Volume 3: Birth of a New Age,
Address to MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church
[14 November 1956]
Dr. Jones, members and friends of the Montgomery Improvement Association. I'm so happy to see you here this evening in such large numbers and such great enthusiasm. It reveals to all of us that after eleven months you are not tired. [Audience:] (No) And that you are still determined to struggle and sacrifice for the great cause of justice. (Yes) I have said before that we have lived with this protest so long that we have learned the meaning of sacrifice and suffering. But somehow we feel that our suffering is redemptive. (Yes) And we know that we have a moral obligation to press on for justice. Because of our love for democracy, we must press on. (Yes) We think of the fact that out of the two billion, four hundred million people in the world, about a billion six hundred million of them live on two continents: Asia and Africa. About six hundred million in China, four hundred million in India and Pakistan, a hundred million in Indonesia, two hundred million in Africa, about eighty-six million in Japan. (Yes) And all of these people are looking over, across the seas, wondering what we have to say in America about democracy. (Yes) And America is in a very vulnerable position, and because of our love for democracy and our belief that democracy is the greatest form of government that we have on earth, because of our determination not to allow the world to turn to an evil communistic ideology, we must press on for justice. (Yes) If it means going to jail we are willing to fill up the jail houses. [loud applause] We believe that.
Now I want to do two things now. I have a message, a statement rather, that I would like to read to you, that I tried to put together and express a recommendation or two that we have from the executive board. After reading this statement I will have you to vote on the recommendations and if there are points that you do not quite understand I would be very happy to try to clear them up for you. And then after reading the statement and voting I have just another word or two I want to say to you concerning our future attitudes and our strategy as we move on.
For more than eleven months we, the Negro citizens of Montgomery, have been engaged in a nonviolent protest against indignities and injustices experienced on city buses. We have felt all along that we have just cause and legal excuse for such action. We simply decided to say en masse that we were tired of being trampled over with the iron feet of oppression. (Yes) [applause]
All along we have sought to carry out the protest on high moral standards. Our methods and techniques have been rooted in the deep soils of the Christian faith. We have carefully avoided bitterness, and have sought to make love, even for our opposers, a reality in our lives.
These eleven months have not at all been easy. Often we have had to stand amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea; many days and nights have been filled with jostling winds of adversity. Our feet have often been tired (Yes) and our automobiles worn, but we have kept going with the faith that in our struggle we have cosmic companionship, and that, at bottom, the universe is on the side of justice.
Just yesterday we experienced a revelation of the eternal validity of this faith. It was on this day that the Supreme Court of this nation affirmed that segregation is unconstitutional in public transportation. This decision was simply a reaffirmation of the principle that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that the old Plessy Doctrine of separate but equal is no longer valid, either sociologically or legally. This decision came to all of us as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of enforced segregation in public transportation.
Now, what will be our mode of action in the light of this decision? After thinking through this question very seriously--and I might say practically--the executive board of the Montgomery Improvement Association recommends that the eleven-month-old protest against the city buses will be called off, and that the Negro citizens of Montgomery, Alabama will return to the buses on a non-segregated basis. (Yes) [applause] Now this is important; let us hear the next part. It is further recommended that this return to the buses will not take place until the mandate from the United States Supreme Court is turned over to the Federal District Court. It is true that this is purely a procedural matter, but it is a matter that might be used by reactionary elements to plunge us into needless harassment and meaningless litigation. We have the assurance from authentic sources that this mandate will come to Montgomery in a matter of just a few days. For those three or four days we will continue to walk and share rides with friends. [applause]
All of us have a basic responsibility to seek to implement this noble decision. Let all of us be calm and reasonable. (Yes) With understanding goodwill and Christian love, (That's right) we can integrate the buses with no difficulties. (Yes) This is Montgomery's sublime opportunity; (Yes) we can now transform our jangling discords into meaningful symphonies of spiritual harmony.
This is the statement. Now let us prepare to vote on what we have here, and this recommendation has two parts. Number one: that as a result of the Supreme Court's decision upholding the decision of the Federal District Court, that is, the decision outlawing segregation in public transportation, we will call off the protest and return to the buses on a non-segregated basis. That's the first part. The second part is that we will hold off returning to the buses for a few days, until the order or the mandate reaches Montgomery from the United States Supreme Court. Now [applause], now we stress the importance of this because there might be some difficulties developing by reactionary elements saying that you're not in your legal rights, we don't know whether this law is in effect or not. We don't mind getting arrested, it isn't that, it isn't that we are afraid to go back right today or tomorrow. It isn't that we are afraid of getting arrested, for we are used to going to jail now. [applause] But what we are saying, there is no need of us getting involved now into a long series of litigation and paying out a lot of money, (Yeah) when we could just wait two or three days, (Yes) and the mandate would be here from the Supreme Court. (Yes) So that is the burden of this recommendation, that we will wait so that nobody can say anything, they can't say that they didn't, they don't know a . . . [recording interrupted] All right, we have heard that unreadiness. All in favor of the motion as it stands before us, let it be known by standing on your feet. Just a minute, just a minute . . . just a minute, I don't think you understood me. . . . (Quiet, quiet) Just a minute. I'm not vo--we're not voting on the unreadiness. Is the mike on? (No) Oh, I'm sorry. I should have been talking louder. I didn't know it was off.
