Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a global icon of advocacy and equality, was in 1948 a Morehouse College senior seeking entrance into the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA.
King was in common company of most enterprising college students, busying himself securing letters of recommendation from a variety of professors and administrators. But unlike many men of Morehouse, King was rounding out a career shaped in great part by his lineage as the son of a prominent preacher, and wrestling with complex themes of life and faith as a rising senior shaped before the age of 18.
A year prior, King was the author of a striking Maroon Tiger column on education and its role in Black America, in which he took his classmates and professors to task for being part of a system which promoted education as a primary tool of socioeconomic affluence, and not of moral influence.
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!
It’s possible that this editorial was a signature moment in a collection of public and private moments King took to endear himself to campus academic leaders, which led him to draw the endorsement of Morehouse Dean of Men Brailsford Brazeal, Morehouse School of Religion Director George D. Kelsey, and college president Benjamin Elijah Mays.
In their letters to Crozer Dean of Seminary Charles Batten, all three men find a common narrative on their endorsement of King; regular student, but capable of excelling in graduate study.
Dear Dean Batten:
Your letter to President B. E. Mays about Mr. M. L. King and [name deleted] who are seniors at Morehouse College has been referred to my office for consideration because Dr. Mays is out of the city.
I regret that I can not at the moment let you know just where Messrs. King and [name deleted] rank in relationship to the other members of the senior class because we are not able to compile the list until the end of the present semester. We have checked on the record of each one of the men involved. Mr. King has a quality point average of 2.48 which is virtually midway between a “C” and a “B” average. [sentence deleted] I might state that these two young men have developed considerably since beginning their studies at Morehouse College. They had to work hard in order to overcome a comparatively weak high school background. I believe that Mr. King has succeeded in doing this to a slightly greater degree than has [name deleted] I believe that these young men will be able to take care of themselves scholastically and otherwise if they are given a chance to study at Crozer Theological Seminary, and I also believe that they will mix well interracially.
I am glad to recommend these applicants for the serious and favorable consideration of the Committee on Admissions. If you desire additional information about these young men please let me know.
With every kind wish, I am
B. R. Brazeal
Dear Mr. Batten:
The academic record of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Morehouse College is short of what may be called “good;” but I recommend that you give his application serious consideration. King is one of those boys who came to realize the value of scholarship late in his college career. His ability exceeds his record at Morehouse, and I believe his present attitude will lift his achievement to the level of his ability.
He impresses me as being quite serious about the ministry and as having a call rather than a professional urge. His record as a citizen in Morehouse is good. He gets along well with people, is friendly and courteous.
George D. Kelsey, Director
School of Religion
Dear Mr. Batten:
I want to endorse the applications for both Martin L. King, Jr. and [name deleted] I have no reservations in recommending these two men. Both of them should graduate from Morehouse College in June. They are men of good integrity; they adjust well, and I believe, that they would do a good job at Crozer.
You will see from their records that they are not brilliant students, but they both have good minds. I believe they have academic averages around B-, certainly between C and B. I am of the opinion that they both can do substantial B work and with good competition, they may do even better. I hope you will see your way clear to accept them.
Benjamin E. Mays
In King, three leaders of Morehouse College found talent worthy of representing the college, and the race, in advanced education. And despite clear reservations about his talent as a scholar, they sent up to Pennsylvania honest assessments of the man and his abilities.
The irony of these endorsements in comparison to King’s legacy is obvious; much in the way that so many people would take from these notes the idea that HBCUs polish diamonds in the rough, and prepare them to shine as crown jewels of industry and society.
But the more important story is not Morehouse’s approach or even King’s transformation from 18-year-old prodigy to the global gold standard of social justice advocacy; it is that what King lacked in scholastic talent he made up for in networking and outreach to people who could advance his career.
HBCUs can nurture, they can instruct, and they can prepare; but they cannot make students more confident or more calculating about the value of relationship building. Tools and settings of the academy do not make men and women more conscious of how to win friends and influence people, not even the ever-comforting HBCU campus.
And this is a critical point when we consider the future of our schools in conversations on selectivity, affordability, pedagogy and professional training. We can perfect the idea of rigor and preparation for learning and working but we can’t make its participants realize that those things are complementary of the skills required to work a room, to make an elevator pitch or to make someone comfortable and trusting within 30 seconds of meeting them.
These are the things that make a hiring manager at a job fair contacting a supervisor with a recruitment lead, or which turn a chance meeting at a happy hour or networking event into a job.
Something about King made a big percentage of the school’s brain trust want to send him to an integrated campus to represent us all, and it clearly wasn’t his grades.
Was it his willingness to challenge professors on curriculum and lectures? Was it his boldness to criticize the campus in the school newspaper? It could have been these things and others, but very few HBCU professors and presidents today would endorse a student with a cumulative 2.4 GPA for graduate study, even if they were approached to write for the most charismatic, outgoing student on the campus.
That is, not without a personal relationship with that charismatic, outgoing student.
And that is the lesson of honoring Dr. King; not that he was a leading scholar, orator or visionary social engineer; it is that he had the personality that made everyone want to listen, to trust him, and to respect him even when advocating against our sensible urges of anger, distrust, and violence in American society.
It worked at Morehouse, and it worked for the country. And we must be honest with HBCU students from all levels of resources, intelligence, culture, and perspective about the dual nature of professional development. Much in the way King called for education to build man’s intellectual and spiritual discernment, we should tell our students that the only thing more powerful in knowing how to learn or to work is having people who can vouch for you doing both.
Because the places we go in this life typically aren’t shaped by how much we know about them or how quickly we can get there, but by who is waiting and what they’ve been told to expect upon our arrival.