The national holiday to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday today is a joyous occasion for most Americans, but the day brings an extra bit of pride for one group of men: his college classmates.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of King’s graduation from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Most of his classmates, like King, have died. It’s unclear how many of them are alive.
King’s classmates remember him as a solid student who learned at Morehouse many of the principles that made him historic and changed America.
“I admired him,” said Moses Few, 90, who lives in northwest Atlanta. “I had no idea he would become such a great man in the civil rights movement.”
Then-Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays urged Morehouse men to be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings and the injustices of society” and to “accept responsibility for correcting these ills.”
Mays, at mandatory chapel meetings, told students to: Work hard, help your brother; always hold your head high, even during a time when blacks were told not to look whites in the eye.
“Mays made us think we had something in the world to do,” said Charles Vert Willie, 90, a nationally acclaimed sociologist who lives in Massachusetts. “It was a wonderful experience.”
King showed signs of those life lessons in his latter years at Morehouse, writing in the student newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, “we must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
Many of King’s classmates embarked on groundbreaking careers themselves. Willie, for example, was the first African-American professor at Syracuse University, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the President’s Commission on Mental Health and is a professor emeritus at Harvard University.
- Samuel DuBois Cook, a King classmate who died in June, who was the first African-American to hold a tenure-track appointment at a major Southern white university, Duke, and was president of Dillard University for 22 years.
- Robert E. Johnson, executive editor of Jet magazine.
- Dr. William E. Finlayson, a Milwaukee-based obstetrician and gynecologist who helped found the city’s first black-owned bank, North Milwaukee State Bank, where he served as the bank’s first president and chairman of the board of directors for a number of years.
“Not only were they taught to persevere … They were able to walk out in the world and survive in spite of Jim Crow,” said Ira Joe Johnson, who co-authored a book on Mays and his partnership with “Gone With The Wind” author Margaret Mitchell and has done extensive research on Morehouse, his alma mater.
King was an early-admission student at Morehouse, the nation’s lone historically black college and university for men. He arrived on campus in September 1944, when he was 15. Morehouse accepted many younger students like King in the mid-1940s as many college-age black men were recruited into the military during the final years of World War II. The war hurt Morehouse’s enrollment, and there were questions about the college’s viability.
Wallace Coombs was another early enrollee, arriving at Morehouse when he was 16. Two years later, he enlisted in the Navy and served two years before returning to Morehouse to graduate in 1948 with King.
Coombs, 91, remembered King enjoyed playing basketball.
“He was a tiger on the basketball court,” said Coombs, who lives in Atlanta. “He was aggressive. He would run over you if you let him.”
Was King a good shooter?
“He loved to dribble,” Coombs replied.
King received his bachelor’s degree in sociology but was interested in religion and social activism. His father, who graduated from Morehouse in 1930, was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Seeds of King’s social activism were planted at Morehouse. Mays introduced King to the nonviolent teachings of the Indian social reformer Mahatma Gandhi. He was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience. King hung out with ministers on campus, Few recalled.
King tested the principles of civil disobedience on campus, Johnson said, as a leader of a student protest against the campus meals. Although King didn’t live on campus, he ate lunch there, and the students didn’t like the food.
Mays, who was on a fundraising trip in New York City when the protest began, returned to teach King and others a lesson in prioritization. Mays talked about students protesting for their rights worldwide.
“But at Morehouse, we have students protesting to feed their bellies,” Mays said, according to Johnson.
“Martin learned to protest for a greater purpose,” Johnson said.
As King’s civil rights career progressed, classmates followed through on Mays’ lessons of supporting each other. Johnson said Morehouse graduates often opened doors for King in cities he visited. Willie helped bring King to Syracuse to speak there. The audience, Willie recalled, “fell down at (King’s) feet.”
Regarding his role in bringing King to campus, Willie simply said, “we all worked very well together.”
Few, who became a teacher in the Atlanta school system, taught students about King.
“Any opportunity to bring his name up, I would,” he said.
Coombs, a retired U.S. Postal Service operations manager and former treasurer at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, recalled standing outside his office near the Atlanta University Center to watch King’s funeral procession as it passed after his assassination in 1968.
The classmates interviewed said they are not healthy enough to participate in any King Day celebrations. They are pleased to see what the day has become.
“It just makes you feel proud,” Coombs said.