The Young Man Who Became a Civil-Rights Icon

Before he led the Montgomery bus boycott or marched on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. was a chain-smoking, pool-playing student at Crozer Theological College just discovering his passion for social justice.

illustration with calligraphy reading "Before King Was King"
Lettering by Adé Hogue
Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
book cover image "The Seminarian"
Chicago Review

Before Martin Luther King Jr. became a great man, he was a young man, and he often acted like one. In The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, to be published this spring, Patrick Parr focuses on the future icon’s three years at Crozer Theological Seminary, in Chester, Pennsylvania, from 1948 to 1951. Surrounded by white professors and staff and a predominantly white student body, he became the student-body president. But long before King entered the seminary as a 19-year-old college graduate, this son of a leading black preacher in Atlanta had already felt the humiliations of racial segregation.

The excerpts here reveal competing facets of the young King: the first, as the angry victim in the incident that inspired his passion for social change; the second, as a fun-loving, chain-smoking, pool-playing student. Throughout the book, Parr refers to his subject as “ML,” the nickname his family and most of his friends used at the time.

As a 15-year-old in high school, in 1944, King traveled by public bus with a schoolmate, Hiram Kendall, and their teacher Sarah Grace Bradley from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, about 140 miles away, to participate in an oratorical contest. His speech, a modulated yet spirited call for equal rights, did not win, but what happened on the trip home shaped the rest of his life.

After an hour of driving, the bus stopped in the city of Macon, and a crowd of white passengers started to board. Before this rush, the black passengers were free to sit anywhere, and ML and Hiram had seated themselves toward the front. But as soon as seats became scarce, the white bus driver stared at ML and Hiram and “ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats,” King later recalled. At first, ML and Hiram did nothing, ignoring the escalating tension. “We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us.” With white passengers standing in the aisle, the bus driver demanded ML and Hiram move out of their seats, calling them “niggers” and “black sons of bitches” …

Miss Bradley swooped in to resolve the matter. According to ML, “Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law.” Anger boiled within as he was pressed to capitulate to the racist system he had just railed against in his speech. “I refused to go to the back of the bus,” but “the teacher pleaded with me. She said it would be advisable.” Eventually, with passengers looking on and the bus ride at a standstill, ML reluctantly gave in. ML, Hiram, and Miss Bradley walked to the back of the bus and grabbed a handle. “I had to stand all the way to Atlanta,” King remembered decades later, his anger still there. As the bus went up the rural highway, ML had nothing to look at but seated white people and the darkness outside. “It was late at night and I was tired, but that wasn’t the point. It was the humiliation.” For ninety miles, ML barely kept his contained anger at bay. “That night will never leave my memory,” he said. “It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.” Yes, he’d been angry at Miss Bradley for pushing him to leave his seat, but, far more, he resented the “chains” of America that had shackled him to the back of the bus. “Suddenly I realized you don’t count, you’re nobody.”

photo of MLK in front row of large audience at Morehouse College
King (front row, third from left) enters Morehouse College at age 15, having skipped two years of high school. (Courtesy of Morehouse College)

Embarrassed by the emotionalism—“the shouting and the stomping”—of black religion, the young King considered careers in law and medicine. He enrolled at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, where he wound up majoring in sociology. But his continuing desire to bring social change ultimately led him to enter Crozer, a Protestant seminary near Philadelphia.

In September 1944, fifteen-year-old Morehouse freshman Martin Luther King Jr. needed a haircut. He’d heard about a fellow student who cut hair in the basement of the college’s Graves Hall. The barber, named Walter McCall, was a twenty-one-year-old army veteran. ML heard that he was cutting hair for a dime, so he went to him and gave it a try.

