Martin Luther King Jr. was a cautious nineteen-year-old rookie preacher when he left Atlanta, Georgia, to attend divinity school up north. At Crozer Theological Seminary, King, or “ML” back then, immediately found himself surrounded by a white staff and white professors. Even his dorm room had once been used by wounded Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. In addition, his fellow seminarians were almost all older; some were soldiers who had fought in World War II, others pacifists who had chosen jail instead of enlisting. ML was facing challenges he’d barely dreamed of. A prankster and a late-night, chain-smoking pool player, ML soon fell in love with a white woman, all the while adjusting to life in an integrated student body and facing discrimination from locals in the surrounding town of Chester, Pennsylvania. In class, ML performed well, though he demonstrated a habit of plagiarizing that continued throughout his academic career. But he was helped by friendships with fellow seminarians and the mentorship of the Reverend J. Pius Barbour. In his three years at Crozer between 1948 and 1951, King delivered dozens of sermons around the Philadelphia area, had a gun pointed at him (twice), played on the basketball team, and eventually became student body president. These experiences shaped him into a man ready to take on even greater challenges. Based on dozens of revealing interviews with the men and women who knew him then,The Seminarian is the first definitive, full-length account of King’s years as a divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary. Long passed over by biographers and historians, this period in King’s life is vital to understanding the historical figure he soon became.
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About the Author
Patrick Parr has written about Dr. King for magazines and newspapers such as the Atlantic, Seattle Magazine , and the Japan Times. He worked as a historical consultant for the New Jersey Historical Commission, helping to decide on nominated Martin Luther King Jr. landmarks. In 2014, he was awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship. David J. Garrow is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the King biography Bearing the Cross and Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.
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Young and Alone
Term 1, September 14– November 24, 1948
"Each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. ... We're split up and divided against ourselves. There is something of a civil war going on within all our lives."
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Room 52 and Lucius Z. Hall: "Martin ... I'm Gonna Kill You"
Martin Luther King Jr. took in his new accommodations on the second floor of Old Main, Crozer Theological Seminary's main building. Room 52 was a furnished six- by-eight-foot space, featuring a twin bed with covers and a pillow, and opposite it three sets of drawers in which to place his clothes. At the back of the room was a wooden desk with a table lamp and a basic chair. A cushioned lounge chair sat in the corner, and a window overlooked the campus's front lawn lined with maple trees. Though far from a five-star hotel, it would do just fine for a young preacher without any attachments. The shared bathroom would be a constant reminder, however, that he was not completely alone.
During the Civil War, Old Main had been a military hospital, and ML's room had been occupied by a wounded Confederate soldier. On the outside of his door was the outline of a hole through which the soldier was given his food. Two stories up, the walls of the fourth-floor cupola still bore the signatures of wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict. This history held particular significance for the building's African American residents; as a past black graduate had written, "A soldier fighting to keep my people enslaved had used that very room. Now, it was my room, and I was using it to learn how to harvest enough spiritual energy to achieve our full freedom."
But the Civil War was eight decades ago, and as ML unpacked his neatly folded clothes, he was focused on his future. In September 1948, ML was a nineteen-year-old, five-foot-seven, 150-pound rookie preacher. His time at Crozer meant he'd be away from his family and the seventeen sheltered blocks of "Sweet Auburn," the prosperous African American community around Auburn Avenue in Atlanta where the Kings lived and ministered. By choosing a seminary in the North, ML had decided to come out from beneath the shadow of his father and his Ebenezer Baptist domain. At Crozer, King now had a chance to follow his own path.
In those first days at Crozer, however, the main thing ML wanted to do was fit in with his fellow divinity students, most of whom were older than he was. He could always rely on his best friend, Walter McCall, to help him relax and enjoy himself, but Mac would not join him at Crozer until the next term. So for the time being, at least, ML felt overwhelmed by a certain dread and timidity. "If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morbidly conscious of it and sure that everyone noticed it," he recalled. "I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined and my clothes immaculately pressed." He affected a "grimly serious" demeanor, and made sure not to be the guy who laughed too much or dispensed undeserved compliments.
