Throwback Thursday: When JFK and MLK Received Degrees from Boston University

On June 5, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. earned his doctorate while John F. Kennedy received an honorary degree.

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JFK Photo via BU on Instagram / MLK Photo via The King Center

As historical figures go, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. have a lot in common. They became national leaders during the 1960s, possessed enviable oratory skills, died by assassination, and left behind enormous, overlapping legacies that have become inseparable in history.

Today, both men are widely remembered for the roles they played in the Civil Rights Movement. But, in fact, their paths crossed at a commencement ceremony years before they would ever meet for the first time.

On June 5, 1955, both King and Kennedy received degrees from Boston University. King, who had yet to become a public figure, earned his doctor of philosophy degree in systematic theology. At the same graduation ceremony, Kennedy—then a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts—accepted an honorary doctor of laws degree. (Notably, though he did graduate, King did not make it to BU Field that day due to financial constraints and his wife’s pregnancy.)

The graduation took place just months before King would lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, becoming the leader of a much larger movement. Years of organized protest, civil disobedience, and correspondence with Kennedy would eventually follow.

In 1960, when King was arrested for a sit-in in Atlanta, presidential candidate Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express his sympathy while Robert Kennedy called a judge to get King released. The move helped JFK win the presidential election with the African American vote.

That relationship carried on throughout Kennedy’s short presidency. In 1962, King met with Kennedy to ask for stronger civil rights support from the White House. In March 1963, he sent a telegram urging the president to intervene to stop police brutality in Mississippi. Another telegram praised Kennedy’s famous Civil Rights Address on June 11, 1963. And King was one of several civil rights leaders who met with Kennedy following the March on Washington in August 1963.

And yet before all of that, they were classmates of sorts, united by a university, as so many new graduates have been in recent weeks.