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The story of Martin Luther King’s white girlfriend

It took me a long time to find Betty Moitz.

I had first learned her full name while reading Bearing the Cross, the 1986 biography about Martin Luther King Jr., written by David Garrow. In the book, Garrow briefly describes a serious relationship between King and a young white woman around the same age, named Betty. They had met at Crozer Theological Seminary, in Chester, Pennsylvania, at the time, where King was a divinity student from the age of 19 until 22, when he graduated in May 1951. In Bearing the Cross, Garrow quoted a close friend and mentor of King’s at the time, Rev. Pius J. Barbour, who said the relationship had left King as a “man with a broken heart. He never recovered.”

In a way, I never recovered from that quote. As I wrote my own book about King, I wasn’t satisfied with such a short description of such an apparently devastating relationship. Garrow was the first biographer to discover Betty’s last name, and, fortunately for me, buried it in a heavyweight endnote at the back of the book. That endnote took me on two cross-country flights, spurred dozens of calls to wrong numbers and knocks on countless doors of people I thought might have known Betty. They didn’t, but I left my business card anyway, and eventually, one of those people found someone who might know Betty, and that person sent me an address, to which I sent a letter. It worked.

From the start, Moitz and King’s relationship was anything but carefree. Almost all of King’s friends, including Barbour, tried to discourage him from staying with Betty, knowing what an interracial relationship would mean for his future. “I thought it was a dangerous situation that could get out of hand, and if it did get out of hand it would smear King,” his Crozer classmate Cyril Pyle recalled in a 1986 interview. “It would make his future hard for him.”

But Betty recalls that time, and the young King, with fondness anyway. In our yearlong correspondence and one long meeting in January 2016, Betty, who recently passed away at the age of 89, told me the story of their relationship and just how close King came to walking away from his future plans for her. “We were madly, madly in love, the way young people can fall in love,” she told me during our conversation at her home.

She started at the beginning.

From a young age, Betty Moitz had a family connection to Crozer, where ML—as King was known at the time—was pursuing his studies before returning to his native Atlanta to follow in his father’s footsteps as a preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Moitz’s grandmother Elizabeth became the school’s dietitian in 1933. When she retired, Betty’s mother, Hannah Moitz, took over the position, and she kept it throughout ML’s years there. The family lived in a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home on the Crozer campus, and Betty graduated with honors from Eddystone High School, located only two miles away. Betty spent many days in her youth walking over to the kitchen to check on her mother, lend an extra hand or just hang around and chat.

Despite the constant exposure to their world, Betty had no intention of becoming a divinity student. She graduated from high school in 1946 and went directly to Moore College of Art, right across the river from the University of Pennsylvania. She was still a student at Moore in late 1948 when she paid one of her regular visits to her mother in the basement of Old Main, the main building on Crozer’s campus. This day was different, because Betty met someone new: a well-dressed, ambitious young man from Atlanta, Georgia, who was in his first year at the seminary and lived on the second floor of Old Main. He had a smooth voice and a sly smile.

At first, she and ML were just making small talk in Miss Hannah’s kitchen, nothing that would cause nearby students to turn their heads. But it continued. As they spoke on and off over the next few months, Betty learned about ML’s background and his tremendous hopes for the future. “Crozer was known as a very radical religious institution,” she told me, “so I was surprised to hear from ML himself [that he] had more conservative beliefs.”

ML’s own feelings for Betty were something he tried to keep secret. Though he’d even written to his mother about his other recent dating prospects, he would not have been at all eager to inform her that he was interested in a young white woman. Walter McCall, ML’s best friend and hall mate, who went by Mac, knew, of course, but he saw no harm in helping his best friend separate himself even further from racial norms they both believed were outdated. And though a few other students took note of ML and Betty’s friendly dialogue—it was, after all, a small world inside Old Main—no one seemed too bothered.

Fellow Crozer seminarian and King friend Marcus Wood in particular understood some of what spurred ML’s attraction. “I supposed he thought that, here I am out of the South now, and not back home,” Wood said in a 1986 interview, “out in the open, nothing illegal, a free place, sure I can go over and talk to this white girl.”

Throughout the course of ML’s first year at Crozer, his relationship with Betty continued to develop as their chats moved out of Miss Hannah’s basement kitchen. Soon, ML was also making the straight five-minute walk from Old Main to visit her at the Moitz home. “He used to go over their house quite often to see her,” Wood wrote in his 1998 memoir.

ML felt at ease with Betty. It was the enthusiasm with which he spoke on a wide range of topics that first attracted her. “He would talk, and talk and talk,” Betty says. At first they discussed his time in the South and how different it was from the idealized culture within the seminary. He didn’t yet know how but, according to Betty, “one thing ML knew at age 19 was that he could change the world.”

When ML returned to school the following fall of 1949, his and Betty’s relationship continued to blossom—but this was also when the difficulties began for the young couple.

By this point, they had become more comfortable on campus, sitting on benches and talking about their plans and goals for the future in full view of ML’s classmates and teachers. When asked if she had concerns about how they might be seen, Betty shrugs. “I never noticed. I always had a tan and dark brown hair.” But the 20-year-old ML was more aware of the potential social fallout.

It’s important to note that in 1949, interracial relationships were still very much taboo in the United States. Fewer than 40 miles from Crozer was the state of Maryland, where the first law against interracial marriage was enacted in 1664; the state would keep similar laws on its books for more than 300 years. Even in 1958, a Gallup poll would report that an astounding 94 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage.

