Monday, January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King in Boston

Boston University's Marsh Chapel
and the sculpture "Free at Last" dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Boston in 1951 to attend Boston University graduate school, earning a Ph. D. in theology in 1955.   Howard Thurman’s sermon’s at the Marsh Chapel, including his accounts of visiting Gandi taught King about nonviolent protest.  Dr. Thurman was the first black dean of a predominantly white American university.   Today the BU library houses King’s personal papers.

My Dad was at Boston University at the same time as Dr. King.  He matriculated in 1952 and graduated in 1957.  Dad took many classes in theology, but he was a Government major.  I don’t know if he ever crossed paths with Dr. King, or if he would have even known him in those years before he was famous.  But Dad always liked to mention the fact that they went to the same school at the same time.

Dr. King loved Boston after choosing to study here because of the diversity in the community.  It was in Boston that he met his wife, Coretta Scott, who was a student at the New England Conservatory.  He returned to Boston in 1965 to address a joint session of the Massachusetts legislature, and on the following day he led a freedom march from the South End to the Boston Common where he spoke to 22,000 people in the rain.

Although we tend to think of Dr. King fighting for justice in the South, he returned to Boston and the North many times to address injustices all over the United States.  On 11 September 1964, while donating his papers to BU, he said:
“This struggle, while we are based in the South, is a national struggle and it requires concern of people all over the nation… Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.  The problem is very serious in the North.  Racial injustice does exist in the North in a very serious way.”

The night of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, there was violent unrest in the city.  But the following night, although many US cities had continuing violence and riots, the rock star James Brown kept the peace in Boston.  He had been scheduled to appear in the Boston Garden, but agreed with Mayor Kevin White to have his concert broadcast live on WGBH TV.  It was hoped that this would keep Bostonians in front of their TVs at home instead of protesting on the streets- and it worked.

Today, there are lasting signs of Dr. King’s legacy in Boston - Martin Luther King Boulevard in Roxbury, The MLK Towers housing project, the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast, scholarships, schools, sculptures and community programs all bear his name and continue his memory.

Click at this link to read a fragment of Martin Luther King’s essay on his application to the Boston University Graduate School

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Archive at the Boston University Gotlieb Archival Research Center

The 44th Annual Boston MLK Memorial Breakfast

Boston’s MLK Day of Service and Learning  “Make it a day on, not a day off!”

“The Night James Brown Saved Boston”  and also, etc.

James Brown Live at Boston Garden 1968 (at about 1:29:30 you can see where James Brown and the police clash, and he calms the crowd)

Video of citizens gathering at a peaceful rally in Boston following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination

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Copyright ©2014, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Besides the sermons of Howard Thurman, B.U. Professor John Swomley (of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) was a major inspiration towards non-violence. Swomley later moved to Kansas City, where I knew him. And Swomley and my father, with other faculty and students at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, joined by similar professors and students from other area seminaries, spent the night of Martin Luther King's assassination going door to door to talk to people in a successful attempt to provide a peaceful alternative for the expression of outrage and sorrow that otherwise might have resulted in rioting.
    - Jeremy Bangs

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jeremy! So nice to hear more about the BU connections to Dr. King.

  2. Thanks for this bit of history on this special day!

  3. I met Martin Luther King, Sr. in Boston sometime, I'm guessing, between 1965 and 1968. We students were doing a community project - cleaning up a South End park or proposed park, I think - and he was apparently involved in the same project on a national scale. He took the time to speak to all of us individually to thank us for taking part. I have good memories of this, not bittersweet, so I'm pretty sure this was before his son's assassination or the other family tragedies to come.