In September 1944, Martin Luther King began his studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., and his maternal grandfather, A. D. Williams. Although King’s years at Morehouse were characterized by middling academic performance, his experiences outside the classroom set him on a path toward the ministry and the struggle for civil rights.
Founded in 1867 by William Jefferson White as Augusta Baptist Institute, the school’s purpose was to educate newly freed male slaves to teach and become ministers. The school relocated from Augusta to Atlanta in 1879, and was renamed the Atlanta Baptist Seminary. Later named Atlanta Baptist College at the turn of the twentieth century, it was eventually renamed after American Baptist Home Missionary Society official Henry L. Morehouse.
King, Jr., was admitted to the college in 1944 following his junior year in high school, as the school’s enrollment fell with the wartime draft. A friend of King’s, Walter R. McCall, recalled that King was an “ordinary student” during his time at Morehouse: “I don’t think he took his studies very seriously, but seriously enough to get by” (Papers 1:38). King did, however, flourish in other areas, winning second prize in the John L. Webb oratorical competition in 1946 and 1948. King was president of the sociology club, as well as a member of the debate team, student council, glee club, and minister’s union. King also joined the Morehouse chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and played on the Butler Street YMCA basketball team.
King’s growing awareness of social and political issues while at Morehouse is evident in the surviving writings from his undergraduate years. The summer before his junior year King wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, responding to a series of racially motivated murders in Georgia. In the letter, King summarized the goals of black citizens: “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations” (Papers 1:121).
That same year the school paper, the Maroon Tiger, published King’s article “The Purpose of Education,” in which he argued that education had both a utilitarian and a moral function. King asserted that the function of education was “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically” (Papers 1:124). The following year, his commitment to social change was strengthened through his involvement with the Intercollegiate Council, an interracial Atlanta student group that met monthly to discuss various social issues. King’s participation with white students from Emory University in these meetings helped him to overcome his own anti-white feelings. He later recalled: “As I got to see more of white people, my resentment was softened, and a spirit of cooperation took its place” (Papers 1:45n).
Benjamin E. Mays, who served as president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967, played a critical role in King’s college experience and was described by King as “one of the great influences in my life” (Papers 1:38). Mays believed that black colleges should be “experiment stations in democratic living” and challenged Morehouse students to struggle against segregation rather than accommodate themselves to it (Papers 1:37). Mays preached every Tuesday morning in the college’s chapel and introduced many students to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, which Mays had gained an appreciation for during his travels to India.
King, “Kick Up Dust,” Letter to the Editor, Atlanta Constitution, 6 August 1946, in Papers 1:121.
William Peters, “Our Weapon Is Love,” Redbook, August 1956, 41–42, 72–73.