Though it made him feel self-conscious, ML's anxiety was far from abnormal, especially among his floormates. While the third floor of Old Main had rooms for older, married students looking to settle down at a church as soon as possible, the second floor was packed with single young men like ML, many of whom struggled to adjust to the newness of an integrated living environment. They would be studying with seminarians from Georgia and from New York, from China and Panama. Some were former soldiers who'd fought in World War II and others were pacifists who chose jail instead of enlisting. Some, like ML, had barely maintained a B average during their college days. And many were looking for a way to differentiate themselves from others. No one wanted to be thought of as the "weak" preacher, the one who could not inspire a congregation, or the one who did not have the proper leadership skills to manage a church. Competition was fierce, and inevitable self-doubt, both general and specific — Is this my path? Do I have the necessary charisma to increase the membership of the church? — crept in daily.
His class of incoming students — sixteen men in a student body that at that time hovered around forty students — would produce the largest percentage of black graduates in Crozer's history. Like ML, other southern black preachers had been drawn to the school ever since it graduated Morehouse alum J. Pius Barbour in 1936. King's Crozer classmate Marcus Wood explained decades later that "the trend of blacks then was to get into a white school" — then there was a chance people would say, "He must be something; he went to a white seminary."
In the mornings, ML and other black seminarians marveled at the fact that white maids were cleaning the hallways and each student's room. ML had been raised within the confines of segregation — he'd drunk from segregated water fountains, used elevators specifically for "people like him," and attended only segregated schools. But now a shift had occurred: white maids, white fellow students, and white professors would be a part of his daily Crozer experience.
It didn't take long for the black students to identify one particular white classmate who could be trouble. A few doors down from ML's room 52 lived Lucius Z. Hall, a twenty-five-year- old former soldier from Hartsville, South Carolina. To ML, Lucius's personality was unfortunately familiar: in Lucius sat the preconceived notions of a nineteenth-century southern white man. Lucius had no qualms about calling black students "darkies" or appreciating the history of the Confederate flag.
Lucius walked with a limp and often used a cane. The reason for his handicap was, at least from what he told others, an injury he suffered as an infantry lieutenant during the Battle of the Bulge. Lucius kept a pistol close by and often created mischief among his classmates. As one fellow student said, "He was a great practical joker. He just couldn't take a joke."
Lucius's history of pranks dated back to his college days at Mercer University in Georgia. Once, he wanted to use a public phone but a man was in the phone booth talking to his girlfriend. Lucius grew tired of waiting and decided it would be funny to make a long line of lighter fluid that ended up near the man's feet. As he let the match fall and watched the fire approach the booth, the man dropped the phone and ran out of there in a hurry.
Horace E. Whitaker, or "Whit," a married student who for that first year lived above King on the third floor, remembered Hall clearly: "The thing that perhaps upset him the most was that the southern black was there to challenge his particular views. ... There was a movement at the time of racial integration, coming slowly as it was, and some just could not deal with it." Like Hall, Whitaker was a war vet; like King, he was a black southerner, hailing from Seaview, Virginia. Whit was one of the men who took ML under his wing that first term. He was eleven years older than ML, and when ML needed perspective he often traveled up the stairs to the third floor to talk to him. ML admired Whit's measured, reasonable nature.
King's own capacity for restraint was put to the test early in his Crozer tenure, in an encounter with Lucius Z. Hall. The details are uncertain; the incident has been described from multiple perspectives by several students who were there, but the man at the center, Hall himself, could not be found, so we are left to piece together the clearest version we can.
During the fall term of 1948, while ML was away from Old Main for a few hours, Hall and several coconspirators placed a water bucket above his door, closing it just enough so that the room didn't appear to be tampered with. When ML returned and pushed open the door, he was doused with ice cold water. All in good fun so far. The truth was that the water bucket prank went up and down that second floor, and even the third. Executing such capers was easy, since Crozer had removed all locks from students' doors to encourage interpersonal trust.
