Sunday, January 20, 2008

An Historical Footnote

“We don’t have school on Monday, because it’s Martin Luther King Day”, my six year old grandson announced. “Who was Martin Luther King?” I asked, curious what his first grade class was being taught. His eyes grew big. “Don’t you know who Martin Luther King was?” he said incredulously.

I told him that when his grandpa and I were married and his mommy was a baby, we were students at The Martin Luther King School for Social Change. As he gets older he’ll learn the rest.

It was a small school, a dozen or so students, founded by radical Quakers, American Gandhians, on the campus of Crozer Seminary outside of Philadelphia. It was an interesting place to be on April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated. It turned out that Dr. King was an alumni of Crozer Seminary, having gotten his Masters Degree there in 1951. The King School students, together with the Crozer Caucus of Black Seminarians (another dozen or so people), approached the Crozer administration to ask that Dr. King’s picture be hung in the Board Room. The room had a large rectangular dark wood conference table in the middle. The surrounding walls were hung with portraits of eminent alumni - all white.

Today this seems like such an obvious and certainly minimal request. In those days, it was controversial. They actually said no! It appeared that they were not proud of this alumni, that they did not want to acknowledge him as one of theirs, that he was too much of an agitator, a radical troublemaker. Negotiation and tense confrontation went on for a period of time.

Two years later, King School no longer existed and Crozer Seminary had merged with Colgate Rochester. On the present day website of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School they list an abundance of events for Martin Luther King Day, and talk about the life-changing legacy of the social gospel. Under history, the heading about Crozer’s move to affiliate with Colgate Rochester in 1970 reads “Martin Luther King, Jr’s Alma Mater Moves to Rochester.”

It is perhaps in the footnotes of history that its complexity takes shape. Crozer Seminary did want to be on the cutting edge of social change. That is why they shared their campus with The Martin Luther King School for Social Change in the first place. They appear to be carrying on that mission today, in their present incarnation. The people who made the unfortunate decision in 1968 are no longer around. We may never know the back story.

I hope that as my grandson grows older he will learn that Martin Luther King Day is about more than parades and a day off from school!

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