Phila. an early influence for King

20170115_inq_cu1history15-b
MLK arrived at Crozer seminary in 1948.

In a recent entry of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, historian Daniel Thomas Fleming argues that "Philadelphia has had a greater influence on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday traditions than any city other than King's birthplace, Atlanta."

As Philadelphians prepare to celebrate this year's holiday Monday, consider the region's influence upon King himself through Delaware County's Crozer Theological Seminary.

King arrived at Crozer in the footsteps of the Rev. J. Pius Barbour, a family friend who, like the 19-year-old, traveled to the Chester seminary from Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Out of nearly 100 seminarians - the vast majority of whom lived in on-campus dormitories - King was one of only 11 African Americans when he matriculated in 1948.

"If I were a minute late to class I was almost morbidly conscious of it and sure that everyone noticed," King later recounted of his college years. "Rather than be thought of as always laughing, I'm afraid I was grimly serious for a time. I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined, and my clothes immaculately pressed."

The demographics of King's class, however, did not reflect Crozer's theological liberality. Through courses with George Washington Davis and Robert Keighton, King expanded his views on the Christian social gospel and the pivotal role of preaching.

"I must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the social gospel," King wrote in a freshman assignment.

It was also during his time at Crozer that - through traveling lectures by A.J. Muste and Mordecai Johnson - King was introduced to pacifism and the Gandhian principle of nonviolence as a mechanism of social reform.

As liberal as the school and professors may have been, King nevertheless encountered racism on and off campus. When King was a freshman, a white student drew a pistol after falsely accusing him of having masterminded a prank. During King's sophomore year, the proprietor of a Chester tavern made it clear he would not be serving King and his friends, by firing a gun into the air.

But the future civil rights leader was undaunted. "King . . . immersed himself in Crozer's intellectual environment," observed historian Clayborne Carson. Elected class president his junior year, King graduated with honors as valedictorian in 1951.

His receipt of the seminary's Pearl Plafker Award for the most outstanding student allowed King to pursue doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University.

Upon graduating, Davis - King's former professor - confided to a colleague that he would "make an excellent minister or teacher. He has the mind for the latter." Or, as Morton Scott Enslin, another former professor, presciently put it: "He will probably become a big strong man among his people."

The seminary is the namesake of John Price Crozer, a Baptist farmer and entrepreneur. Built on Crozer's Upland estate, the large stone building began as a "normal school" for underprivileged youth in the 1850s.

During the Civil War, it served as a Union hospital and - after a 12-foot fence was erected along its perimeter - treated Confederate wounded.

Crozer's children dedicated the building for use as a seminary in 1868, with the institution remaining in operation for more than a century. In 1970, Crozer merged with the Colgate-Rochester Seminary in New York. The building is now part of the Crozer-Chester Medical Center campus.