When the Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood heard that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been shot to death at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., he had personal reason to be devastated: The former seminary classmates had been friends for two decades.
But the Baltimore pastor had little time to process his own feelings.
“Everybody was so sad and angry, they began to burn houses and stores,” recalls Wood, now 98 and living in a retirement home in Pikesville. “We went out into the streets trying to calm them down. … It was a terrible time. … We had lost our leader, and we didn’t see there would come another one.”
Wood, who served as senior pastor of Providence Baptist Church in West Baltimore for 65 years, is a legend in his own right.
He’s also the last living member of King’s first graduate school class — a group of young men who graduated from the Crozer Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia in 1951.
To Wood, King will always be the brilliant, energetic young man with the mischievous streak he knew on campus as “Mike,” as much as the seminal civil rights figure he would become.
They met in 1948, when both enrolled at Crozer. They were two of 11 young black men in the first integrated class at the school, which was founded shortly after the Civil War.
Both were devout Christians who strongly opposed racial segregation on moral grounds. Beyond that, Wood says, they weren’t a whole lot alike.
King, 19, had just graduated from Morehouse College, the academically rigorous historically black school in Atlanta. His father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., was the successful and politically connected pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the influential congregation King Jr. would also lead.
Wood grew up on a small Virginia farm his grandparents had worked as slaves. When he was 17, his father sent him into the world with 25 cents and a pat on the back.
When he arrived at Crozer, he was 28, a married father and an experienced small-town pastor. But it took him no time at all to realize that King was a star in the making.
“He was really really a young man that we all looked up to,” Wood says. “We knew that he was going to be better than we were.”
Good-looking, well-dressed, and dedicated, King was intellectually curious, a fellow who “always had a book under his arm.”
Wood recalls him devouring the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr and other Christian social reformers. When King was in class, Wood says, he “often knew more than the teachers.”
King also had a gift for rallying others to a cause, and not just with his storied eloquence. Wood traced much of King’s persuasiveness to his musical nature.
He had grown up hearing two musically talented parents sing in church, soaking in hymns and spirituals, and learning how a good preacher can weave lyrics, song and physical movement into a spellbinding presentation.
“The boys,” as Wood calls his former classmates, were always impressed at the quality of King’s tenor voice, and the way he used gestures for effect.
At times they couldn’t decide how to react when he indulged in one of his favorite pastimes: belting out “I’ll Fly Away,” “I’m Going Home Someday” and other songs of the faith at top volume late at night.
“You’d hear him all over the dormitory,” Wood says. “These were the songs that he kept before us. And we were never tired of hearing them, because he brought them from the South with him. And he made use of them through his voice.”
Wood sensed a bit of crowing in the crooning.
“He was not only singing it for the group to hear him, but to hear himself sing and to let them know, ‘Boys, lay off if you can’t raise a tune. If you can’t bring it out, lay off.’ ”
“And the boys had to do that. ... There was no question about the fact that he was a born singer.”
King enjoyed jostling friends awake at night to ask whether they’d heard this or that new pop song.
Wood remembers one time when the young man’s prankster reputation almost backfired.
A classmate named Hall, a young white man from the South, never appreciated the way King and others entered people’s dorm rooms and stole their clothes.
One night Hall suffered just that fate. Convinced King was the culprit, he angrily accosted the young man.
Wood heard the ruckus and headed downstairs.
“I was nine years older than they were,” he says. “They respected me as a senior pastor. And [King] listened to me as I explained to them, ‘Boys, we’re here on this campus for the first time. We don’t want a bad name to go out [about] the first black students on the campus getting in a fight.’
“So we got them under control,” Wood recalls. “And life went on. And King and Hall became the greatest of friends.”
King, of course, would soon begin studying peaceful resistance in his own right — he studied Gandhi’s thought at Crozer — and later deployed it in the fight for equal rights.
Wood and others often told him he had a chance to change the world, that he was the kind of man who could finally bring about the end of racial discrimination in the U.S., a prospect that made him smile.
When they were ready to graduate, though, Wood pleaded with King not to return to the South, where the struggle for equal rights would surely be violent.
He also knew that King was in love with a young white woman named Betty Moitz, the daughter of a cafeteria worker, and even though he kept the relationship from his parents, he was telling friends he planned to marry her.
“I said that they will kill you,” Wood remembers. “They’ll hang you up on a pole. ... The prejudice is too heavy in the South for a black man to marry a white woman … or even to become a pastor of a church in the South.”
King’s response, according to Wood: “This is where I’m wanted — where I’m needed. … I want to tell the Southern man to wake up. It’s a new day a-coming.”
King did, of course, head South, though only after breaking up with Moitz at the urging of friends and mentors. He spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 — and the rest actually is history.
Wood and King stayed in touch, usually talking on the phone about how the movement was going. Wood attended early civil rights demonstrations in Baltimore, preached about equal rights, and worked to advance the causes of minorities, the elderly and the disabled in and around his church, then located at Edmondson and North Fremont avenues in the Upton neighborhood of West Baltimore.
King, he says, would pause in his travels and gather his old classmates together, often to encourage them to continue his fight even if something were to happen to him.
“He would tell [us] that the day was coming when he would not be on the scene,” Wood says. “And the time of his departure would soon be at hand. He knew that his day was coming … when somebody would pick him off. ... He knew that he would depart from this life.”
When that happened, Wood says, he was less surprised than devastated: His friend was gone, and it wasn’t clear where history would lead.
Half a century later, most of the laws that enforced racial segregation have been struck down, but Wood — who is still a co-pastor at Providence, now located on Pennsylvania Avenue in Upton — says we still haven’t reached a place where equality is second nature to everyone.
Just a week earlier, he says, he was the only black person in a restaurant. He heard employees say: “Put him over there.”
“There’s sort of a slick, sly way of letting you know you’re not wanted,” he says.
Still, if anyone taught him to be optimistic, it was King. Wood believes equality will arrive within two generations — and never would have without men like Mike.
“It takes centuries to change,” he says. “We’re doing it little by little ... But it’s coming.”