Our lessons with Martin Luther King: Eight students recall a special class

Martin Luther King Jr. taught a class on philosophy for one semester at his alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Story highlights

  • Martin Luther King Jr.'s class at Morehouse College was in 1962
  • His 8 students knew of him, but he was not yet world-famous
  • The students share their memories of King as teacher and inspiration
Martin Luther King Jr. taught exactly one class his entire life. It was in 1962 in Atlanta -- a year before he would give his "I Have a Dream" speech in the nation's capital.
King had just moved back to his hometown to become co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father was in the pulpit. The church was such an influential voice, the King family was considered royalty in the city's African-American community.
After leading the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-'50s, King was nationally known in his own right. The international fame that would follow the Nobel Peace Prize had yet to come.
To many of the students in his class at Morehouse College -- King's alma mater -- he was considered a mentor, even a member of the family.
He taught social philosophy -- the scholarly soul of the civil rights movement. The syllabus was demanding; students were expected to read the greatest thinkers of political theory: John Stuart Mill, Hegel, Rousseau, Socrates, Plato and more. His final exam asked: Would Adam Smith or Karl Marx support the nonviolent theory of social change?
The class met weekly for one semester. King's work often kept him away, so he enlisted a co-teacher: Samuel Williams, a member of the Morehouse faculty and pastor at a nearby church.
King was too busy to give the course his full attention, but preparing for it gave him time to reflect on his future, according to David Garrow's Pulitzer-winning book, "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."
A photo from the Morehouse yearbook shows King in a classroom. Students say the class sometimes moved outdoors.
"I know I would not always be a leader," the book quotes King as saying. "I will not always be in the public eye and in the news. ... I feel that there are many things just as important ahead for me, and I have almost an eagerness to give the rest of my life to the pursuit of the cultural, intellectual and aesthetic ideas I've been pulled away from by this struggle.
"Not now of course," King added with a pause, "but someday."
He spoke these words six years before he was assassinated.
Eight students stayed with the class: six Morehouse men and two women from Spelman College. Among them were Julian Bond, who would go on to become a legislator, and Amos Brown, who would move out West to lead a major congregation.
"When you were there, it's not like you are thinking, 'This is incredible,'" student Mary Worthy recalled. "He's not saying, 'I'm a great guy.' He didn't have to -- we knew that just being with him."
She and her classmates were already knee-deep in civil rights activism; now was their chance to learn from the master tactician about the movement's ties to its academic and philosophical underpinnings -- scholarly thinking that abhorred inequality; reasoned ideas that stretched back centuries.
All eight were touched by King, and they would go on to use their activism and energy -- and the lessons from that class -- to change history.
Here are their stories, in their own words. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Barbara Adams: 'We didn't see ourselves as heroes'
She was served hot chocolate by John F. Kennedy, was taken to a Joan Baez concert by her history professor and got to meet the Rockefellers. But one of the highlights of Barbara Adams' time at Spelman College was the course taught by King.
Married and now Barbara Carney, she went on to be a consultant to children's authors so her daughter "could have people to read about that looked like her." She and her husband owned a bookstore that became a kind of intellectual center in Columbia, Maryland. After moving to North Carolina she worked her "buns off" for Barack Obama in 2008. Here, she remembers King's class and other highlights from her college days:
Barbara Adams says King taught about nonviolence as "a way of living and bringing about change."
I loved philosophy and I had taken as many courses as I could in the subject, and when I heard that he was going to be teaching social philosophy and we were going to get to study the scholarship behind nonviolence, you couldn't stop me. I never went to jail but I was very involved with the movement. I was always a behind-the-scenes person.
I truly enjoyed (the class). I remember sitting outside for a couple of classes. In my mind's eye I can see Julian (Bond) lying back, his legs crossed, having this intense conversation. I can remember Mary (Worthy), how quiet and neat and smart she was. She had a real calmness about her when everyone else would be debating. I was kind of hyper sometimes and very talkative, but she was always calm and thoughtful. And I remember Ben Berry talking with that voice of his.
It was a hard class in the sense that there was a lot of reading and understanding great thinkers. It was relaxed in that it was more like a conversation rather than a lecture. It was hard in that we had to come to grips with nonviolence as more than just a political tactic. He wanted us to understand it was a way of living and bringing about change. Right at the moment when you would rather reach out and strike out, you actually had to be still. That's what so angered the whites in the South. We were justified in retaliating and hitting, but we wouldn't. So then to go in and read about Gandhi and his life in a totally different culture using the same kinds of methods and seeing the same results ... that was a strong argument to me that it was effective.
I do remember the paper I wrote for him. I got a B on it. Yes, I still have it. It's in a box someplace. I was surprised to see that he read and graded it himself.
Generally though, it was fun, I don't remember being apprehensive or anything. If anything, we were generally wide-eyed and very present and we were so wanting to change the world. We didn't really know we were in the midst of a man who in the future would be considered great. We knew he was a man with a vision, sure, but he seemed so ordinary and so down to earth and he was so easy to talk to, even more than some of my other professors. I mean we respected and admired him, but we never dreamed that he would become a Nobel Prize winner or that he would become a martyr. He was not a puffed-up man.