Pennsylvania was one of the most flexible states when it came to “miscegenation” laws. Still, that didn’t mean ML and Betty could head over to a local café and hold hands out in the open. Members of the Crozer community, despite their liberalism, would have had trouble throwing their support behind such an arrangement. They weren’t against it, but they weren’t exactly for it, either. Glares, scoffs and head shakes were inevitable. Cyril Pyle, ML’s classmate from Panama who worried about the relationship “smearing” King, worked in the kitchen and dining hall and witnessed ML and Betty getting closer. “I knew about it, thought it was bad, but I didn’t want to get involved.”

Soon, their “dates” mainly consisted of Betty driving ML around the city of Chester, ignoring the scowls of society. “I listened,” Betty says, “and he’d just talk and talk.” But she loved it—his enthusiasm, his anxious hopes “to return South and help people. He was wonderful—a joy to be with and listen to.”

When ML’s sister Christine came to visit him at Crozer, as she did regularly, his friendship with Betty crept back into the shadows. It wasn’t that ML didn’t trust Christine—their relationship had always been strong—it was the fact that Christine was a direct conduit to their mother, and that was something ML could not risk. Telling his sister about Betty would have meant putting her in the unenviable position of withholding important information from her mother in every letter and phone call home. And if Christine were to let slip that ML had been getting closer to a white woman, ML could only imagine the disappointment in his mother’s eyes. Betty knew about these concerns: “He was worried what she’d think,” she recalls.

Over the course of ML’s second year, his relationship with Betty grew closer—and more public. From chats in Miss Hannah’s kitchen and around campus, the couple had progressed to hanging out with Mac, ML’s friend Horace Whitaker, known as Whit, and others in the recreation room down the hall from the kitchen. Betty would watch as ML and his friends played pool. “The men who worked in the kitchen and dining room used to go down to shoot pool or play table tennis every evening after dinner,” she remembers. “I was surprised how well [ML] played.”

And their private time together was no longer limited to Betty driving ML around Chester. “We did go out on dates,” Betty says. “He was always trying to get me to go with him to restaurants in Chester. I was embarrassed to let him know I had never been to any of those places. In those days, who went to restaurants?”

ML would have known that dining at a predominantly white restaurant was a risky proposition, not only for himself but for Betty as well, but their relationship was a way for him to test the limits of northern culture. Such boundary-pushing becomes easier when one starts to fall in love, and according to Betty, that’s exactly what was happening.

Many of ML’s classmates could see how enamored he’d become. “King was extremely fond of her,” Marcus Wood recalls. “But he was also rather proud of the fact that he was able to socialize openly with a white girl.”

“There were people who knew about them,” Whit said—himself among them—but “they didn’t flagrantly show their feelings toward each other.”

ML could only trust one friend with his feelings toward Betty, and that was Mac. Around this time, ML and Betty went into Philadelphia with Mac and his girlfriend at the time, policewoman Pearl E. Smith. The four headed back to Pearl’s home, and there was a moment when Betty and Pearl were speaking to each other in the kitchen. “They didn’t tell her anything about me,” Betty says.

Pearl, who was black, measured Betty up. It was true, Betty was tan, and Pearl gave her a nod of approval: “You know, you could pass.” Mac overheard what Pearl said and, according to Betty, “rolled on the floor, laughing.“

ML’s friends sensed how serious he was getting about Betty Moitz, and all of them, except for Mac, worried about how this would affect his future plans. According to Marcus Wood, “The more we warned [ML] that marriage was out of the question—especially if he hoped to become a pastor in the south—the more he refused to ‘break off’ the potentially controversial relationship.”

ML’s counterargument had two components. The first, of course, was the obvious one: He loved Betty. She listened to him, supported him and greatly admired his ambitions. He could see himself marrying her. The second was a symbolic component: Wouldn’t their union also be a powerful statement that barriers can be brought down? It could serve as living proof of his belief in the idea of social integration. Late one night, after making out with Betty on a bench near Old Main, a smitten ML headed over to Horace Whitaker’s apartment. Whit, while in the same graduating class, was a decade older than ML and was already married, with one child. ML needed guidance, and though he trusted Mac, it was time to turn to an older and more settled friend.

“They were very serious,” Whit remembered, “although he was young.” Whit felt a certain sense of dread in telling ML to deny his feelings toward Betty: “I’m not saying he wasn’t mature enough for that kind of experience, but I remember talking to him about that kind of marital situation … and we had talked about it from the standpoint that if he intended going back to the South and pastoring at a local church, that that might not be an acceptable kind of relationship in a black Baptist church, and I think he would be valuing that in light of whether or not it was a workable situation, knowing his own particular sense of call.”

Eight years later, King himself would say in a sermon that “there is more integration in the entertaining world, in sports arenas, than there is in the Christian church.” That was the reality Whit was urging his friend to consider. Would ML’s predominantly black congregation fully accept it if their preacher had a white wife? Was Betty prepared to handle life as the spouse of a black southern minister? Or was ML willing to give up on returning to the South? Could he be content to remain in the North and obtain a position in academia, contributing to the southern cause in some other way?

The only time King ever made a reference to Betty in public comes from a 1964 MLK biography by Lerone Bennett, titled What Matter of Man. In it, Bennett masks the quote with a tricky set of pronouns, so the source of it is unclear. King, then a married father, is quoted as saying: “She liked me and I found myself liking her. But finally I had to tell her resolutely that my plans for the future did not include marriage to a white woman.”

While we already knew the decision King ultimately reached about Betty, we didn’t know how he struggled with it throughout his time at Crozer. He was clearly old enough and mature enough to know even at the time that his decision on Betty would change the course of his life. And perhaps he even had a small idea of what his life would mean for the course of history.

Excerpt adapted from The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Patrick Parr with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright © 2018 by Patrick Parr. All rights reserved.

 

Source: Politico || Patrick Parr

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