While on leave, Black traveled through the “barren wasteland” of the war-torn Belgian countryside, remembering his fallen comrades. He missed home and his daily letters from his mother.
Overcome with emotion, he wondered, “What the hell am I living for?” He admits it was “the first and only time I considered just giving up.” But after encouragement from a fellow soldier, Black recalled the words of his “far-sighted mother,” who had told him, “‘You go there and you come back with an honorable discharge.’ And since women have always dominated my life, I felt I had to obey Mama.”
Black fought on, despite self-doubt and even tougher yet, racism in the ranks. He describes how German war prisoners were allowed to eat in the dining room with white U.S. soldiers, yet blacks were not—in essence, the captives could eat with the captors, yet blacks could not eat with their fellow countrymen.
“That’s the change that many of us came home wanting to achieve,” Black says.
Following the war, Black returned home to Chicago, remembering the personal decision he made at Buchenwald.
“What I promised myself that I would try to do, particularly after World War II,” Black recalls, is “to try and make this world a better place to live, but starting at home.”
Taking MLK from UChicago to national stage
After the war, Black attended Roosevelt University for his bachelor’s degree and then received his master’s in 1954 from the University of Chicago. He studied sociology and history, learning from famed scholar Allison Davis, the first tenured African American professor at the University. After UChicago, Black worked as a high school teacher in Gary, Ind.
He was watching television in December 1955 when he saw “this good-looking young man in Montgomery, Alabama.” Black recalls, “I thought, he articulates the feelings that I have, and I got on a plane and went to Montgomery, which is where I met Martin Luther King."
“With his courage, charisma, and academic training, it was the kind of leader that I would like to follow.”
The following year, Black and fellow members of Hyde Park’s First Unitarian Church at 56th Street and Woodlawn Avenue invited King to speak—the sermon was moved to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the UChicago campus to accommodate King’s growing popularity as a civil rights leader. As it turned out, Black proudly remembers, “even Rockefeller Chapel wasn’t big enough for Dr. King.”