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

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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

Atlanta CNN  — 

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.

A photo from the Morehouse yearbook shows King in a classroom. Students say the class sometimes moved outdoors.

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.”

“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.

Bernice King’s difficult journey

“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.

Barbara Adams says King taught about nonviolence as "a way of living and bringing about change."

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:

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.

Adams, now Barbara Carney, became a book consultant so her daughter "could have people to read about that looked like her."

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.

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.

5 faces of the March on Washington

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.

Benjamin Berry's wife says he told her King didn't really lecture, but "drew out of them what the readings were."

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.”:

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.

Charles Black recalls his teacher's "horrible monotone; it was nothing like how he sounded when he was giving a speech."

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.

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.

Black still works for civil rights. He also acts and does voice work for TV and films.

(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 from Adam’s house cat, but still they sent them in to us. We put them in the bank deposit box.

We were encouraged to do another group of protests, but it was getting on Easter and the merchants really wanted us to shop downtown again and there were all these businesses that had black owners that wanted the shoppers to come back. There was a real split in the community. The older people in the movement wanted us to give in and call it quits.

Lonnie, Julian, and I knew what we needed to do. I said we need to get Martin Jr. here. He had just been in Alabama and he was sick with a terrible flu. He was at home and he didn’t want to come in. But we called and convinced him that he had to be here. He said exactly the right thing. You would have thought that he walked on water after that. In my opinion, that was the best speech he had ever made. He brought us together. He said we could not afford the luxury of discounting the boycott. And the boycott did continue.

Julian Bond: ‘I’m so ashamed I didn’t take notes’

He was the first African-American nominated as vice president, although he was too young to accept. He was an outspoken member of the Georgia Legislature. He’s even hosted “Saturday Night Live.” But long before any of that, Julian Bond helped lead one of the first student sit-ins in Atlanta, where he was a student of King. To explain the protests, he and other students, including Charles Black, wrote “An Appeal for Human Rights,” which ran as a full-page ad in the Atlanta newspapers and The New York Times.

Julian Bond says he knew he was privileged to learn from King, "but he never made us feel as if he was that important."

At the March on Washington, Bond passed out copies of John Lewis’ speech, which movement leaders made him tone down for fear of offending the president. Listed as “Horace J. Bond” on the roster for King’s class, he disagrees with his old friend and classmate Charles Black. He didn’t think King was a “little boring.” To him the class was a good philosophical grounding for a life’s work in civil rights.

I wouldn’t call it boring, not at all; it was a survey course on the great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. My memory of the class was not a strict study of the philosophers, though. We read them – there was an awful lot of reading – but mostly the class would use them as a kind of jumping off point to then talk about the civil rights movement and about what happened in Montgomery. I’m so ashamed I didn’t take notes. A lot of my memory of the specifics of the class has all vanished.

(King) was certainly known, but he was not nearly as famous then as he became, and he certainly didn’t act like a famous person. That was my feeling in being in that class and listening to him. He was important. He definitely seemed like an important person, and he was important in my life. I knew even at the time that I was privileged to learn from him, but he never made us feel as if he was that important. That’s not what it was about.

African American women walk along the sidewalk during a bus boycott, Montgomery, Alabama, February 1956.

When we started our plans (for the sit-in protest), I talked it over with my parents. They were a little worried about it. I remember my parents always told us growing up that whatever you do, don’t get arrested. Getting arrested is like getting a tattoo on your forehead, they said; you will not get a job. Turned out that wasn’t completely true. Thankfully.

While we were training and building toward sitting in, Dr. Rufus Clement – who was the president of Atlanta University and the collection of black colleges – heard about it. On campus you can’t have any secrets, I learned. And he called us into his office. He said, “I can’t stop you, but you ought to tell people why you are doing this.” So together with a couple of other students we wrote the statement (“An Appeal for Human Rights”).

It was a little scary to be doing this. We were kind of the good kids, and our parents always told us not to get in trouble, but this is something we knew we needed to do. We didn’t know what would happen as a consequence. We didn’t know if we would be treated badly or beaten, but we had to do this.

I led a group of people who went to the Atlanta City Hall cafeteria. It was in the basement. We walked in with about 20 of us, men and women. We saw black women working over at the steam tables, and they had both looks of fear and admiration. They had heard about it ahead of time, and so they were nervous already. The woman who I later found out was the manager was sitting in front of the cafeteria at the table and she said, “I’m awful sorry, this is for city hall employees only.” I responded, “The sign out front said that the public is welcome.” She said, “We don’t mean it.” So I told her, “I will stand here until you do.” The police came and arrested us.

