Allan Knight Chalmers served as a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., during King’s years at Boston University, and continued to influence King throughout the civil rights movement. In Stride Toward Freedom, King’s memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, he wrote of Chalmers’ commitment to social justice, which was rooted in his optimism and faith in humanity.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1897, Chalmers received his BA (1917) from Johns Hopkins University and his BD (1922) from Yale University. He joined the faculty at Boston University in 1948 after serving as minister of New York’s Broadway Tabernacle Congregational Church for 18 years. During his career, he was chair of the Scottsboro Defense Committee during the 1930s, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, treasurer of the NAACP, and was active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Religion and Labor Foundation. Chalmers retired from Boston University’s faculty in 1962.
Chalmers was a personal and professional supporter of King and the movement. In early 1956, as treasurer of the NAACP, he wrote to King promising to support the Montgomery bus boycott: “We will back you at the national level without any question” (Papers 3:173). In December 1960 he organized a meeting of leaders from various civil rights organizations, such as FOR, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to discuss how they could cooperate to move desegregation forward in the South.
Earlier in 1960 Chalmers had expressed his personal concern for King after meeting with civil rights supporters in New York. In a 6 March letter, he told King: “It is possible that the strenuousness of the job that you are up against plus the pressure even of such friends as we are has filled your program so full that your opportunities for reflection have been taken away.” Chalmers warned: “A man gets thin if he does not read, becomes inaccurate if he does not write, but most of all loses a profoundness if he does not think” (Papers 5:435n). Chalmers remained active in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in other peace, religious, and political groups until his death.