Now we are voting on the original motion, that we will turn, return to the buses of Montgomery, Alabama, on a non-segregated basis. That's number one. But that we will wait a few days until the mandate definitely gets to Montgomery before we return to the buses. Now we are ready to vote. All in favor of that motion let it be known by standing. Those opposed may do likewise. Be seated. Those opposed to the motion, (Quiet), those opposed to the motion may do likewise. It seems that this is a unanimous, this is unanimously carried, so that you accept the motion. [Brief discussion about public address system omitted.]
Now my friends I want to say just a few words to you in the way of advice and in the way of interpreting the spirit of our movement. And everything that I will say will be based naturally on this motion that has been carried, this decision that you have accepted. I should first make you intelligent on the legal status of our struggle. And I say that because we have had so many legal cases in the last few months that it's difficult to know which one we're talking about. So that I want to give you some interpretation of all of them that we are facing now. On yesterday we were in the Circuit Court of Alabama, dealing with the question of the legality of our transportation system. The City of Montgomery went to the Court requesting an injunction restraining the Montgomery Improvement Association from operating a transportation system, along with the churches that operate station wagons. We were in court yesterday from about nine o'clock to six o'clock in the afternoon, the late afternoon. And at the end of that day, and that long day of arguing and witnessing, Judge Carter rendered his decision granting the injunction on the basis that the transportation system is illegal, that it is a private enterprise and without the proper licenses or without a franchise. So that a temporary injunction was issued and this injunction was handed down. We immediately halted the car pool in order to comply. You can understand that, many persons would have been arrested and not only that--we would have been cited for contempt of court and a lot of money would have been tied up and paid out. So that on the basis of this injunction, as law-abiding citizens, we abided by the injunction.
But not only that, another case came up today in the federal court. We were a little higher up today (Yeah): we had transcended the state and moved up to the federal court. Now the meaning of this was really to try to get a decision restraining the city from carrying on any court procedures to stop the car pool. That case was argued today from about ten o'clock to two-thirty or three o'clock. Judge Johnson rendered his decision this afternoon. I don't know the total text of the decision, but in substance the decision was that he did not grant the request of our attorneys. That is to say, he did not render a decision restraining the city from having any court procedures enjoining the Montgomery Improvement Association and these churches from operating.
So because of his decision the injunction is still on us, the temporary injunction. And that means that our carpool is still out of operation. The station wagons are not operating. We're not operating an organized carpool. Now this does not mean you do not have the right to aid friends, people living next to you, your friends and we want to share rides among friends, not in any organized sense with dispatch stations and pickup stations, but we're going to continue to do that until we go back to the buses, until the mandate comes down. And I don't think any court will be--will attempt, I should say, I might even go on to say that I don't believe any court would be ambitious enough, to use Reverend Hubbard's words, to get an injunction against feet. [laughter and applause] That's right.
So we're going to continue to walk and share rides for these next two or three or four days or so, and we're going to do it in the same spirit. Now, it might be necessary to call another mass meeting before our regular meeting Monday night, in order to give you direct instructions. Because if the mandate comes, say Friday, we might call you immediately. If not, we will go on with our regular mass meeting Monday. But at any rate, we are still going and we're still in the spirit of this movement. [applause]
Now I want to say to you as we prepare to go back to the buses, we have before us some basic responsibilities and I want you to hear this. I want you to abide by it. Number one I would be terribly disappointed if anybody goes back to the buses bragging about, we, the Negroes, have won a victory over the white people. [applause] If we do that we will bring about a lot of undue tension. (Right) And I want you to know anyway that the decision that was rendered by the Supreme Court yesterday was not a victory merely for fifty thousand Negroes in Montgomery. That's too small. (Well) It's not a victory merely for sixteen million Negroes over the United States. As I have said to you so many times, the tension in Montgomery is not so much a tension between Negro people and white people, but the tension is at bottom a tension between justice and injustice. (Yes) A tension between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if that is a victory it will be a victory for justice and a victory for goodwill and a victory for the forces of light. So let us not limit this decision to a victory for Negroes. Let us go back to the buses in all humility and with gratitude to the Almighty God, (Yes) for making this decision possible. (Yes) And I hope nobody will go out bragging (All right) and talking and taking some undue arrogance in going back to the buses. We can go back with humility. We can go back with meekness. (Yeah) And I don't feel, I don't believe meekness means that you are dried up in a very cowardly sense. But I believe it is something that gets in your soul so that you can stand and look at any man with a deep sense of humility, knowing that one day you shall inherit the earth. (Yes) That's the meaning of meekness. That's what Jesus meant by it. So let us be meek and let us be humble and not go back with arrogance. Our struggle will be lost all over the South if the Negro becomes a victim of undue arrogance.
