Upbringing & Studies

The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, Martin Luther King, Jr., named Michael King at birth, spent his first twelve years in the Auburn Avenue home that his parents, the Reverend Michael King and Alberta Williams King, shared with his maternal grandparents, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams and Jeannie Celeste Williams. After Rev. Williams’ death in 1931, his son-in-law Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. became Ebenezer Baptist Church’s new pastor and gradually established himself as a major figure in state and national Baptist groups. The elder King began referring to himself (and later to his son) as Martin Luther King.

During his undergraduate years at Atlanta’s Morehouse College (1944 to 1948), King gradually overcame his initial reluctance to accept his inherited calling. Morehouse President Benjamin E. Mays influenced King’s spiritual development, encouraging him to view Christianity as a potential force for progressive social change. He was ordained during his final semester at Morehouse, and by this time King had also taken his first steps toward political activism. He had responded to the postwar wave of anti-black violence by proclaiming in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution that African Americans were “entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens”.  During his senior year King joined the Intercollegiate Council, an interracial student discussion group that met monthly at Atlanta’s Emory University.

After leaving Morehouse, King increased his understanding of progressive Christian thought while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951. Initially uncritical of liberal theology, he gradually moved toward Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-orthodoxy, which emphasized the intractability of social evil. Even as he continued to question and modify his own religious beliefs, he compiled an outstanding academic record and graduated at the top of his class.

In 1951 King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University’s School of Theology. By the time he completed his doctoral studies in 1955, King had refined his exceptional ability to draw upon a wide range of theological and philosophical texts to express his views with force and precision. His ability to infuse his oratory with established and original theological insights became evident in his expanding preaching activities in Boston-area-churches and at Ebenezer, where he assisted his father during school vacations.

During his stay in Boston, King also met and courted Coretta Scott, an Alabama-born Antioch College graduate who was then a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. On 18 June 1953 the two students were married in Marion, Alabama, where Scott’s family lived.