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King’s Chester Years

In an excerpt from the bestselling King: A Life, the iconic moral leader attends Chester’s Crozer Theological Seminary, takes part in his first civil rights confrontation (in a Maple Shade, New Jersey bar!) and loses his heart … to a White woman

King’s Chester Years

In an excerpt from the bestselling King: A Life, the iconic moral leader attends Chester’s Crozer Theological Seminary, takes part in his first civil rights confrontation (in a Maple Shade, New Jersey bar!) and loses his heart … to a White woman

Martin Luther King Jr.’s genius in later years would be his ability to deliver messages that inspired Black and White listeners alike, messages that made racial justice sound like an imperative for all, messages that crossed lines of theology and geography, that suggested both sides needed to act if the racial divide were ever to be erased without violence. He knew from his childhood in Atlanta and from the stories told by his parents and grandparents that America was the product of Black and White culture, the product of the conflict and mixture of different people. Crozer [Theological Seminary in Chester] helped him find the right words and the right tone so that he could one day explain his diagnosis clearly and passionately to audiences of every race.

“I guess it must have been a gift from God,” his mother once said of her son’s talent. “I don’t think anybody taught him. Can you be taught to preach? I didn’t think you could.”

Yet Crozer helped. At Crozer, King read Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham Mill, Nietzsche, and, during the Christmas holidays of 1949, Marx. King had already written and spoken of his doubts about the fairness of capitalism and the gap it created between the rich and poor. He had problems with communism, too, primarily because of its secular and materialistic foundation. “This I could never accept,” he wrote, “for as a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in the universe who is the ground and essence of all reality — a power that can not be explained in materialistic terms.” History, he concluded, was guided by the spirit, not matter.

On June 11, 1950, King and Walter McCall attended a Sunday-evening church service. When it was over, they drove to Mary’s Cafe, a tavern near Maple Shade, New Jersey, accompanied by McCall’s girlfriend and her roommate. By the time they arrived, it was after midnight. They asked for two bottles of beer and four glasses. But the bartender, a German immigrant, refused to serve them, saying it was against the law to sell packaged liquor on Sunday or any day after 10pm. McCall asked for draft beer instead, but the bartender still refused. When McCall asked for ginger beer, the bartender grew angry. He drew a .45, stepped outside, fired in the air, and then returned to the bar and cursed McCall and the others.

“King was extremely fond of her,” said his friend Marcus Wood. “But he was also rather proud of the fact that he was able to socialize openly with a White girl.”

King’s group fled to a nearby police station, where they made a report. Later, King and McCall filed charges against the bartender for violating New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws, among the first in the nation, alleging that they’d been denied service because they were Black. The local chapter of the NAACP agreed to represent them, saying the case would be part of a larger drive against public places that refused service to Black customers. In a front-page story, The Philadelphia Tribune named King as one of the complainants, referring to him as Michael.

The bartender went to court on a weapons-possession charge the same day that King’s brother, A.D., had planned to get married in Atlanta. On the morning of the wedding, M.L., still in Pennsylvania, called and asked his brother to postpone the ceremony. A.D. was angry. His father had always made him feel inferior to his brother. Once again, he was being asked to defer to M.L., and yet he agreed. The bartender was found guilty and fined $50. King and McCall dropped the discrimination case when some of the customers in the tavern refused to testify before a grand jury.

Years later, King would compare his encounter with the bartender to sit-ins that swept across the South, when Black students demanded service at whites-only lunch counters and restaurants. He also strongly suggested that he and his friends had chosen Mary’s Cafe to test the state’s integration laws.

“They refused to serve us,” King said. “It was a painful experience because we decided to sit in.”

McCall described it as King’s “first civil rights struggle.” It also marked one of his earliest lessons in the limits of northern liberalism.

“Madly, madly in love”

King dated his first and only White girlfriend at Crozer. Her name was Amelia Elizabeth Moitz.

Betty, as everyone called her, was two years older than King. She and her family lived on campus. Betty’s father was an electrician; her mother was the school’s cook and dietician, having taken over the position from her own mother. Betty had one more connection to Crozer: before dating King, she had been the steady girlfriend of a professor there, Kenneth Lee “Snuffy” Smith, a White Baptist from Virginia. When King met Betty in the Crozer kitchen, he almost certainly knew that Betty had been dating Smith; romantic liaisons on such a small campus were almost impossible to hide. But Betty took a quick liking to King — his elegant wardrobe, his soothing smile, his warm laugh, his confidence — and she soon dropped the professor.

