It was a hard class in the sense that there was a lot of reading and understanding great thinkers. It was relaxed in that it was more like a conversation rather than a lecture. It was hard in that we had to come to grips with nonviolence as more than just a political tactic. He wanted us to understand it was a way of living and bringing about change. Right at the moment when you would rather reach out and strike out, you actually had to be still. That's what so angered the whites in the South. We were justified in retaliating and hitting, but we wouldn't. So then to go in and read about Gandhi and his life in a totally different culture using the same kinds of methods and seeing the same results ... that was a strong argument to me that it was effective.
I do remember the paper I wrote for him. I got a B on it. Yes, I still have it. It's in a box someplace. I was surprised to see that he read and graded it himself.
Generally though, it was fun, I don't remember being apprehensive or anything. If anything, we were generally wide-eyed and very present and we were so wanting to change the world. We didn't really know we were in the midst of a man who in the future would be considered great. We knew he was a man with a vision, sure, but he seemed so ordinary and so down to earth and he was so easy to talk to, even more than some of my other professors. I mean we respected and admired him, but we never dreamed that he would become a Nobel Prize winner or that he would become a martyr. He was not a puffed-up man.
When you are in college there sometimes is a dynamic where it's like "I am a professor and you are the lowly student." It wasn't like that. He was always so humble, and to see where he went in life, it was so amazing to me. He definitely had the charisma and there was something about him, but we sat with him. We talked with him. We were comfortable with him. I did have other professors that we were all in awe of, but it wasn't like that with him. We knew he was smart and he was sincere about what he was doing. I don't remember him having many notes when he taught, but he knew the subject of nonviolence so well.
Later on I got very involved in the peace movement and I remember marching at the White House. People from all over the country came to protest against Vietnam and JFK was there. My mother saved all the newspaper clippings. It was an exciting time, but it was also cold since it was February. I remember JFK sent out hot chocolate to us and he stood behind the fence and talked to us.
Spelman was such a good place for me. My senior year I had a class with (the famous liberal historian) Howard Zinn. I was his only student in the class. He took me and some of my friends to a Joan Baez concert, and I absolutely love her 'til this day. A bunch of us were always at his house on campus talking about issues, and we'd get to meet people like the visiting Russian professor he had over.
It was like that at Spelman. The Rockefellers came and we were invited to have lunch with them and all these different people. I felt extremely privileged to have lived in that time. I look back and say, "Wow, if we had only known we were ordinary people living in extraordinary times." We didn't see ourselves as heroes or anything. We saw ourselves as doing what needed to be done.
Benjamin D. Berry Jr: 'They literally locked him in the closet'
When he died in October 2011, Benjamin D. Berry Jr. was a professor of history and African-American studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. Educated at Morehouse and Harvard, he began his career as a minister with his wife, Linda, by his side.
They were married 47 years, had four children and were dedicated to the social gospel:- helping the poor and fighting racial injustice. Linda Berry tells her husband's story and discusses the mark King's class left and their friendship with the man they call "M.L.":
I didn't actually meet (my husband) until he was a seminary student at Harvard, so it was after the class he took with M.L., I'm afraid. He did bring up what that class was like, though. He said he only remembered two other people being in there -- Julian Bond and someone else. He couldn't remember the others, but at any rate he said he recalls that the class met once a week and they did an immense amount of reading, and in between they would sit and talk and talk. M.L. didn't really lecture. Instead, he used the Socratic method and drew out of them what the readings were.
I did know Dr. King and met him because A.D. Williams King (Dr. King's younger brother) was pastoring a church in Louisville when we were there. M.L. would come to visit A.D. and his wife, and we would go over for dinner. The most important thing I can say about Dr. King was that he was human. He was immensely human and had a great sense of humor. A.D. was hysterical, too. My husband had a good sense of humor. He had to -- he put up with me for all those years.
Now back at Morehouse, he was involved in the civil rights movement, even early on. But he was not as involved during the high time of the movement because Ben spent his junior year abroad in France. When they had the really big march in Atlanta, the guys in his fraternity knew he wanted to go, but they didn't let him go to the march. That's because he was supposed to go to Europe the week later. They literally locked him in the closet. They knew if he went he could face expulsion and it was a very positive thing in their mind that he was going to study abroad. His fraternity brothers who shoved him in the closet thought that really was as important as the march.
One thing he really got from Dr. King and in the development of his faith at Harvard was his real devotion to the social gospel and the idea that true belief manifested itself in clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
Charles A. Black: 'It was generally pretty boring'
Charles A. Black was involved in organizing so many sit-ins his nickname became "Sit Down Black." His friend and fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond says Black still leaves voice mail messages using that moniker.
After college, he went on to run a consulting business with Bond and other civil rights leaders like John Lewis and Lonnie King. It helped supply a more diverse workforce to government offices. Today he continues his civil rights work, in addition to acting and voice work for TV and films.
What I remember about the class is that it met for two hours in the afternoon not even for a full year. My ex-wife told me I had to stop saying this, but I thought at the time it was generally pretty boring. We'd sit in a circle and Dr. King, he had this horrible monotone; it was nothing like how he sounded when he was giving a speech. But he would use this horrible monotone and would talk about all this heavy material, and it was after lunch so I know I'd get tired.
I think in a way having him teach a class, it was Morehouse's way to give him some income and give him something to do. You know how poor he was. He really didn't make much money at all, so this was at least some steady income.
I think there was an emphasis in the class more on multinational philosophy folks like Gandhi and it contextualized the philosophy of what we were doing with our protests. Looking at the great thinkers like Plato and Socrates and Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, this was a concept that had been around for a long time, and it was grounded in something much bigger than us. This was really at the core of all his great speeches. I do remember a good debate about Machiavelli and talking about do the ends justify the means. Dr. King disagreed; he said the end is inherent in the means. Nonviolence wasn't just about a philosophy; it was about what is right.