On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., WGBH's All Things Considered host Barbara Howard spoke with Clennon King, longtime journalist and documentary filmmaker, about King's footprint in Boston. Below is a map detailing the various sites Clennon King mentions in his interview. To listen to his interview, click the audio player above. A transcript of the interview is below the map.
Barbara Howard: Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago today, spent some formative years here in Boston. It was at Boston University that he earned his doctorate in theology in 1955. And while studying for that doctorate, he first met a young music student attending the New England Conservatory. Her name was Coretta Scott. She'd go on to be his wife.
Longtime reporter and documentarian Clennon King — who's no relation to Martin Luther King — has researched the civil rights leaders time here in Boston. He joins me in the studio. Thanks for coming in.
Clennon King: Thank you so much.
Howard: So you've compiled a slideshow highlighting some little-known facts, and also dispelling some fictions, about Martin Luther King [Jr.], like assuming that the first time King ever came to New England was to go to [Boston University], but that's not right.
King: No, that's not right. Actually, it was in Simsbury, Connecticut at the age of 15 and later at the age of 18 — this is in 1944, in 1947 — he comes to New England to harvest shade tobacco in Simsbury, Connecticut. There is a job there for black boys who want to go to Morehouse, and in exchange for them coming June 1st and returning back to school on August the 31st, the owner, a Mr. Cullman, would give them tuition, room, and board for the year.
Howard: Where was he sleeping during those summers?
King: Cullman was a smart man. He built a dormitory called "The Morehouse," and I believe in the mid-80’s the volunteer fire department went ahead and burned it down.
Howard: As a practice?
King: Exactly, as a practice. And so we lost that, and now that town is somewhat regretting that, but they still celebrate King's connection to New England because that was his introduction to New England.
Howard: OK, so flash forward — he does go to Morehouse, he gets his degree, then he's going on to Boston University to study theology?
King: Well, there's a pit stop before then because he actually went to Crozer University in Chester, Pennsylvania, does two years there, and then he comes to Boston.
Howard: OK, so while he's studying here, though, in Boston, he was also an assistant minister at the Twelfth Baptist Church here in Boston. But if you go to that church now, that pulpit is not the same one where he preached?
King: Not at all. Most people think that somehow he was at the Warren Street address, when in fact he was actually at the intersection of Shawmut Avenue and what is now Melnea Cass. And it's 680 Shawmut Avenue.
Howard: There was once a huge church there …
King: There was absolutely once a huge church there. In fact, a Jewish synagogue, at one point, took over before eventually Twelfth Baptist took it over.
Howard: OK. So, here he is in the early 50's: He is studying to be a preacher at Boston University and he meets Coretta Scott. But first, talk about what brought her here. She been going to college in the Midwest?
King: Right, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She had sort of a run-in there. She had joined the NAACP. She had hoped to do a second year teaching in the school system there. Apparently they didn't let her. She felt as though it was racially motivated, and so she transferred. She transfers to New England Conservatory of Music, and they [Scott and King] arrived the same fall, the fall of 1951, and she's living virtually three blocks away from him. It's not until January of ‘52 that they finally meet.
Howard: So she's living, you said at 558 Massachusetts Avenue, it was a place called "The League of Women for Community Service." It's a community service agency, it had originally been set up to support black soldiers returning from World War I. And during that time, to support herself while she went to New England Conservatory, she worked as a housemaid.
King: That's correct.
Howard: So how did the two finally meet?
King: Well, actually there was a mutual friend by the name of Mary Powell, who was out of Atlanta. She's also studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. King asks her, 'Do you know any nice girls?" And [s]he said, 'Actually, I do,' and gives the number of Coretta to Martin. They actually meet technically on the phone. When he was on the phone with her, he said, it generally takes me 10 minutes to get from Commonwealth all the way over to where you live, he says, but today I'll get there in seven minutes. He picks her up in a green Chevy and he brings her to a restaurant called Sharaf’s, and it's basically across from the Christian Science Church. So that's at 187 Massachusetts Avenue. The actual footprint is now a part of a barber shop that fronts Massachusetts Avenue. I think it's called Floyd's Barbershop.
