Two NWU Men Helped Shape the Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Chances are good the names “Edgar Sheffield Brightman” and “L. Harold DeWolf” mean very little to you.
But the names of these two Nebraska Wesleyan men meant a tremendous amount to one person whose name means as much to America’s history as any in the last 150 years: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Brightman began his teaching career at Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1912. By the 1950s, he was a star philosophy professor at Boston University whose work sparked a philosophical movement called Boston Personalism. King chose BU in part for the chance to study under Brightman.
King was one of his brightest philosophy students when Brightman died in 1953. After his favorite professor’s death, King needed a new mentor. He made the small leap from BU’s Philosophy Department to its School of Theology to work with another Boston Personalist, and, amazingly, another Nebraska Wesleyan product, DeWolf (’24).
“I studied philosophy and theology at Boston University under Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf,” King recorded in his personal papers. “Both men greatly stimulated my thinking. It was mainly under these teachers that I studied personalistic philosophy—the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. This personal idealism remains today my basic philosophical position.”
If Brightman was an intellectual force that helped draw King to his graduate study, DeWolf was a propelling force that pushed him to apply what he’d learned about personalism in King’s fight against segregation.
“King could be so enthusiastic in expressing his indebtedness to DeWolf and Brightman… because, long before his contact with Personalism, he had experienced some of the ways in which the evil of segregation systematically does violence to the human personality,” wrote John J. Ansbro in his 1982 book, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. “The very idea of separation offended his sense of dignity and self-respect. The first time he was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, he felt as if a curtain had been dropped on his selfhood.”
DeWolf would remain one of King’s friends and mentors throughout his life. He would, in fact, speak at King’s funeral after his assassination in 1968. “It was my privilege to teach Martin Luther King, to march with him in Mississippi, agonize and pray with him in the midst of the worst violence at St. Augustine, to spend many hours counseling with him, to go through great volumes of his private papers organizing them, to spend many days and nights at his home. I know the innermost thoughts of this man as deeply as I know [those] of any man on earth. It has been the highest privilege of my life, this personal friendship.”
Brightman and DeWolf hold a small place in American history thanks to their published work and their relationship with King. It’s rare for our greatest teachers to enjoy even these small footnotes. Yet it is not rare for great teachers to change the world. That happens every day, every time they influence us for the better.
*Look for an expansive article on Brightman and DeWolf’s influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring 2013 issue of Archways magazine.