Eventually the novelty of soaking one's classmates wore off, and students attempted to take the pranks to the next level. They started breaking into a target's dorm room and stacking his furniture — desk, chair, shelves — on the bed, or moving it into a pile in the hallway. Some pranksters would take vital pieces of furniture and hide them in random places around Old Main. So it was that ML returned to his room to find he had no mattress to sleep on. He roamed the building, attempting to ignore the smug smiles of Lucius Hall and his fellow pranksters. Eventually, ML found the mattress in the basement — nicknamed the "catacombs" — and had to drag it up three flights of stairs as fellow students looked on.
ML believed it was Lucius who'd hidden his mattress and wanted to retaliate, as did others who'd been water bucket and furniture stacking victims. But ML and the others didn't want to simply redo a prior prank. Instead, they went for something bigger.
One night, Hall left his room, and his fellow second-floor students knew they had a couple of hours to complete their mission. From Hall's dorm room they took the bed, the table, the chairs, the desk. They carefully walked it all down the staircase and out the front door of Old Main. They chose a spot on the front lawn and arranged all of Hall's furniture so that it was in the same configuration as it had been inside.
When wounded war vet Lucius returned, he viewed his new outdoor living arrangements with rage. Here he was, a man in his midtwenties who'd seen the horrors of war, who'd been raised to assume that blacks were inferior, getting a strong dose of his own medicine from a nineteen-year-old black kid who still received a weekly five-dollar allowance from his mother.
Lucius grabbed his pistol and headed to room 52.
ML had been watching Lucius's reaction from a window, and when he saw how angry Hall had become, he picked up a book and pretended to be reading. When Lucius entered his room, ML gave him a quick glance, then went back to staring at his book.
"Martin ... I'm gonna kill you," Lucius said, his gun pointed and ready. ML remained silent, attached to his book like one would be to a shield.
The confrontation attracted the attention of another black student in ML's class: Marcus Wood, one of the few actively practicing preachers, and older than many of his classmates. (He was nine years older than ML.) Wood entered room 52 and attempted to calm the situation. "Hall ... don't do that," he said. "It's all fun ... you don't even know Mike did it."
By now, students black and white had gathered around the room. As Wood later recalled, "It took another hour of strenuous argument before he finally agreed to put the weapon away." Once Lucius finally calmed down, he went back to his room. The poise ML showed during that hour under threat, and the ability to not panic or fan the flame of Lucius's anger, was enough to earn admiration from the rest of the students.
The next day the dean of Crozer, Charles Batten, arranged a meeting with the seminarians in Old Main and banned the practice of room raids. According to the available records, Lucius Hall would only attend one year at Crozer before moving on.
Classes and Professors: Out with the Old
"I am informed that he is a little above average in scholarship."
— Letter of Recommendation to Crozer from Lucius M. Tobin, Professor of Religion at Morehouse
"You will see from their records that they are not brilliant students, but they both have good minds."
— Letter of Recommendation to Crozer from Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse, discussing both ML and Walter McCall
"The academic record of Martin Luther King Jr. in Morehouse College is short of what may be called 'good.'"
— Letter of Recommendation to Crozer from George D. Kelsey, Director of Morehouse School of Religion
Introduction to the Old Testament
At eight in the morning on Tuesday through Friday, after an early breakfast in the dining hall in the center of Old Main's first floor, ML headed down the hallway, past the receptionist's room, and into a classroom.
For the next two hours, his professor was thirty-nine-year-old Dr. James B. Pritchard, a biblical scholar who had traveled the world researching the actual history behind the stories of the Old Testament. A Methodist at heart, he was at the time busy completing Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, a book that would eventually become a definitive text for scholars in the field. He and New Testament scholar Morton S. Enslin, who would instruct ML starting the following semester, represented the "reality check" built into the Crozer curriculum.