When you are in college there sometimes is a dynamic where it's like "I am a professor and you are the lowly student." It wasn't like that. He was always so humble, and to see where he went in life, it was so amazing to me. He definitely had the charisma and there was something about him, but we sat with him. We talked with him. We were comfortable with him. I did have other professors that we were all in awe of, but it wasn't like that with him. We knew he was smart and he was sincere about what he was doing. I don't remember him having many notes when he taught, but he knew the subject of nonviolence so well.
Adams, now Barbara Carney, became a book consultant so her daughter "could have people to read about that looked like her."
Later on I got very involved in the peace movement and I remember marching at the White House. People from all over the country came to protest against Vietnam and JFK was there. My mother saved all the newspaper clippings. It was an exciting time, but it was also cold since it was February. I remember JFK sent out hot chocolate to us and he stood behind the fence and talked to us.
Spelman was such a good place for me. My senior year I had a class with (the famous liberal historian) Howard Zinn. I was his only student in the class. He took me and some of my friends to a Joan Baez concert, and I absolutely love her 'til this day. A bunch of us were always at his house on campus talking about issues, and we'd get to meet people like the visiting Russian professor he had over.
It was like that at Spelman. The Rockefellers came and we were invited to have lunch with them and all these different people. I felt extremely privileged to have lived in that time. I look back and say, "Wow, if we had only known we were ordinary people living in extraordinary times." We didn't see ourselves as heroes or anything. We saw ourselves as doing what needed to be done.
Benjamin D. Berry Jr: 'They literally locked him in the closet'
When he died in October 2011, Benjamin D. Berry Jr. was a professor of history and African-American studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. Educated at Morehouse and Harvard, he began his career as a minister with his wife, Linda, by his side.
They were married 47 years, had four children and were dedicated to the social gospel:- helping the poor and fighting racial injustice. Linda Berry tells her husband's story and discusses the mark King's class left and their friendship with the man they call "M.L.":
Benjamin Berry's wife says he told her King didn't really lecture, but "drew out of them what the readings were."
I didn't actually meet (my husband) until he was a seminary student at Harvard, so it was after the class he took with M.L., I'm afraid. He did bring up what that class was like, though. He said he only remembered two other people being in there -- Julian Bond and someone else. He couldn't remember the others, but at any rate he said he recalls that the class met once a week and they did an immense amount of reading, and in between they would sit and talk and talk. M.L. didn't really lecture. Instead, he used the Socratic method and drew out of them what the readings were.
I did know Dr. King and met him because A.D. Williams King (Dr. King's younger brother) was pastoring a church in Louisville when we were there. M.L. would come to visit A.D. and his wife, and we would go over for dinner. The most important thing I can say about Dr. King was that he was human. He was immensely human and had a great sense of humor. A.D. was hysterical, too. My husband had a good sense of humor. He had to -- he put up with me for all those years.
Now back at Morehouse, he was involved in the civil rights movement, even early on. But he was not as involved during the high time of the movement because Ben spent his junior year abroad in France. When they had the really big march in Atlanta, the guys in his fraternity knew he wanted to go, but they didn't let him go to the march. That's because he was supposed to go to Europe the week later. They literally locked him in the closet. They knew if he went he could face expulsion and it was a very positive thing in their mind that he was going to study abroad. His fraternity brothers who shoved him in the closet thought that really was as important as the march.
One thing he really got from Dr. King and in the development of his faith at Harvard was his real devotion to the social gospel and the idea that true belief manifested itself in clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
Charles A. Black: 'It was generally pretty boring'
Charles A. Black was involved in organizing so many sit-ins his nickname became "Sit Down Black." His friend and fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond says Black still leaves voice mail messages using that moniker.
After college, he went on to run a consulting business with Bond and other civil rights leaders like John Lewis and Lonnie King. It helped supply a more diverse workforce to government offices. Today he continues his civil rights work, in addition to acting and voice work for TV and films.
Charles Black recalls his teacher's "horrible monotone; it was nothing like how he sounded when he was giving a speech."
What I remember about the class is that it met for two hours in the afternoon not even for a full year. My ex-wife told me I had to stop saying this, but I thought at the time it was generally pretty boring. We'd sit in a circle and Dr. King, he had this horrible monotone; it was nothing like how he sounded when he was giving a speech. But he would use this horrible monotone and would talk about all this heavy material, and it was after lunch so I know I'd get tired.
I think in a way having him teach a class, it was Morehouse's way to give him some income and give him something to do. You know how poor he was. He really didn't make much money at all, so this was at least some steady income.
I think there was an emphasis in the class more on multinational philosophy folks like Gandhi and it contextualized the philosophy of what we were doing with our protests. Looking at the great thinkers like Plato and Socrates and Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, this was a concept that had been around for a long time, and it was grounded in something much bigger than us. This was really at the core of all his great speeches. I do remember a good debate about Machiavelli and talking about do the ends justify the means. Dr. King disagreed; he said the end is inherent in the means. Nonviolence wasn't just about a philosophy; it was about what is right.
(During the boycotts) we targeted Rich's since they were the highest profile department store at the time. At the time Rich's said that the protest wasn't a big deal, but I learned later that they lost $10 million in sales that year. That was a lot of money back in the '60s. Hundreds of people closed their accounts or sent us their Rich's credit card so they wouldn't use it. They didn't know us