Martin Luther King Jr.’s time studying at Penn

While studying at Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pa., in the late 1940s, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Penn often, auditing three philosophy courses.

Born and raised in Atlanta, 19-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. moved north in September of 1948 and enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pa., about 15 miles from Penn. King traveled from Crozer to the University’s West Philadelphia campus regularly, auditing philosophy courses.

Patrick Parr’s new book “The Seminarian” details Martin Luther King Jr.’s formative years as well as his time at Penn.

“It was a popular thing for seminarians to do to help balance out their curriculum,” says Patrick Parr, who wrote “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.” The book, which details King’s formative years as well as his time at Penn, published this week, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination.

As part of Parr’s research for his book, the author visited Penn’s campus and spent long hours sifting through relevant information from the University Archives and Records Center

“King’s experience at Penn was vital because it allowed him to hear from Northern professors who were more indifferent to Christianity than the faculty at Crozer,” Parr says. “It also gave him another chance to see Northern culture from a different perspective.” 

Parr also visited Crozer.

“The Old Main building is still up where King lived,” he says. “Dr. Beshai, one of King’s friends at Crozer, allowed me to drive him to the building again, and we relived the memories of King living on the second floor.”

James Beshai, who graduated from Penn in 1952, often took a bus with King to the main train station in Chester, where they caught the train to 30th Street Station, says Parr. They then walked to campus. Because he was in good standing—on track to graduate with above-average grades—King was able to earn credits at Crozer for the coursework he did at Penn. 

Three classes at Penn are officially on King’s transcript, Parr found, though he may have also taken classes unofficially with William Fontaine, the University’s first tenured black professor. (King and Fontaine, a native of Chester, often had lunch together.)

In 1949, King joined nine other students in Penn Professor Elizabeth F. Flower’s first-ever seminar, “Philosophy of History.”

On Thursday afternoons on the first floor of Bennett Hall, from November 1949 through February 1950, King joined nine other students in Penn Professor Elizabeth F. Flower’s first-ever seminar, “Philosophy of History.” In Flower’s typewritten recollections, Parr wrote, she remembered that Gandhi found his way into numerous discussions—his 1948 assassination “still on the minds of many.” 

King was the only black student in Flower’s class, which centered almost entirely on discussion. Flower noted that King involved himself with the other students, delivering “solid and articulate” thoughts and opinions that were “already vigorous and well-forged.” 

German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a major focus of the class, but it may have been Flower’s prioritization of the writings of Karl Marx that motivated King to study him further during the holidays, when he was back in Atlanta over winter break, says Parr. 

In King’s book “Stride Toward Freedom,” Parr says he references “the Christmas holidays of 1949” as the moment he truly began to read Marx in order to “try and understand the appeal of communism for many people.” 

In the fall of 1950, King—who went by “ML”—had jam-packed Fridays. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Parr found that he took various courses at Crozer, including “Religious Development of Personality,” “Minister’s Use of the Radio,” and a class on American Christianity during colonial times. He’d then grab lunch, play some pool, and take the bus/train combo to Penn. His two-hour, graduate-level class choice? “Problems of Esthetics” with John Stokes Adams Jr. 

“For ML, the content of Adams’ esthetics class may have been a welcome break from his string of Christian-themed classes,” says Parr. In his 12 pages of notes, which can be viewed in The King Center’s Digital Archives, King wrote down several rhetorical questions that Adams posed, many of which were meant to be “batted around in class, without a clear answer.”

Parr says the content of John Stokes Adams Jr.’s “Problems of Esthetics” class may have been a welcome break from King’s string of Christian-themed classes.

“Adams’ esthetics class was a philosophical forest, rich with meaning and metaphor,” explains Parr. “King kept his notes for many years, and it would have been valuable for King to discuss these lofty ideas with non-believing students.”

It was Paul Schrecker’s 1950-51 “Kant” course that helped clarify the philosopher to King, says Parr. “It would have been the deepest dive into Kant that King had taken to that point.”

At the dawn of World War II, Schrecker—born in Vienna to a Jewish family, and also a French citizen—was a professor at the University of Berlin. As Hitler’s regime investigated faculty at universities, pushing out anyone of Jewish heritage, Schrecker escaped to Paris. While in hiding, he translated the works of Kant and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The Rockefeller Foundation helped Schrecker start a new life in America, where he landed in Pennsylvania teaching at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore, before joining Penn in 1950. Parr says Schrecker, who was fluent in German, French, and English, “had a unique, transcontinental perspective to offer ML.”

Perhaps most memorably, Parr says, King applied a bit of Kantian logic in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 

“He was able to remember key concepts of the philosopher while writing on nothing more than the margins of newspaper and toilet paper,” says Parr. “He wrote, ‘Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.’”

Paul Schrecker’s 1950-51 “Kant” course helped clarify the philosopher to King, who applied a bit of Kantian logic in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

As it often goes, Parr came up with the idea for “The Seminarian,” while actually crafting an entirely different book focused on legends at age 22. 

“I picked 40 people and I wanted to analyze their 22-year-old selves,” says Parr. “I think that that age is transformative. But, when I didn’t find enough information on King, I was shocked. I started digging deeper and deeper.”

Parr, who has written about King throughout the years, says he has enjoyed investigating King’s “human-ness.” 

“We seem to keep him up on the cloud, but he was a chain-smoking pool player under the chapel,” Parr says. “I enjoyed learning the fun, joke-making and also romantic side of him.” (In the book, Parr also details King’s romance with Betty Moitz, a white woman. The two had even discussed marriage, but in the end, because of society’s disapproval, they decided it wasn’t feasible. Interracial marriages were illegal in the South until 1967.)

King’s philosophical curiosity, Parr says, was “insatiable.” 

“It wasn’t enough for him to simply attend classes at a seminary in the North—an adventure in itself,” he says. “He wanted to consider as many points of view as he could.”

There were no bibles in his Penn classes, but there were surely a lot of opinions and discussions, Parr notes.

“As his close friends have said often, King was a pensive man, and during conversations he liked to listen patiently to both sides and then deliver his own opinion based on what’s been heard,” Parr says. “Penn and Crozer were two schools of thought, and he enjoyed the mental exercise of being pulled in two different directions. He would do this again up at Boston University as a Ph.D. student, where he also took classes at Harvard.” 

Professor photos courtesy of University Archives and Records Center.