Howard: So there was something about a basketball court and him taking shots. And by the way, he was not a terribly tall man.
King: No, he was extremely short. He was five-something …
Howard: 5’6” – 5’7”.
King: Yeah, something like that … and so a classmate of his by the name of Cornish Rogers talked about the fact that they would play basketball not far from where they lived. It was at William E. Carter playground …
King: On Columbus Avenue.
King: On Columbus Avenue. And he would sit there, and he would play in his shoes. And so you'd hear the clickety clack. At one point he says, this one's for Coretta and he actually makes the shot.
Howard: And he's wearing his preacher's shoes.
King: Of course, exactly.
Howard: So while he was studying theology here in Boston, he was what, staying with a preacher?
King: He was staying with a preacher by the name of William Hester. He was the pastor of Twelfth Baptist. [King] would end up working for him. Hester lived at 38 Howland Street in Roxbury, not far off of Humboldt Street. [King] doesn't want to stay there. He wants to be near the action, he wants to be closer to school, and the center of black life at that point is Columbus and Massachusetts Avenue. And so he moves first to 170 Saint Botolph Street, and then the following year, the year he meets Coretta, he moves around the corner, literally a block and a half, to 397 Massachusetts Avenue. And after they end up marrying, he literally goes behind that building to 396 Northampton Street, at the corner of Watson Street, in a place called Lincoln Apartments, and that's where he and Coretta live. This is the first place that Dr. King and Coretta ever lived.
Howard: And it was unit number five.
King: It was unit number five. That's right.
Howard: And that building?
King: The building was knocked down.
Howard: OK, so he finishes his studies and he graduates, and there are pictures of him wearing a cap and gown, but that's not quite right.
King: That's right. And in fact it's not his graduation at all. He had to ask the university to go mail him that diploma because he was down in Montgomery at that point as a preacher.
Howard: Coretta was pregnant.
King: Coretta was pregnant. And so he asked him to mail it to him.
Howard: So what's that photo then?
King: That photo actually is four years later. In 1959, they would give him an honorary degree. By this time, he had come to the world stage with Rosa Parks in Montgomery. And so everybody wanted a piece of him, everybody. But when he came back in 1965 — this would have been less than three years before he was assassinated — he had a row with Ms. Hicks.
Howard: Louise Day Hicks, who was an opponent of busing, yes.
King: Right. And so he was supposed to, after he touched down at Logan on the 22nd of April, he was supposed to meet with her. And she said yeah I'll meet with you, but I'll meet with you alone. None of the local representatives can be involved. And he said no, that won't do. And one of the first places he goes is Monroe Street. And that is where there is a school that was falling apart — it no longer exists — but it's on the footprint of what is now the Roxbury YMCA, the playing field. He then leaves there, and then he goes to another school maybe 10 blocks away and he speaks — again, because of the poor conditions there — he speaks from the front steps.
And there are photographs of him, from the front steps, and he talks to the people about the fact that there is this disparity regarding supplies, salaries, any number of things. He was an opening shot, I would say, of this whole thing about busing, and people don't realize that.
Howard: In the intervening years, there was a court case. Schools were ordered desegregated through busing, and it was in 1974 that when those buses rolled, there was a lot of violence in Boston.
King: Absolutely, absolutely. And so while I think he was very fond of Boston in many ways in terms of the relationships that he established here, vis-a-vis BU, his wife, all of those things, I still think that he knew what the place was capable of, and he knew how racially divided it was.
Howard: And still struggles with.
King: And struggles with still, to this day.
Howard: Thanks so much for coming in.
King: You're welcome.
Howard: That's longtime reporter Clennon King, no relation to Martin Luther King, Jr. He has researched the period of time that young Martin Luther King Jr. spent as a theology student here in Boston and the time beyond that. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago today.