Bond remains a leader in the civil rights movement and also has been a successful politician.

There were 200 of us arrested all around Atlanta that day. Because so many of us had been arrested, they decided to try one of us from each of our groups. I was chosen from my group, and for the first time I found myself standing in front of a judge.

The judge bonded me over to a grand jury, and some well-to-do people in Atlanta paid our bail and we got out of jail. Then I immediately went with a couple of other guys straight over to Spelman where my heroism could be reflected in the eyes of all those beautiful co-eds.

I never got arrested again in Atlanta, during that time period anyway. I did get arrested some years later outside the South African embassy protesting apartheid. Just this year I was arrested at the White House protesting the Keystone pipeline, hoping to convince President Obama that shouldn’t happen.

As I hear about the anniversary for the march, I have been thinking about what it was like. I remember listening to all the speakers. We all had different assignments. One of my assignments was passing out John Lewis’ speech – the one he wrote, not the one he had to edit and ultimately give.

Sammy Davis Jr. was among the celebrities at the March on Washington. Bond recalls serving him a Coca-Cola.

I thought his speech would be the one that stood out. I remember his was the only one to use the word “black” people or citizens, I think. This was radical at the time. We were not calling ourselves Negros or colored people.

I also had a fun job. I was in charge of giving Coca-Cola’s to the movie stars. I remember giving one to Sammy Davis Jr. and he pointed his finger like a gun at me and said, “Thanks.” I don’t really remember talking to any of the others, but I saw them and was excited to be around them. There was Burt Lancaster and Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

At the March on Washington: The anger, fear, love and hope

The Rev. Amos Brown: ‘More intense than my other studies’

His church is known as Ebenezer of the West. A San Francisco fixture for more than 160 years, it’s been visited by presidents and international dignitaries and has provided food, housing and help for those in need. But before he became pastor at Third Baptist Church, the Rev. Amos Brown was mentored by civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Brown first met King in San Francisco after riding with Evers cross-country to an NAACP meeting, where the 15-year-old Brown was a youth leader from Mississippi. Here he recalls King’s class and the sit-ins taking place in Atlanta at the time:

Amos Brown went to jail with King. He says he saved King's notes from a class on Rousseau's "Social Contract."

The class was in the chapel on the second floor. What I remember most from that class is Rousseau’s “Social Contract.” I actually have the notes from that class written in Dr. King’s own hand. They are in an old Blue Horse notebook that cost 25 cents. You know that’s got to be old then, right? There is also an interesting price list in his hand. It looks like he was raising money for an event.

We also learned about Plato’s “Republic” and Kant and Hume. Also I remember we talked a lot about Dr. (Edgar) Brightman at Boston University, whose writings had a great influence on Dr. King when he talked about personalism – the idea that every person was imbued with worth and dignity and metaphysics.

The class itself was a little more intense than my other studies, and yet we related the experiences we had in the context of this philosophy.

I had already been to jail with Dr. King and his brother. We all got sent to the prison farm to work. We were there for 10 days. But we continued staging sit-ins at Rich’s (department store) and Woolworth. It was incredible. But the class itself, it was a little more intense, especially the moments in which we related the experiences that we had.

We also had a kneel-in at the white First Baptist Church. Kids from Georgia Tech and Spelman and Morehouse decided to go in. I organized it. I was privy to the floor plan and knew to sit right up front. Other students who had stayed in the back got thrown right out with the aid of the ushers. They let those of us in the front stay since the TV cameras were there.

I actually met my wife-to-be on the steps of that church. She was one of the Spelman students who was thrown out. After that I helped organize several other protests. We integrated Savannah beach. We called that one a “wade-in.”

Brown is now pastor at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, referred to as the Ebenezer of the West.

When I interviewed to go to school at Morehouse, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. When I got in, I had a professor who was the same speech teacher that taught Dr. King. I was so happy – I got A’s in that class. But when (King) took it he didn’t do so well. Can you imagine? I had been speaking for a while though.

When I was 17 years old, I gave my first sermon. I still remember it to this day. I talked about how important it was to stay true, how important it was not being disobedient to the vision. I urged them to take a stand others can’t see.

Graham Prindle: ‘A hot spring of ideas’

After graduating from high school, Graham Prindle hit the road with a friend. They were hitchhiking to all four corners of the country. It was in the South where Prindle, who is white, said he first really understood racism. The “colored only” signs left him deeply disturbed. He had been involved in a youth movement, the National Student Association – which he says was “a CIA front” – but his first serious act to support civil rights was to quit a good-paying job in New York and move to Atlanta to take King’s class.

