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Trenholm, Harper Councill

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July 16, 1900 to February 20, 1963

H. Councill Trenholm, president of Alabama State College during the height of the student sit-in movement, was criticized by Martin Luther King, Jr., after the embattled president expelled students and fired faculty for their protest participation.

Born on 16 June 1900, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Trenholm received his BA from Morehouse College (1920) and his baccalaureate in philosophy from the University of Chicago (1921). In 1926 he succeeded his father as president of Alabama State College, a position he held until 1960.

A deacon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Trenholm invited King to give the baccalaureate sermon at Alabama State’s commencement in 1955. King agreed to speak and accepted an offer to be a dinner guest at Trenholm’s home prior to the ceremony. The congenial relationship between the men continued when, in 1957, King applied for membership in the Sigma Phi Phi fraternity. As a member of the fraternity, Trenholm was “very pleased to have this application” (Trenholm, 9 May 1957).

After sit-ins began in Montgomery during 1960, Alabama Governor John Patterson threatened to fire Trenholm if he could not maintain order on the campus. Responding to Patterson’s pressures, Trenholm threatened to expel any students or faculty who demonstrated. This threat had particular importance to King because of his close friendship with several targeted faculty members, including Lawrence Reddick and Dexter congregation members Jo Ann Robinson and Mary Fair Burks. Calling Trenholm’s actions “cowardly,” King expressed disappointment in the college president’s response to Patterson: “I had hoped that Dr. Trenholm would emerge from this total situation as a national hero. If he would only stand up to the Governor and the Board of Education and say that he cannot in all good conscience fire the eleven faculty members who have committed no crime or act of sedition, he would gain support over the nation that he never dreamed of” (King, 9 August 1960; Papers 5:407). Reddick was fired and Robinson and Burks resigned. Trenholm left his position at Alabama State College in 1960 as well, and died three years later.


Introduction, in Papers 5:25.

King, “Other Mountains,” Baccalaureate Sermon at Alabama State College, 15 May 1955, in Papers 6:214.

King to Burks, 5 April 1960, in Papers 5:406–408.

King to Patterson, 9 August 1960, in Papers 5:495–496.

King to Roy Wilkins, 9 August 1960, NAACPP-DLC.

Trenholm to King, 2 May 1955, in Papers 2:550–551.

Trenholm to King, 9 May 1957, MLKP-MBU