eighth-grade level, a testament to the separate and unequal schooling that African Americans received.
But college was to M.L. what it should be to all young people--a kind of open dish where his mind, personality, and attitudes were nourished in a rich, free environment. "Tweed," as his boys called him because of his preference for suits of the fashionable '40s fabric, fancied himself a silver-tongued "lady wrecker," played on the football team, and sang in Morehouse's incomparable glee club. He pondered the meaning of self and service. He worried about how to become a man, as well as a wage earner.
Most importantly, King took advantage of a treasure that many college brothers today either overlook or cannot find--African-American male mentors.
Most legendary of these was Benjamin Mays, the Morehouse president, a man of God whose moral influence and vision of sophisticated masculinity galvanized three generations of Morehouse men to lives of activism. Mays, who often received M.L. as an office visitor, said that young King "spoke as a man (with) ten more years' experience... He had... maturity... and a grasp of life and its problems that exceeded even that."
King was a rapt sponge during Mays' weekly chapel lectures. Those combined with long discussions he had with another minister, his professor of religion, allowed young M.L. a wider view of preachers other than pulpit stompers like his father, who embarrassed him. Because of these mentors, King found examples of what he thought "a real minister to be." He thus reconciled doubts about answering the call to become a minister, and in his junior year decided upon his life's work.
In 1948, King took a sociology degree from Morehouse. When he moved on to earn his master's in divinity at Crozer, M.L. often enjoyed steak in brown sauce and theological debates at the home of an older family friend, Rev. Joe Barbour. At one point, Barbour felt it his duty to persuade King to put the big chill on a budding romance he was having with a young white woman. King finally concurred, but was crestfallen. Even life in the North was thus pocked with reminders that African Americans were second-class citizens.
In intellectual retaliation, young Martin was a self-conscious emissary for his race. "I was well aware of the typical white stereotype of the Negro, that he is always late, that he's loud and always laughing, that he's dirty... I am afraid I was grimly serious... I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless."
He was also a fiercely intelligent scholar, busy devouring different philosophies: Karl Marx, Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1950, he first learned about the Indian revolutionary Mohandas Gandhi in a speech given by the president of Howard University. Only a few years before, Gandhi had helped India overthrow its British oppressors by employing the teachings of an American, Henry David Thoreau, who said that moral men and women must disobey unjust laws, but be willing to be imprisoned for such "civil disobedience."
The next semester, King wrote a research paper on the Indian patriarch. It was probably then that Martin resolved to eradicate discrimination with Gandhi's example, "nonviolent resistance," thus borrowing from an unmet mentor.
In his third year at Crozer, M.L. got nothing but As. For his diligence, he graduated in 1951 with a $1200 scholarship for doctoral study at Boston University, and a brand spanking new green chevy from his parents.
The scholarship was incidental; even while Daddy King was impatient that M.L. was taking too long to become Ebenezer's assistant pastor, he was still willing to continue sending a generous monthly allowance. The car, on the other hand, was a virtual necessity for an eligible bachelor in his mid-20s. At Boston, he would put it to good use, taking classes at both BU and Harvard, but also for squiring around a tall music student, Coretta Scott, whom a mutual friend introduced him to.
His idea of poetic rap, "You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo. (With you) I'm like Napoleon, I'm at my Waterloo," almost turned her off. Coretta called him "a typical man. Smoothness. Jive. What I call intellectual jive." Nevertheless, she later admitted to enjoying it. After he ended a long-term relationship back in Atlanta, he asked Coretta to be his wife. History would prove his a wonderful choice of life partner.
In the course of his eleven years of college and post-graduate studies, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote volumes of papers. However, perhaps none says so much about his motivation to seek so much learning, as well as says so much to today's young collegian as does the article, "The Purpose of Education," which he wrote in 1948 for the Morehouse newspaper, The Maroon Tiger. Too many of his peers, he said, thought college "should equip them with the... instrument of exploitation so they... can trample over the masses." But the function of education, King decided, was to give a person "not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.
"Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education."
Tony Chapelle is a freelance journalist in New York City.
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|Title Annotation:||African World History|
|Publication:||The Black Collegian|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1993|
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