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Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 'Birmingham of the North'

MLK - Chester Map

A Little History

Chester is a small city located in south eastern Pennsylvania. Spanning approximately 4.2 square miles, Chester is a ghost of the once prosperous port city it was pre World War II.

Being a suburb of Philadelphia it has significant historical ties, recognized as "Birmingham of the North" per civil rights leader James Farmer Jr. because of its history of police brutality and racial tension in the early 20th century. Major figures like Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr travelled to Chester in their journeys to relay their messages to America.

Martin Luther King Jr. pursued his Masters of Theology degree at Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948-1951. The president of the seminary spoke at Morehouse College’s baccalaureate in 1945, while King was enrolled at the college. However, the single most influential factor in his attending Crozer Theological Seminary would be attributed to his fellow Morehouse College alum, J. Pius Barbour. Barbour, who was a friend of Martin Luther King Sr, also happened to be the first African-American to obtain a Masters of Theology degree from the seminary in 1937.


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Martin Luther King, Jr. During his College Days

 J. Pius Barbour

The relationship between Barbour and King was said to be similar to a father and son. Martin Luther King Jr. frequented Barbour’s home while he was a student, often participating in dialogues in both academic and informal forums. The young King was a disciplined student, and was known for being neat, charismatic, and curious, both intellectually and aesthetically. For King, being raised in Atlanta, living in Pennsylvania was life changing. During his time at the seminary he was in an interracial relationship2 and tearfully ended it because of his felt responsibilities to his family and community. Already graduated college, at 19 years old, King was just beginning to ascertain his place in the world. Living in Delaware County in 1948 must have been transformative seeing the North in a racial climate different than he knew in the south, but nonetheless daunting.

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Crozer Theological Seminary

The conflict King faced beyond racism was balancing his intelligence while retaining authenticity. Being a man he is expected to be courageous, chivalrous, and strong. And the cultural expectation of him as a Black man, is to represent his racial community while retaining his individuality to a majorly deaf ear audience. Assuredly, King made the decision to take on the task of leading social equity protests, despite the deadly endings of many social activists in America.

King's clergymen, family, and broader American community all demanded different efforts from him. The majorly Black clergy want a passionate and sharp pastor that helps them see the grace of God, while leading by example. His family, led by his father, likely were a huge proponent of him becoming a pastor and not using his smarts for another more conventional and lucrative career.

King’s American community was fractured by classism, employing the combination of race and economics to sustain white supremacy. These are just surface level examples of the daunting pressures King could have cowered from. But more importantly he had to commit himself to working towards his best. Being one of the few Black students at Crozer, he managed to become a prominent figure on campus respected by faculty and peers alike. King became class president his third year at the seminary4.

Education reinforced King’s self-belief and was displayed in his high marks, and would later be a major speaking point in his Poor People Campaign. King wanted to unite poor communities throughout the country to band together in demanding jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.5

In one of his documents from January 1948, he philosophizes interdependence, quoting Horatius Bonar “All that we are, we owe.” He writes,

 “This fact is revealed from the earliest days of infancy to the declining days of old age. No man ever makes it by himself. In fact it is this very element of dependency that makes man man. For no individual becomes a personality until it interacts with other personalities. In our fickle moments we may feel that we are what we are by our own achievements, but in our sober moments we know deep down in ourselves that we did not make it alone ourselves.”

 Crozer Theological Seminary

It appears that King’s decision to attend Crozer Theological Seminary was rooted in his unwavering dedication to being a vessel of servitude. His sense of community from his own kinfolk, home, and faith helped him understand the magnitude of human interdependence and love.

Many observe Dr. King’s work as a Civil Rights leader for Blacks, but his Poor People’s Campaign was a more significant threat to white supremacy. King understood to change the system he had to have a thorough understanding of it. And seeing his life and legacy one can deduce that an educated person is a threat to those who profit from his ignorance. We still exist in an exploitative capitalist system and as long as that is true, the cycle will continue.

I wonder how much King's faith was impacted by his yearning to unite people, as it was one of the few institutions that, if practiced properly, that is supposed to transcend race and economics. Many can agree that Dr. King took the path less traveled and because of his insistence to leave a better world than he inherited, hence why we celebrate his legacy a century after his passing. De facto segregation is still a mountain Americans have yet to clear, but with collective efforts, a better tomorrow is realized everyday.



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