How Martin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Public Speaking–Before Becoming a Straight‑A Student and a World Class Orator

How many Amer­i­cans have nev­er heard the name of Mar­tin Luther King Jr.? And indeed, gone more than half a cen­tu­ry though he may be, how many Amer­i­cans have nev­er heard his voice, or can’t quote his words? Long though King will doubt­less stand as an exam­ple of the Eng­lish lan­guage’s great­est 20th-cen­tu­ry ora­tors, he once showed scant aca­d­e­m­ic promise in that depart­ment. Tweet­ing out an image of his tran­script from Croz­er The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, where King earned his Bach­e­lor of Divin­i­ty, Har­vard’s Sarah Eliz­a­beth Lewis notes that King “received two Cs in pub­lic speak­ing,” and “actu­al­ly went from a C+ to a C the next term.”

Still, that beat the marks King had pre­vi­ous­ly received at More­house Col­lege. In an arti­cle for The Jour­nal of Blacks in High­er Edu­ca­tion, Stan­ford’s Clay­borne Car­son quotes reli­gion pro­fes­sor George D. Kelsey as describ­ing King’s record there as “short of what may be called ‘good,’ ” but also adding that King came “to real­ize the val­ue of schol­ar­ship late in his col­lege career.” This ear­ly under­achieve­ment may have been a con­se­quence of King’s entrance into col­lege at the young age of fif­teen, which was made pos­si­ble by More­house­’s offer­ing its entrance exam to junior high school­ers, its stu­dent body hav­ing been deplet­ed by enlist­ment in the Sec­ond World War.

But King “prob­a­bly real­ized that he would have to become more dili­gent in his stud­ies if he were to suc­ceed at the small Bap­tist insti­tu­tion in Chester, Penn­syl­va­nia, a small town south­west of Philadel­phia,” writes Car­son. “Evi­dent­ly wish­ing to break with the relaxed atti­tude he had had toward his More­house stud­ies,” he “quick­ly immersed him­self in Croz­er’s intel­lec­tu­al envi­ron­ment” and adopt­ed a mien of high seri­ous­ness. “If I were a minute late to class, I was almost mor­bid­ly con­scious of it,” King lat­er recalled. “I had a ten­den­cy to over­dress, to keep my room spot­less, my shoes per­fect­ly shined, and my clothes immac­u­late­ly pressed.”

The young King even­tu­al­ly rose to the role in which he’d cast him­self, thanks in part to the rig­or of cer­tain pro­fes­sors who knew what to expect from him. Apart from the sole minus blem­ish­ing his grade in “Chris­tian­i­ty and Soci­ety,”  his tran­script for 1950–51 shows straight As. “By the time of his grad­u­a­tion,” Car­son writes, “King’s intel­lec­tu­al con­fi­dence was rein­forced by the expe­ri­ence of hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly com­pet­ed with white stu­dents dur­ing his Croz­er years.” Named stu­dent body pres­i­dent and class vale­dic­to­ri­an, “he was also accept­ed for doc­tor­al study at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty’s School of The­ol­o­gy, where he would be able to work direct­ly with the per­son­al­ist the­olo­gians he had come to admire.” Even then, one sus­pects, King knew the real work lay ahead of him — and well out­side the acad­e­my, at that.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Used Niet­zsche, Hegel & Kant to Over­turn Seg­re­ga­tion in Amer­i­ca

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s Hand­writ­ten Syl­labus & Final Exam for the Phi­los­o­phy Course He Taught at More­house Col­lege (1962)

Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Explains the Impor­tance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (1964)

Albert Einstein’s Grades: A Fas­ci­nat­ing Look at His Report Cards

Famous Writ­ers’ Report Cards: Ernest Hem­ing­way, William Faulkn­er, Nor­man Mail­er, E.E. Cum­mings & Anne Sex­ton

John Lennon’s Report Card at Age 15: “He Has Too Many Wrong Ambi­tions and His Ener­gy Is Too Often Mis­placed”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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