He would only spend a year at Morehouse; eventually he completed an undergraduate degree at Antioch. He went on to work at IBM as a computer programmer and spent many years in San Francisco witnessing the radical changes the youth movement brought. But he says that semester in King’s class was one of the most important times in his life.

I guess I didn’t ever picture myself in a classroom full of black people in Atlanta until about two weeks before it happened. I was low-profile on purpose in there. I said something to my sister about it recently: Instead of being a fly on the wall there, maybe I should have been thought of as a white moth.

The class roster shows King and Samuel Williams as the teachers and lists the eight students.

When I met Dr. King in this class, I think it hadn’t been more than a year since he had come up from Montgomery to be associate pastor of his dad’s church, and this was the first time he was living full-time in Atlanta. When they got wind of that, I’m told, the people at Morehouse recruited him to teach this course.

The class itself was a pretty open discussion. Dr. King was not pushing a particular viewpoint so much as exploring the possible viewpoints of social philosophy. The question that kept coming up from the students is, “Is nonviolence just a tactic you deploy when your adversary is susceptible to it? Or is it a piece of ideology you hold to for other reasons?” He never definitively came down on one side or the other but encouraged the discussion of the viewpoints between the rest of us.

Some may have worried that the class was a recruiting tool or something for the movement, but it was less of a recruiting tool than you might think. Most of the people in the class had already been recruited for the movement.

I don’t remember any problem of getting into the class when I enrolled at Morehouse. I think you just signed up. Somehow you worked out a roster of classes, and it was no harder than the others to get into. A little footwork was also done on my behalf.

But the class, it was different. There were so many ideas. For most of it he was sitting down at a desk. He did not lecture; he did not speechify at us. That was one of my few reservations about taking the class, that I was going to get preached at for the semester. But no, he absolutely was self-effacing, at least to my retrospective view, and I was keeping a low profile trying to get a sense of what people in the class, the Julian Bond generation, were feeling. He was very light-handed about it and let people talk.

Several of King's students joined protests at Rich's department store in Atlanta.

You know, I didn’t see a great deal of him, the real him, in his public persona, except in television later on, of course. My sense is that he had the preacherly tradition on the one hand, and that came through in his voice and his mannerisms in public, and then there was this political or philosophical openness to good ideas.

It certainly struck me as a sane and civilized way of teaching, and I stayed a little bit braced against the preacherly until I saw how he was doing the class, and I was just relaxed then. I tell you I paid less attention to him than I did to the students. I was interested in the variety of viewpoints and stages of thought that people were going through, and he facilitated that in a way that if he had been running the class, I wouldn’t have been able to get that sense.

I don’t know what the right word is – this was being the opposite of provincial. The word that comes to mind is “cosmopolitan,” but that is an old-fashioned term. The class was more about broadening us, in a way. Ultimately, I think it was pretty unremarkable in that time period, though. There were a lot of people who were being similarly broadened, just by the flavor of the times.

This experience is a different thing from joining a church or joining an ideology. It is like the difference between taking a bath and soaking in the hot spring. The one you do because you have to do it, the other you do because you want to. It is such a pleasure that you keep going back for it. That’s what this class was like: a hot spring of ideas.

Mary Worthy: ‘He was very much moved by his faith’

It was King’s father, “Daddy” King, who bailed Mary Worthy out of jail after she got arrested in one of the many sit-ins she helped organize in Atlanta. But she says you couldn’t miss too many classes, because the professors would get angry. The one class she never missed was King’s. She was a science major but loved philosophy.

Mary Worthy: "Dr. King was a very good teacher. He was inspirational."

Worthy converted to the Baha’i faith in college. The year she graduated, she married a fellow believer, a white man. The move was risky; at the time, their marriage was legal in only seven states. The couple moved around the country trying to spread the word of their faith. At its core, the message mirrored that of the civil rights movement, abhorring prejudice and teaching about the “oneness of mankind.” Worthy raised five children in this same spirit. She now works as an artist in Florida.

As far as Dr. King’s class was concerned, I just signed up for a class in social philosophy and he happened to be the teacher. He was known then, but he wasn’t the internationally known leader then. He was Dr. King. We knew his family. His dad had a well-known church in the community, and he was prominent in one of the black neighborhoods.

Dr. King was a very good teacher. He was inspirational. A lot of people don’t mention it; they mostly think of him as political, but I thought of him as a very religious man. He didn’t talk about his religion and he wasn’t doing something political with the class. He was just someone who clearly was very much moved by his Christian faith. He really emanated it: that what he was doing was just doing the will of God. That was his attitude.

