As a biographer of Martin Luther King, Jr., Patrick Parr reminds me of Bernard D. Sadow, the man who patented the first wheeled suitcases in the ’70s. In hindsight, Sadow’s idea seems like a no-brainer, yet somehow no one had thought of it before. In The Seminarian, Parr gives us the biographical equivalent of the wheeled suitcase. He takes the reader through a vital and decisive phase of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life virtually unexplored by other biographers in the half century since King’s death: the years in which King, as a young man, formed the views which would inform and define his actions as America’s most iconic and influential civil rights activist.
The book mostly covers King’s time as a student at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951. King’s exposure to northern society – radically different from his hometown of Atlanta – as well as the academic environment there and the friendships he formed with classmates would all prove essential in shaping his worldview. As distinct from those biographies which focus on King after he had embarked upon his crusade for racial equality, Parr details the proximate causes for King’s decision to not simply go back to Atlanta to work as a minister under his minister father’s tutelage, but rather to act as an agent for large-scale social change.
Neither a hero-worshipping accolade nor an attempt at debunking admiration of his subject, Parr shows us a warts-and-all, very human King going through adolescence and young adulthood, a time when King was not a national figure but one of the earliest black seminarians admitted to Crozer. We see a young man trying to navigate his way through a new school environment; responding to the challenge of academic skepticism applied to religious faith; struggling to get out from under the shadow of his successful and domineering father; an idealist with a deep sense of justice, incensed and frustrated at being the object of racism; a guy who smoked and played pool with his friends.
Parr additionally covers a couple of the more controversial elements of his subject’s life. He presents indisputable evidence that King’s penchant for academic plagiarism was not confined only to his doctoral dissertation, but was rather a habit he had begun at least as early as his time at the seminary. Also shown are King’s incipient views on communism versus capitalism, which were much more nuanced and conflicted than believed by those who would paint him as a hardcore Marxist.
Perhaps the most interesting point for many readers will be a description of the short-lived romance between King and Betty Moitz, a young white woman, at a time when such relationships were widely considered taboo. (Almost miraculously, and unique among King’s biographers, Parr was able to track Moitz down for an interview just a few months before she passed away at age 89.) It would be untenable to assume that this phase of King’s life had no effect on his views about race relations in America, and thus is, along with this entire account of King’s seminary days, a vital element in any attempt to construct as accurate as possible a picture of the man’s life and work.
Written in a smooth and eminently readable style and providing unprecedented and important material, The Seminarian is certainly a go-to book for anyone researching King’s life. It’s also a highly interesting work of non-fiction for the general reader, or anyone interested in the life of America’s most famous civil rights leader.