Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dr. King in Boston . 3

Continued from Dr. King in Boston . 2.

The black South End was refulgent with style. The jazz musicians and dancers were fashion plates and their patrons followed suit. There were numerous barber shops and beauty parlors. The Pullmen porters wore immaculate uniforms. And after syling on Saturday night, a snappy Sunday Best was the required dress to attend any of the neighborhood's churches, as numerous as the clubs.

Martin fit right in, always stepping out on the street in a tailored suit, often tweed, with a white shirt, crisply knotted tie, fedora, shined shoes, briefcase and meticulously groomed with a thin mustache and closely cropped hair.

He'd been a sharp dresser, a dandy even, since grade school when his friends - Shag, Rooster, Sack and Mole among them - nicknamed him Tweedie for the tweed suits he favored wearing to school (often with a violin under his arm) and church. But he pulled it off with such panache that he never suffered ridicule for his finery and slipped easily into Levis for playing football in the backyard with his crew.

Martin also worked to develop the affectations befitting an intellectual, smoking and gesturing with a pipe as a constant prop, like many other students. His long love of big words and flowery, ornate phrases also peaked in, and mercifully moderated after, graduate school. He practiced flourishing signatures on the back of notebooks to embellish the important documents he would soon be signing. A distant philosophical gaze, as glimpsed years later in the photograph on the first page of this article, and a detached, reserved manner of speaking completed the picture of a worldly urban intellectual of the times grasping with the big questions.

Boston University was, and is, one of the country's largest private universities. It was founded as a theological school in 1839, at the Bromfield Street Church in downtown Boston by abolitionist Methodist ministers, to provide equal, integrated education for both races and sexes, a very unusual stance at that time and for long thereafter. Bromfield was also the church of David Walker, the fiery black abolitionist activist and author of the radical 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World advocating immediate, worldwide black emancipation via violent insurrection and killing if necessary.

At B.U., King exchanged the cozy, collegial atmosphere of Crozer, a small seminary in a quiet suburb, for the anonymous hustle and bustle of a big urban research university in a major American city. Among the tens of thousands enrolled at B.U. were two dozen or so black graduate students. King and Lenud started an informal club for them soon after setting up house, the Dialectical Society, open to anyone interested in philosophical and/or theological ideas and issues.

Dialectics is a logical conversation, ranging from informal dialogue to formal debate, between two or more people wanting to convince the other(s) of their positions, with perhaps the possibility of achieving a synthesis of the their various viewpoints. This was the method popularized by Plato's Socratic Dialogues and used throughout the history of philosophy.

Martin believed that this struggle, rather than dogma, was essential to religion. As a teenager he'd developed deep doubts about the fundamentalism of his father, but religion he began to think is only alive at the edges. It may be important to have the courage of one's convictions, but it's also essential to have the courage of one's doubts.

July 23, 1954 - Boston


... I am doing quite well, and studying hard as usual. I have plenty of privacy here and nobody to bother me.

We had our Philosophy Club Monday night and it was well attended. Brother Satterwhite did the paper. ...

Your Darling,
Martin 1
Letter to Coretta at the Dexter Avenue church pasonage written while Martin was away on one of his regular trips back in Boston to work on his doctoral thesis.

The Philosophy Club, as it was also known, gathered one evening a week in King's living room for fellowship, food and conversation "to solve the problems of the world." A dozen or so black students, men and women, shared a potluck supper, sipped coffee and chatted. One of the members would present a formal paper that they'd written for one of their classes. Then pipe smoke and lofty technical jargon swirled together in the air as the others jumped in to oppose or defend the writer's conclusions. Afterwards, with the dialectics done, the night owls remaining would settle into a late night bull session.

The club lasted throughout Martin's three student years in Boston, growing in popularity and eventually attracting both white students and local college professors. Professor DeWolf himself, Martin's thesis advisor, dropped in once and read the paper for discussion on "the meaning of the kingdom and how it will come."

Continued at Dr. King in Boston . 4.

Image ... Tire Jumping. Allan Rohan Crite.

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