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.