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Local activists recall King’s presence in Hub

Years in Boston ‘sharpened his gifts’

Robert Hayden
Local activists recall King’s presence in Hub

Martin Luther King Jr. touched Boston and Boston touched him. Being in Boston was an important part of his life, and his presence here during the ’50s and ’60s is part of our history.

King first came to Boston in 1951 to study at Boston University’s School of Theology, where he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1955.

He lived at 397 Mass. Ave. with a former classmate from Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Their apartment became the meeting place for the Philosophical Club, a group of black students they organized to discuss the issues of the day.

The same year King arrived in Boston, his future wife Coretta Scott came here to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. In early 1952, the two met; a romance blossomed, and in June 1953 they were married in Heiberger, Alabama.

After their wedding, the Kings returned to their studies in Boston and made their new home in a four-room apartment near the Conservatory.

At Boston University, King studied philosophy and theology under Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf, two leading advocates of personal idealism. Through this philosophy, King strengthened his idea of a personal God and formed his belief in the dignity and worth of all human personality.

At the Twelfth Baptist

During his student years at Boston University, the historic Twelfth Baptist Church (now on Warren St., Roxbury) was an important part of King’s life. He worshiped, taught religious classes and preached Sunday morning sermons at Twelfth.

“Just about the time I came to Twelfth as a youth minister in 1951, Martin Luther King attached himself to Rev. William Hester and Twelfth,” recalled Rev. Michael Haynes, now the pastor emeritus of Twelfth Baptist.

“In a sense, Martin called this his home church without taking out membership,” recalled Haynes in a 1983 interview. “His father, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. had encouraged his son to get with Rev. Hester when he was here. He often ate at the Hesters’ home and he met Coretta Scott here at the church. He preached here when Rev. Hester was away … perhaps once a month. And he preached many of the evening services at Twelfth,” said Haynes.

By the winter of 1954, King began thinking about beginning his own ministry. He was offered and took a job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In June 1954 Mrs. King finished her studies at the Conservatory. The couple closed up their Boston apartment and went south. The rest is history.

Johnson and King.

The Boston years had sharpened King’s gifts as a religious thinker and leader. And when he was needed, King returned to this city.

The Dr. Rev. Virgil Wood, who served as chief of Boston’s branch of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first met King in 1951 at a Virginia Union Seminary gathering.

“He was something of a student celebrity,” Wood once recalled. “I remember about 50 of us gathered to hear him. We sat in a dialogue for about three hours and talked about his assessment of relations …about how we could get along with segregation. Nobody thought we could end it.”

Dr. Wood went south, leaving a church in Providence, Rhode Island to help launch a civil rights movement in Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1963 he returned to Boston to establish a branch of the SCLC, where he raised money from black churches and the Jewish community to support civil rights causes.

King’s 1965 demonstration

Among the most important things King did for Boston, said Wood, was to lead a massive demonstration in April 1965 and solidify the fight against racism in Boston’s schools. “After that, the story of Boston’s schools became a national story,” said Wood.

The years 1964-65 saw debate over de facto segregation in the Boston public schools. Black parents called for the closing of the inadequate Boardman School in 1964. That same year, parents and their supporters boycotted the schools in a protest over segregation and set up the Freedom Schools. King came to Boston to give support.

He returned in 1965 for a second boycott as the struggle with the School Committee over inadequate and segregated schools continued. King tried to visit the Boardman School but was turned away by school officials.

When the King left Boston in 1954 after finishing his theological studies at Boston University, he was a young minister, little known beyond a small circle of friends and admirers. But when he returned in 1965 to support Boston’s blacks in their struggle to desegregate the schools he was an internationally known personality, having won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle for civil rights.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as Martin Luther King and other civil rights luminaries look on.

Address to Legislature

The hallmark of the visit was King’s April 22 speech delivered to a joint convention of the two houses of the General Court of Massachusetts at the State House. This was his first speech before any state legislature in the country. A Boston Globe reporter, Wilfred Rogers, described the scene in the House Chamber: “Spectators stood in a packed gallery. Some legislators used camp stools on the crowded House floor. Many edged forward in their seats when Rev. Dr. King warned that segregation isn’t limited to any one section of the nation. He never mentioned Boston or Massachusetts specifically, but he did stress school imbalance, and ‘de facto segregation.’” In strong tones, King spoke of the “tragedy” and evils of schools segregation. Again, while not mentioning Boston by name, it was clear that his experience there the day before left no doubt that his remarks were targeted at the state and Boston.

“Now is the time to end segregation in the public schools,” King told the State House gathering. “Young boys and girls must grow up with world perspectives. Segregation debilitates the segregator as well as the segregated,” he said. The day before the speech King had visited the Patrick T. Campbell Junior High School in Dorchester. The school, later renamed for King, had a virtually all-black student body and faculty.

Rogers’ Globe report said that motorcycle police cars protected the King entourage along Blue Hill and Lawrence Avenues as a precaution against death-threat calls received by the police department and the NAACP. With bullhorn in hand and speaking from the elevated entrance to the school, Dr. King told the cheering crowd: “Today I am happy to become a member of PUSH” (Parents United to end School Hoax), a local desegregation group.

King attempted to arrange a visit with then-Boston School Committee president Louise Day Hicks. The meeting collapsed when Hicks refused to include local civil rights and school activists in the talks with the Nobel laureate.

The struggle over school desegregation and education was the primary focus of attention for King while he was in Boston.

Before addressing the Massachusetts Legislature on April 22, he led a major protest march in support of school desegregation from the Carter Playground in the South End to the Boston Common.

The Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Law was passed in August, 1965, and King’s voice helped pave the way.

King’s papers at BU

King did not forget Boston and Boston University after his first visit in 1964 to support Roxbury’s parents and students in their first school boycott and quest for school improvements.

A letter from King to Boston University began: “On this 16th day of July, 1964, I name the Boston University Library the repository of my correspondence, along with a few of my awards and other materials which may be of interest in historical or other research…” The letter ended, “In the event of my death, all such materials deposited with the University shall become from that date the absolute property of Boston University.” In 1987, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, filed a court suit to claim ownership of the collection and to have the 83,000 items returned to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change in Atlanta. In a trial in Boston’s Suffolk Superior Court, Mrs. King claimed that before her husband died, he changed his mind about having the papers at BU and expressed to her his wish to see them placed in a southern black institution. A twelve-member jury ruled that Boston University was the rightful owner, and so they have remained at the university.

A lasting legacy

King’s presence remains in Boston in another way. The Martin Luther King Middle School on Lawrence Avenue in Dorchester is one of some 100 schools in the nation and the world named for the civil rights warrior. The Patrick T. Campbell Junior High, where King spoke in 1965, was renamed for King almost immediately after his assassination in 1968.

In the opening of his April 1965 address to the Massachusetts legislature, King said, “Let me hasten to say that I come to Massachusetts not to condemn but to encourage! It was from these shores that the vision of a new nation conceived in liberty was born, and it must be from these shores that liberty must be preserved; and the hearts and lives of very citizen preserved through the maintenance of opportunity and through the constant creation of those conditions that will make justice and brotherhood a reality for all of God’s children.”

King’s historic presentation before the Massachusetts Legislature perhaps marked his last public visit. In his stirring speech, King said, “Although we have come a long, long way in the struggle for brotherhood and the struggle to make civil rights a reality for all people … we still have a long way to go … we do not have to look very far to see that. … We only need to open our newspapers, or turn on our televisions, or look around in our own communities, and we realize that there are still problems alive that reveal to us that we have not yet reached the Promised Land …”