As a child King attended Atlanta Public Schools, first David T. Howard Elementary, then Booker T. Washington High School, where he was quarterback of the football team. In 1945, at the age of fifteen, he entered Atlanta's Morehouse College. Subsequently he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania and Boston University, where he earned his Ph.D. Because King lived a life informed by a complex intellectual understanding of the world, his educational influences deserve a place in his biography. A true picture of these, however, is difficult to sketch, because, later in his life, both he and his advocates presented multiple different pictures of his development, in order to strengthen his symbolic value as a leader. King was known to emphasize different influences, depending on his audience, focusing on white theologians and philosophers before white audiences, and black religious experience before black audiences. Whether or not one influence was more decisive than another, it is clear that both were highly formative.

At Morehouse College King was an unexceptional student, characterized by teachers as an underachiever. Intellectually unsatisfied by what he perceived as narrow-mindedness in the black southern Baptist church, he was not yet devoted to a life of service to God. He studied sociology and considered going into either law or medicine. At Morehouse King first read the essay Civil Disobedience by the American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and was reportedly quite moved by its emphasis of justice over law.

Also at Morehouse, King felt the influence of a friend of his father, the president of the school, Benjamin E. Mays. Mays began to reconcile King to the church. By the end of his time at Morehouse, King had decided that social action was his calling, and that religion was his best means toward that end. He gave his first public sermon at the age of seventeen, and was ordained a minister and served as assistant pastor to his father at Ebenezer Church.

In September 1948 King began his studies at Crozer, where, unlike at Morehouse, he excelled as a student. Crozer was the first integrated school King attended; he soon became the school's first African American student body president and later graduated at the top of his class. It was here that he awakened intellectually, reading voraciously, particularly in theology and secular philosophy; and it was here that he was exposed to currents of thought that guided his thinking for the rest of his life.

King read Plato, Aristotle, Luther, Locke, Kant, and Rousseau. Of especial influence were Hegel, from whom he took an understanding of the complexity of truth and history; Marx, who greatly affected his view of capitalism; Walter Rauschenbusch, whose notion of a social gospel–a church responsible for seeking social justice–King adopted, and Reinhold Niebuhr, whose pessimistic view of the corrupting influence of organizations on individuals King kept in mind later, as he gained prominence as a leader.

At a lecture at Crozer by A.J. Muste, a well-known American pacifist, King received his first exposure to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, which he would later adapt and employ, but which he initially regarded with some skepticism. Indeed, well into King's first bouts of activism he showed only a partial commitment to the philosophy of pacifism, carrying a gun during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Whether King began to adhere to the principles of non-violence at Crozer or a at a later point, however, the majority of his intellectual influences were in place by the time he graduated from Crozer in 1951 as a Bachelor of Divinity.

King undertook the final stage of his formal education at Boston University, to which he had won a fellowship on the basis of his performance at Crozer. At BU King refined his conception of God, incorporating tenets of personalism, a theological doctrine that stressed the personal nature of God and one's relationship to God, as well as the sanctity of human personality as a reflection of God's image. King's later rhetoric often incorporated these ideas. Although some critics have argued that King's doctoral thesis, entitled A Comparison of the Concepts of God in the Theology of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman, contained plagiarized passages, King successfully received his PhD in 1955.

One of the most important developments in King's life in Boston occurred outside the classroom. In 1951 he met Coretta Scott, his future wife, a fellow Southerner who was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. Initially Coretta had hesitations about being involved with a minister, but King was forthright in his courtship; indeed, on their first date he told her she had all the qualities he sought in a wife. They were married on 18 June 1953 by Martin Luther King, Sr., on the lawn of Coretta's family home in Marion, Alabama.

When King finished his coursework at BU, he took a post as the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was an established church of well-educated middle-class blacks with a history of civil rights protest activity. At first King had mixed feelings about the position and considered work elsewhere, possibly at a place in which he could teach as well as preach. His salary was the highest black ministerial salary in town, however, and Montgomery, as the old capital of the Confederacy and thus a bastion of racism, probably seemed a suitable testing ground for a practitioner of a social gospel. At the end of 1955 Coretta gave birth to a baby girl, Yolanda Denise, whose arrival may have contributed to the couple's decision to stay.

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