Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood and Education

Surprising Facts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood
and Education

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1964

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1964

  • King’s birth name was not Martin Luther. When he was born in 1929, King was named after his father, Michael King. When King’s father attended a conference for Baptist ministers in Germany, he decided to legally change his name to Martin Luther, and his son’s name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Despite growing up during the Depression, King said that his family had enough money. His father, Martin Luther King Sr. was a pastor and his congregation respected him so much that they refused to see their leader’s family go hungry.
  • Although he grew up in the South, King didn’t experience violent racial prejudice. Atlanta offered education for African Americans through black colleges. There were also social bonds formed at church where his father preached. Though blacks and whites didn’t attend the same schools or share seats on buses, Atlanta was one of the few places in the South where both blacks and whites could dream about a better life.
  • King’s father taught him to talk back to whites. One day when the two of them were walking in the street, a policeman called King’s father “boy.” His father turned to the policeman, pointed at his son and said “No, that’s a boy.”
  • Martin Luther King Jr. was smart but didn’t get good grades in school. Even in college, King preferred going parties and dances instead of doing homework.
  • King worried about what white people thought of him. When he decided to attend a seminary in the North, King had white classmates. King admitted that “I was well aware of the typical white stereotype, and for a while I was terribly conscious of trying to avoid identification with it.” The stereotype said that blacks were lazy, stupid, and unclean. At the seminary King’s grades improved and he dressed well. Some people said he was vain.
  • Though he was ahead of his time in other ways, King thought a woman’s place was in the home. When he met his future wife Coretta Scott at school, he made it clear that he wanted her to raise their kids and keep house even though she was smart and politically active in college.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Champion for Youth

During the Depression, young people had little hope of finding work or attending college. In 1934 Eleanor Rooseveltshowed concern for 3 million unemployed youth. She said, “I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary.”

Eleanor Roosevelt's school portrait

Eleanor Roosevelt’s school portrait

Eleanor’s wish came true through a new government agency—The National Youth Administration. By 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt had received several proposals for youth aid programs. He gave these proposals to a private group, which included the future chairman of the NYA and Eleanor. The group advocated scholarship aid for high school and college students as well as a work program for youth who had graduated or dropped out. FDR established the NYA by Executive Order on June 26, 1935.

There was no greater supporter of the program during its eight year existence than Eleanor Roosevelt. She pressed the head of the NYA to do more during the NYA’s first year and received monthly reports on the status of youth projects.

Eleanor wrote extensively about the NYA in her newspaper column, “My Day.” She kept the country informed of the NYA’s progress by describing her visits to NYA project sites. On a trip to L.A., for example, Eleanor noted that the wood-working and sewing projects were set up like a real factory so that the boys and girls who worked there would be better prepared when they found full-time employment. Her visits to youth projects spanned the country. History Professor Margaret Rung points out that though Eleanor could be a controversial figure, her columns developed generally positive publicity for the NYA. Without her support, the program could have been marginalized.

Her columns reveal that Eleanor was not only interested in observing NYA projects, but she also attended NYA committee meetings. Eleanor invited both administrators and students to her Hyde Park, New York, home to discuss issues within the program. Through her invitations she gave everyone involved in the NYA a chance to be heard by someone who had direct access to the president.

Although Eleanor wanted the NYA to become a permanent organization, she realized its limitations. She wrote, “here, before our eyes, we see the proof that we have learned how to give these youngsters training…Yet, we have only developed this program for a limited number. The  NYA should cover every boy and girl coming out of school who is not able to obtain work in private industry, or who is not called to service under the selective draft.”

The NYA did not become a permanent program and could not cover all youth, but its accomplishments were aided by Eleanor’s enthusiasm. During the NYA’s eight year existence, 2,134,000 youth had the opportunity to continue their education. Students in the school program did clerical work, remodeled buildings, worked in libraries, and became lab assistants to earn money for school supplies and clothes. Students in the out-of-school program were often involved in construction work, but had other options such as clerical and agricultural training.

By 1942 work programs focused on producing materials needed in World War II. Students learned industrial sewing and how to repair planes and radios. In her column Eleanor shared a letter that five girls who worked on radios wrote to the director of the Kansas NYA after finding jobs: “On average we are making $50 a month and for the five of us it doesn’t cost very much for rent or groceries…The spirit of cooperation and working together [from their NYA experience] is largely responsible for the way we are getting along so well up here.”

Eleanor grieved when the NYA ended. She felt that young people would need job training after the war. By supporting the agency during its existence, however, she enabled millions of youth to earn wages during the nation’s worst economy.