When you were there, it’s not like you are thinking, “This is incredible.” It’s so regular. It’s just there. It’s part of school. And he’s not saying, “I’m a great guy.” He didn’t have to; we knew that just being with him. And we saw that he was doing his job and he was inspiring people.

Atlanta was not very violent compared to other places. Even when we were arrested for protesting, it was not a hostile arrest. We were not beaten. It was not like the bus rides, which were quite violent. Whites were close to where I lived; they were right around the corner. Of course certain parts of town were different. We had this great open-air theater and the (civil rights) leaders were talking about staging a protest there to desegregate it. I guess I inadvertently desegregated it because I had already been there to see a show. No one told me I couldn’t. Same with the buses.

Worthy says King "was very much moved by his Christian faith" and he "was just doing the will of God."

I have always paid attention to politics, but I never felt politically involved. I didn’t see myself as a political activist more than teaching what was right to my kids later on. But at school we saw all these other movements at schools and colleges all over the country, so we decided we should get involved.

We had all these organizing meetings and training sessions on how to be nonviolent. We did this for weeks on end. And then came time to do the protests. They were pretty simple. A lot of time we went downtown to march, and we would be on one side and then the KKK was marching on the other. I did take part in some of (the first Atlanta) sit-ins. It wasn’t as easy as you might think to do that. We did not get any special treatment. You really had to struggle to keep up your grades, and we’d get lectures from some of the teachers who would say, “You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”

My mother was a little worried. She was a single parent and didn’t know what would happen to us. We knew what the consequences were of participating in a sit-in. We knew we would go to jail, but we knew we needed to do it. She didn’t say anything against it. And I did get arrested. I spent all day in the jail. It was Dr. King’s father who bailed us out of jail.

I don’t really talk about taking a class from Dr. King. I’ve told my grandkids, and when Dr. King day comes up I might mention it to my kids or talk about what it was like during our protests. But when you are there, it’s not like you are thinking, “This is an incredible time,” or “This is something incredible that we are doing.” It’s just so regular, and so was he.

The Rev. Willie J. Wright: ‘It had to be nonviolent’

Thaddeus T. Wright was only 9 when his father died in 1980. But the Rev. Willie J. Wright made a huge impression on his son. “People say the World War II generation is the greatest generation; I think my parents give them a run for their money,” he said. “They organized and fought for equality on their own initiative and under the worst conditions.” Wright and King became so close that Thaddeus – now a naval master chief commissaryman – thought King was a member of the family.

Willie Wright told his wife King used Jesus' words, but "used the teaching of Gandhi to explain how it was going to get done."

Before taking King’s class, Wright and his future wife, Hattie Smith, were among the “Greenville 8,” a group that staged a sit-in at the whites-only central library in the South Carolina town. When Wright arrived at Morehouse, he was ready to continue his activism. His widow tells about it:

Those were exciting times. But the class, well they didn’t really know how famous he would be, and they didn’t know what they would become. Charles Black, who was in that class, was one of my husband’s favorite friends. He came to our wedding, and he was the best man. He came to help protest in Greenville in ’65. My husband always admired his dedication.

When he found out that Dr. King was teaching the class, he seemed excited about it. I was writing letters to (him) at the time, and he told me about the class. He said, “I hope that enrollment is very good and the people who need it can get in there.” We always saw Martin as a very obedient son of Morehouse.

The day-to-day teaching, Willie said, was a little different than with the other classes. He said that Martin used to take the words of Jesus to teach, but since it was a philosophy class he used the teaching of Gandhi to explain how it was going to get done. And since Morehouse men were all considered to have the ability to lead, Martin knew he was teaching some of the most talented people who would go on to lead the next generation.

To get to study with someone who becomes your mentor and you become like a disciple is very rare, and that one-on-one kind of time kept him motivated. Here they had someone side-by-side with them, someone who came from their school showing them the degrees, to see how you will get this done – particularly with all the poison in society. The Civil War didn’t work, so it had to be nonviolent.

Wright, who died in 1980, continued his work for civil rights and became a pastor after his Morehouse years.

The message he shared with them is, “You are gifted, and because of that you have to take responsibility.” It was still a Christ-centered way of life, and the things they learned from Gandhi changed their life forever, because it made change real. And it was with this kind of faith and belief and hope for tomorrow that these things are possible, and it doesn’t take a lot of people either. It just takes the right people to sing their passion.

And they talked about how the ills of society had to be addressed in a different way.

That’s what was great about the ‘House. It’s where people are given an opportunity to advance the knowledge they already have, and they can counteract the prevailing sentiment of the time. When you have the Morehouse gift, it is wonderful, but the pressure to lead and succeed is really remarkable.