Memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a BU Student

in News
January 15th, 2016

By David W. Briddell (STH ’55)

After graduating from Morgan State College in Baltimore, I studied at Boston University’s School of Theology from 1952 to 1955. That was when I met and became friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was studying for his doctorate.

I was part of a student club started by Martin called “The Dialectical Society,” which consisted of African American graduate students who met to discuss papers they had prepared; afterwards we all had a meal together and talked about current events. After enjoying the meal and the laughter we shared, there were discussions that usually focused on discrimination and the issues of segregation – and this pre-dated Martin’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. However there was one moment when the group was meeting that I can clearly recall. All of a sudden, in the middle of informal discussion, King said something like: “Well, boys – I had a big funeral last weekend. We buried Jim.”

“Jim who?” someone asked.

“Jim Crow,” King replied.

We broke out laughing as we realized that Martin was joking about the slang name for segregation.

“Yeah. We did Jim up real good,” King drawled. “We put him to rest.”

This experience did not have much meaning to us at the time, when segregation was still a firm reality. But Martin was able to foresee the death of that system and in announcing its death before it had occurred, it no longer had any power of him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a very visible part of the black community of Boston – preaching in their churches, known in barbershops and restaurants, and he even hung out on street corners! Martin was a very genuine person, in close contact with the African American students. He would join us for lunch, attend student parties, as well as dating several women in his first year … one of which was my former wife, before we were married. In his second year of his doctoral studies Martin married Coretta and invited LaVerne and I to their home for Sunday dinner. After the meal, we all went for a walk in Boston Gardens – and here’s a photograph! Martin and I were not just ministerial colleagues – we were friends!

Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., LaVerne Watson, and David W. Briddell.

Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., LaVerne Watson, and David W. Briddell.

In 1955 we both graduated from Boston University: Dr. King had a doctorate in Systematic Theology and I had a master’s degree in Theology. The speaker at our graduation was then Senator John F. Kennedy. Everyone presumed that Martin Luther King would accept a position at a college or university, or follow in his father’s church in Atlanta. Instead, he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I was ordained as a minister in the Delaware Annual Conference of the Methodist Church and appointed to Shiloh Methodist Church in Crisfield, Maryland. Two years later I was appointed to Emanuel Methodist Church in Philadelphia, where I was the treasurer of an African American ministerial group which had organized an event to raise financial support for Martin’s work, which provided Martin and I with a wonderful opportunity for us to reconnect.

The last time Martin Luther King, Jr., and I were close to each other was a very different circumstance – it was at the time of his death. In April 1968, I was attending a work-related meeting in Atlanta, when I heard the announcement that Martin had been killed in Memphis, Tennessee. I felt that I just couldn’t stay for the rest of the meeting and decided to return home. The next morning, as I walked to my airplane in the Atlanta airport, a plane from Memphis had arrived and I saw the casket carrying Martin Luther King’s body unloaded and wheeled into the airport. It was a heart-breaking moment – but I was able to say goodbye to my special friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo donated by David W. Briddell