During ML's time at Crozer, the seminary was considered, in one student's words, a "scholar's school," with an emphasis on academic inquiry instead of the practical concerns of preaching and evangelism. Yet Crozer students often entered seminary with little background in theological scholarship and with literalist views on biblical truth. Yes, Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea. Yes, Noah's animals went in two by two. Pritchard noted years later that his African American seminarians were particularly prone to this way of thinking: "Enslin and I had all these black students from the Deep South — fundamentalists" who were reluctant to abandon their rigid views and consider their religion from the perspective of, say, a biblical archaeologist.
Dr. Pritchard saw it as his responsibility to knock the fundamentalist ideas out of his students' heads forever. He focused on correcting their view of Moses as a "legendary character" and their "overinflated" sense of the story of Exodus so they could preach the tale with more precision. Later in the year it would be Enslin's turn to eliminate all the glorified myths of Jesus and build him back up from scratch.
There were nine students in Pritchard's "O.T." class, including a few of ML's friends, such as wise counselor Horace Whitaker, room-raid savior Marcus Wood, and a unique but remote black seminarian from Panama, Cyril Pyle, who quickly found a role in the Chester community as a preacher and moderator at the local West Branch YMCA. King sat in the second-to-last row of the classroom, soaking in his professor's pragmatic explanations. ML was quiet and dressed in an unwrinkled white-collared shirt, a black tie, suit coat, and black pants. The nineteen-year- old may have worried about whether he came across as a peer to his older classmates, but while some of them were paralyzed by the very idea of cutting Moses down to size, he enjoyed being challenged to dissect and scrutinize his previous beliefs. ML had always wanted Daddy King to take a more cerebral approach to his preaching. Over the years, he had watched his father deliver his message backed by not much other than plainspoken enthusiasm. It was this primal authority (Make it plain, son!) that pushed ML toward the other end of the spectrum.
The first week of O.T. made clear what Crozer expected, and it was exactly what ML was hoping for. This was the intense class he needed to shake himself out of his youthful academic stagnation. In a letter to his mother in October 1948, he wrote, "Some times the professor [Pritchard] comes in class and tells us to read our ... assignments in Hebrew, and that is really hard."
ML's grades were considerably better than those of the other black students in the class, whose underperformance may reflect their resistance to Pritchard's antifundamentalist approach. Perhaps they felt at first that it was unimportant whether a story was "true" or not. Like Daddy King, they may have surmised that preaching was more about delivery, passion, conviction, and belief. But for Dr. Pritchard, treating myth as truth for the sake of convenience meant short-changing the possibilities of a sermon. It was only with an understanding of historical fact that Old Testament legends could be most powerfully retold.
Excerpted from "The Seminarian"
Copyright © 2018 Patrick Parr.
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Table of Contents
Foreword David J. Garrow ix
Note to the Reader xi
Prologue: On a Bus in Georgia, April 1944 1
Year 1 Genesis
1 Young and Alone 17
Term 1, September 14-November 24, 1948
2 Breaking Free 45
Term 2, November 30, 1948-February 16, 1949
3 Finding a Voice 65
Term 3, February 22-May 6, 1949
Year II Exodus
4 A New Devotion 83
Term 1, September 13-November 23, 1949
5 Mordecai's Fire 97
Term 2, November 29, 1949-February 15, 1950
6 Chosen to Lead 119
Term 3, February 21-May 5, 1950
Interlude: The Summer of 1950 131
Year III Revelation
7 Forbidden Love 143
Term 1, September 12-November 22, 1950
8 The Recommended Plagiarist 171
Term 2, November 28, 1950-February 15, 1951
9 A Divine Cause 191
Term 3, February 20-May 4, 1951
Epilogue: Beyond Crozer 211
A Crozer Incoming Class of 1948 227
B Events from ML's Student Body Presidency 229
C A Brief History of the Crozers and Old Main 233
Selected Bibliography 273