In the fall of 1951, 22-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., settled into his Botolph Street apartment to begin doctoral studies at Boston University. The word ‘freedom’ was very much in the air.
Boston Evening Traveler columnist Walter Schofield had campaigned for the city to create a path taking pedestrians past milestones of the American Revolution. Mayor John Hynes acquiesced, and the Freedom Trail was created in June of 1951. The Freedom Trail was an instant and enduring success, a magnet for tourists wanting to follow the footsteps of Sam Adams, Paul Revere and John Hancock.
As the Freedom Trail got underway, Martin Luther King was absorbing the American Revolution’s rhetoric of freedom and liberty so central to the city’s history – even as he studied European theology and the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi. Twelve years after coming to Boston, Martin Luther King used the word ‘freedom’ 20 times in his most famous speech.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’.
Martin viewed Boston as his second home. His first home was Atlanta, where he was born Jan. 15, 1929, the son of a well-to-do Baptist minister. Young Martin was a precocious student who skipped ninth grade and, right after the 11th, enrolled in Morehouse College at age 15. He graduated in 1948 with a degree in sociology and then received a bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.
At BU, Martin Luther King was cocooned in a white center of liberal theological thought that welcomed African-American scholars. He lived in the South End, a kind of multiracial neighborhood that didn’t exist in his hometown of Atlanta. He could not have missed reminders of the early patriots’ struggle for freedom along the Freedom Trail: Sam Adams’ grave in the Granary Burying Ground, Paul Revere’s house in the North End and the Old State House, where Crispus Attucks was killed during the Boston Massacre.
From his studies at Boston University, Martin derived two tenets of his thought: belief in a personal God and belief in the dignity of all mankind. His spiritual advisor, Howard Thurman, had known Mohandas Gandhi in India and educated Martin about the mahatma’s philosophy of nonviolent protest.The young minister was able to consult renowned philosophers Paul Tillich and Reinold Neibuhr for advice about his dissertation. It must have been a heady experience to debate with world-famous religious philosophers.
Richard Lischer, in his book The Preacher King, wrote, “King’s theological education provided the vocabulary and conceptual framework of his sermons at Ebenezer (Baptist Church) and his larger message to the nation.”
But so did Boston’s rich revolutionary history. After graduation, Martin returned to the city often, and on April 22, 1964, he delivered a speech to the Massachusetts Legislature. The audience included young lawmakers Michael Dukakis and William Bulger. His words to the Legislature came straight out of 1776:
It was from these shores that the vision of a new nation conceived in liberty was born, and it must be from these shores that liberty must be preserved.
Most Eligible Bachelor
Martin Luther King wanted to accomplish something else during his four years in Boston. He wanted the right wife to support his ambitions as a Baptist minister. It wasn’t a problem for him.
King adopted an elite persona as he moved between his classes, the library and his apartments – first at 70 Botolph Street, then at 397 Massachusetts Ave., always in tailored suits He had no shortage of invitations to genteel concerts and teas. He owned his own Chevrolet.
One of his friends called him “the most eligible and popular bachelor in town.”
He set his sights on Coretta Scott, an Antioch College graduate who was studying to become a classical singer at the New England Conservatory of Music. He treated her to concerts and the theater and showered her with poetic prose.
They wed in 1953, and moved into a new apartment in Boston. They didn’t stay long. In September 1954 he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Nine months later, he would be awarded his Ph.D. from Boston University.
Let Freedom Ring
By then Martin, at 26, had been plunged into the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott. It ended on Dec. 20, 1956, when a court ruled the state’s segregation laws were unconstitutional. The boycott rocketed him to fame. In 1957 he would meet with President Eisenhower and form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would be arrested in Selma and Birmingham, he would deliver his “I Have a Dream” Speech before 250,000 people and he would win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 – the youngest ever to do so.
On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King would deliver his I Have a Dream speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His rhetoric of freedom came straight out of he American Revolution. “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality,” he said in the speech, alluding to ‘the winter of our discontent,’ in Tom Paine’s Common Sense.
He ended with a stirring call for the same thing the Boston revolutionaries called for: Freedom.
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
No Turning Around
In his last speech, delivered the night before he died, Martin Luther King combined words that John Adams had embedded in the Massachusetts Constitution with the lyrics of the freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.
…somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”
With thanks to the following books for this article: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley; Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable; and Parting the Waters: America in The King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch. This story last updated in 2022.