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.
(During the boycotts) we targeted Rich's since they were the highest profile department store at the time. At the time Rich's said that the protest wasn't a big deal, but I learned later that they lost $10 million in sales that year. That was a lot of money back in the '60s. Hundreds of people closed their accounts or sent us their Rich's credit card so they wouldn't use it. They didn't know us from Adam's house cat, but still they sent them in to us. We put them in the bank deposit box.
We were encouraged to do another group of protests, but it was getting on Easter and the merchants really wanted us to shop downtown again and there were all these businesses that had black owners that wanted the shoppers to come back. There was a real split in the community. The older people in the movement wanted us to give in and call it quits.
Lonnie, Julian, and I knew what we needed to do. I said we need to get Martin Jr. here. He had just been in Alabama and he was sick with a terrible flu. He was at home and he didn't want to come in. But we called and convinced him that he had to be here. He said exactly the right thing. You would have thought that he walked on water after that. In my opinion, that was the best speech he had ever made. He brought us together. He said we could not afford the luxury of discounting the boycott. And the boycott did continue.
Julian Bond: 'I'm so ashamed I didn't take notes'
He was the first African-American nominated as vice president, although he was too young to accept. He was an outspoken member of the Georgia Legislature. He's even hosted "Saturday Night Live." But long before any of that, Julian Bond helped lead one of the first student sit-ins in Atlanta, where he was a student of King. To explain the protests, he and other students, including Charles Black, wrote "An Appeal for Human Rights," which ran as a full-page ad in the Atlanta newspapers and The New York Times.
At the March on Washington, Bond passed out copies of John Lewis' speech, which movement leaders made him tone down for fear of offending the president. Listed as "Horace J. Bond" on the roster for King's class, he disagrees with his old friend and classmate Charles Black. He didn't think King was a "little boring." To him the class was a good philosophical grounding for a life's work in civil rights.
I wouldn't call it boring, not at all; it was a survey course on the great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. My memory of the class was not a strict study of the philosophers, though. We read them -- there was an awful lot of reading -- but mostly the class would use them as a kind of jumping off point to then talk about the civil rights movement and about what happened in Montgomery. I'm so ashamed I didn't take notes. A lot of my memory of the specifics of the class has all vanished.
(King) was certainly known, but he was not nearly as famous then as he became, and he certainly didn't act like a famous person. That was my feeling in being in that class and listening to him. He was important. He definitely seemed like an important person, and he was important in my life. I knew even at the time that I was privileged to learn from him, but he never made us feel as if he was that important. That's not what it was about.
When we started our plans (for the sit-in protest), I talked it over with my parents. They were a little worried about it. I remember my parents always told us growing up that whatever you do, don't get arrested. Getting arrested is like getting a tattoo on your forehead, they said; you will not get a job. Turned out that wasn't completely true. Thankfully.
While we were training and building toward sitting in, Dr. Rufus Clement -- who was the president of Atlanta University and the collection of black colleges -- heard about it. On campus you can't have any secrets, I learned. And he called us into his office. He said, "I can't stop you, but you ought to tell people why you are doing this." So together with a couple of other students we wrote the statement ("An Appeal for Human Rights").