Before Martin Luther King Jr. became the leader of the civil rights movement, he studied systematic theology at Boston University from 1951 to 1955. Here are five things about his time in Boston that shaped his life.
King felt drawn to Boston.
King had spent his entire life in the segregated South, and coming to Boston was the first time King “felt free,” said Vita Paladino, director of Boston University’s HowardGotlieb Archival Research Center, which houses thousands of King’s papers and correspondence. “The feeling that he could go around freely, that he could go to a restaurant and be served, was new to him. He loved it.”
King lived in the South End.
When King was in Boston, the crossroads of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues was known as “Little Harlem.” Instead of living in Boston University’s dorms, King rented an apartment at 397 Massachusetts Ave. so he could explore and be involved in city life.
It was in Boston that King decided to become a civil rights activist.
King studied the philosophy of Boston Personalism, a school of thought that believed a person’s character was more important than service to God. The influence of his professors, L. Harold DeWolf and Allan Knight Chalmers, as well as Howard Thurman, the dean of the university’s Marsh Chapel, encouraged King to think of himself as a social activist.
Six months after he graduated from BU, King led the Montgomery bus boycott. He returned to Boston in 1964 to donate his personal papers to the university.
“If you look at his grades, he got a C in logic,” Paladino said. “But that didn’t matter, because he got what he wanted to achieve. He was very grateful to Boston for giving him the tools to do what he did.”
King met his future wife in Boston.
King was a favorite among the women in Boston, Paladino said, citing a documentary in BU’s archives. But after taking out several of his classmates and women from the Twelfth Baptist Church, where he worked as an assistant minister, he hadn’t met a woman he really liked. A suggestion from a friend led him to Coretta Scott, who was studying opera at The New England Conservatory of Music. The couple would marry in 1953.
King wasn’t the only black leader Boston inspired in the 1950s.
King lived in Boston at the same time as civil rights activist Malcolm X and Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the US Senate by popular vote. King encouraged Brooke to run for Senate, Paladino said.
“There’s something about Boston that has an effect on the thinking of these leaders,” Paladino said. “Boston was inspiring for them. It was fertile ground for democratic ideals.”
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