After one cut, McCall asked for the dime. ML explained that he didn’t have a coin on him but that he’d pay him later. This idea of an IOU system did not sit well with McCall. You and I both know you have a dime, he insisted. “Man. I haven’t got it now,” ML replied. “So there’s nothing you can do about it, unless you want to go to the grass.” The phrase “go to the grass” was new to McCall, but he knew what it meant: King believed he could take him in a fight. McCall tackled his customer and they wrestled on the floor—a vet fighting a teenager. The pushing and shoving eventually made its way outside onto the lawn, their bout intense enough to attract other students. For those who saw the fight, many expected the older soldier to easily beat up on the smaller, less experienced ML. But for one of the few times in ML’s young life, he fought back, and he earned the vet’s respect.

graduation photo, Morehouse College
King graduates from Morehouse College as a protégé of its president, Benjamin Mays. (Courtesy of Morehouse College)

The two young men quickly became friends. “I always called him ‘Mike’ and he called me ‘Mac,’ ” said McCall years later. They bonded despite being opposites in almost every way. ML was cautious and reserved, living comfortably … as the son of a successful preacher. McCall was bolder and louder, and always struggling to make ends meet … In a way, each friend had what the other wanted: Mac envied ML’s financial situation and parental support, while ML longed for Mac’s hard-earned life experience and his knack for livening up any social encounter.

McCall served as a constant reminder to his friend that there was more to experience than classes and church. During their years at Morehouse, they held secret dance parties at ML’s home while Daddy and Mama King were out. “One night I remember so well—boy, we had a good time going,” said McCall. “The old man [Daddy King] … stood at the door to listen to the music and he peeped through the keyhole and we didn’t know it. All of a sudden he burst into the house and there we were just swinging away into the night” …

Though their economic differences caused some tension, ML and Mac were inseparable [at Crozer, where Mac arrived a semester after ML], and Mac’s presence in [the seminary’s central building of] Old Main transformed ML’s social life. In the first term, ML had been reluctant to put himself into social situations on campus, but soon he and Mac were holding court in the recreation room below the chapel. “We played pool until sometimes three o’clock in the morning,” Mac said. They would turn the ceiling into a cloud of cigarette smoke as they played, getting to know the other students who joined in the game. The pair would also play cards until late at night, Mac’s choice of background music—like Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”—helping to alleviate ML’s stress …

photo of MLK making behind-the-back pool shot in front of crowd
A pool shark flaunts his technique during a 1966 anti-slum campaign in Chicago. (Bettmann / Getty)

The Mike and Mac show most definitely had a center of gravity: women. Ever since their days as self-proclaimed “wreckers” at Morehouse College, ML and Mac used their juxtaposed personalities to the benefit of nabbing dates. Quiet yet sophisticated? Talk to ML. Bombastic yet slightly offbeat? Mac could be your kind of man. And with Mac by his side, never judging, ML found it easier to be bold. So when the two briefly worked together washing dishes in the Old Main kitchen, his friend’s presence encouraged him to pursue a possibility he’d previously been too timid to explore …

ML’s own feelings for Betty [Moitz] were something he tried to keep secret. Though he’d even written to his mother about his other recent dating prospects, he would not have been at all eager to inform Mama King that he was interested in a young white woman. Mac knew, of course, but he saw no harm in helping his best friend separate himself even further from racial norms they both believed were outdated. And though a few other students took note of ML and Betty’s friendly dialogue—it was, after all, a small world inside Old Main—no one seemed too bothered. [Their fellow seminarian] Marcus Wood in particular understood some of what spurred ML’s attraction: “I supposed he thought that, here I am out of the South now, and not back home … out in the open, nothing illegal, a free place, sure I can go over and talk to this white girl” …

ML felt at ease with Betty. “He would talk, and talk and talk,” Betty says. More than anything, she enjoyed his rumbling enthusiasm and his sincerity. At first they discussed his time in the South and how different it was from the idealized culture within the seminary. He didn’t yet know how but, according to Betty, “one thing ML knew at age nineteen was that he could change the world.”

This article is adapted from Patrick Parr’s book The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age. It appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “Before King Was King.”