At first, some of King’s friends thought his interest in Betty Moitz grew from the novelty and boldness of dating a White woman. “King was extremely fond of her,” said his friend Marcus Wood. “But he was also rather proud of the fact that he was able to socialize openly with a White girl.”

King continued dating other young women, including several in Atlanta. But as his studies continued, so did his romance with Betty Moitz. The couple made little effort to hide their relationship during King’s second year on campus. The sweethearts sat together on park benches, held hands, and took drives in Betty’s car. M.L. told Betty about his plans to return to the South and fight for justice for his people, something they both knew would be impossible with a White spouse. “I listened,” Betty recalled in an interview decades later, “and he’d just talk and talk.”

When Christine King visited her brother at Crozer, she did not meet or hear about Betty. Decades later, when Christine did learn about Betty, she said her brother had been more worried about their mother’s reactions to the relationship than their father’s. M.L. had defied his father every time he had sipped alcohol, smoked a cigarette, shot a game of pool, attended a dance, or suggested he might grow up to be something other than a preacher — but defying his mother was another matter. It was Alberta to whom he turned for advice, Alberta with whom he could gab for hours on the phone, Alberta with whom he shared laughs, and Alberta whose approval he craved when the issues were most personal.

King was deeply saddened by his breakup with Betty Moitz. Barbour described him as  “a man of a broken heart,” adding: “He never recovered.”

Once Christine had gone, Betty no longer hid. She tagged along as M.L. played table tennis and shot pool with classmates. “We were madly, madly in love,” she recalled, “the way young people can fall in love.”

King asked his friends what they thought might happen if he and Betty were to marry. He would almost certainly not be able to lead a church in the South. If he had to remain in the North, would he be happy there? Ambitious young ministers of King’s generation understood that a good early marriage could help one’s career. It offered proof of maturity and commitment for congregations in search of new leaders. In fact, King told a friend he hoped to be married within a year of graduation from Crozer, although he did not say to whom.

“He wanted to marry her,” said James Beshai, King’s classmate, “but his father told him it would create obstacles for him.”

One day King brought Betty to the home of his mentor, the Reverend J. Pius Barbour. He asked Barbour, for the sake of argument, why he and Betty shouldn’t be married right then and there, with Barbour officiating. Barbour argued that society would never accept an interracial marriage, even if Pennsylvania law allowed it, and that King’s decision would wreck his career regardless of whether he lived in the North or the South. King argued that perhaps love was more important than society’s prejudiced views or one man’s career ambitions.

As she listened, Betty understood how little support King would receive from family and friends if they were to wed. Eventually, King ended the relationship.

“She liked me and I found myself liking her,” he explained years later to one writer. “But finally I had to tell her resolutely that my plans for the future did not include marriage to a White woman.”

Betty left Chester before the end of King’s final year at Crozer. King dated other women. On the morning of his graduation, he phoned Barbour to say that several women were planning to attend the graduation ceremony, each one expecting to be introduced to King’s parents as his fiancee. King asked Barbour to sit with them in the hopes that others would think they were members of Barbour’s congregation. Still, Barbour said, King was deeply saddened by his breakup with Betty Moitz. Barbour described him as “a man of a broken heart,” adding: “He never recovered.”

Harry Belafonte, who became King’s close friend years later, seconds the point. King never stopped thinking about Betty Moitz, never stopped talking about her, especially with Belafonte, who had married a White woman. King marveled at the way society had accepted Belafonte’s marriage, although he surely knew that standards were different for a Baptist preacher in the South than they were for a celebrated entertainer who spent most his time in New York and Hollywood and who enjoyed popularity with Black and White audiences.

But those were rational thoughts, and King’s feelings were emotional. Betty Moitz, according to Belafonte, had been King’s “true love.”

Betty went on to become an interior decorator and an antique dealer. She married in 1955 and had three children.

“I wouldn’t say he was broken-hearted,” she recalled decades later. “I would say he was probably more angry that he would have feelings for someone and he couldn’t go ahead and do what he wanted to do because of the race situation.”

Excerpt from King: A Life, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Eig.



Header photo: MLK at the Civil Rights March on Washington

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