Then I want to stress to you the meaning of freedom, for as we struggle for freedom in America there is a danger that we will misinterpret freedom. We usually think of freedom from something, but freedom is also to something. (That's right) It is not only breaking aloose from some evil force, but it is reaching up for a higher force. Freedom from evil is slavery to goodness. And we must discover that freedom is more than a negative something. It is more than getting aloose from a negative, but it is becoming attached to a positive. I hope we will realize that. You know we talk a lot about our rights. And we ought to--we're supposed to, and we have certain unalienable rights. That's the glory of our Constitution: "that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But not only must we become bogged down in rights, because if we stop there we might misuse our rights. We might use our rights to trample over other people's rights. (That's right) It's not only rights that we are seeking. We not only have the right to be free, we have a duty to be free. (Yes) And when you see freedom in sense of duty, it becomes greater than seeing it in terms of right, your right to be free. You have a duty to be free. And when you see that you have a duty to be free, you discover that you have a duty to respect those who don't even want you to have freedom. (Yes) That's the sense of duty. You come to see that you must respect even that man who doesn't want you to sit next to him on the bus. (Yes) Somehow, freedom is this duty to respect all people, even though they don't love you, they don't respect you, but you respect them and you feel somehow that they can become better than they are. (Yes) That's the meaning of freedom. You have a duty to respect those--I don't mean you have to respect their opinions, I don't believe in respecting everybody's opinion. I don't respect anybody's opinion who thinks that I'm supposed to be kicked around and segregated. I don't respect their opinion. But I respect them as a personality, a sacred personality with the image of God within them. And although that image has been scarred, terribly scarred, although they like the Protestant son--the prodigal son--have strayed away to some far country of sin and evil, I must still believe that there is something within them that can cause them one day to come to themselves (That's right, Yes) and rise up and walk back up the dusty road to the father's house. (Yes) And we stand there with outstretched arms. That's the meaning of the Christian faith. (That's right, that's right) That's the meaning of this thing. (Yes) Our Christian religion says somehow that a prejudiced mind can be changed. And I'd close up my books and stop preaching if I didn't believe that. (Yes) I want to tell you this evening that I believe that Senator Engelhardt's heart can be changed. (Yes) I believe that Senator Eastland's heart can be changed! (Yes) I believe that the Ku Klux Klan can be transformed into a clan for God's kingdom. (Yes) I believe that the White Citizens' Council can be transformed into a Right Citizens' Council! (Yes) I believe that. That's the essence of the Gospel.
I can see a Nicodemus running to Jesus saying, "What must I do to be saved?" and I can hear Jesus saying, "You must be born again." (Yes) And the minute he says "You must," he means you can be born again. (Yes) We believe that. (Praise God) The fact that you must means you can. (Yes) We believe that and we're going to live by that faith. (Yes) And we must go back to the buses with that faith. (Yes) I'll tell you, if we will go back to that faith, we will be able to stagger and astound the imagination of those who would oppress us. (That's right) They will look at you as a strange and peculiar people. (Yes) They will wonder what's wrong with you. (Yes) They will say that the methods of these people don't coincide with the usual methods. (Yes) They have some methods that broke aloose from the empire of eternity. (Yes) These methods have come down here to the colony of time, to keep them moving on. If we will do that, we will be able to astound the world. (Yes) And I believe that we will do it. (Yes) We will do it. We are going back to those buses, respecting even those who don't want us to go there and sit where we want to sit and where we have a right to sit. (Yes)
So remember that freedom is not only from something, but it is to something. We have a duty to be free. And when I say we have a duty to be free, I mean it just that way, that we have a duty because of God's command to all of us to keep the whole of humanity level. You know in Greek culture, in Greek mythology, there was a goddess known as the Goddess of Nemesis. And the chief function of the Goddess of Nemesis was to keep everything and everybody on a common level. And when you got too high and above yourself, the Goddess of Nemesis was to pull you down. (Yes) And when you got too low and felt that you were too far down, the Goddess of Nemesis pulled you up. (That's right) And that's why we have a duty to be free because a lack of freedom gives the persons who are segregated a false sense of inferiority, and it gives those who are sitting up to the front of the bus, on the basis of the fact that they are white, a false sense of superiority. (Yes) And we have a right to level this thing off. [applause] We have a right to level, you see, we got to level it off. God doesn't want anybody to feel inferior. (That's right, No) Neither does he want anybody to feel superior. (That's right) We have a duty to ourselves for our self-respect and before the Almighty God to stand up for our freedom. (Yes) That is a duty that we have. (That's right) And I hope we will do it in that sense.
Now there's one other thing. We talked a lot about nonviolence, haven't we? (Yes) And I said it, I hope that we will live it now, because this is really the practical aspect of our movement. This is the testing point of our movement. (That's right) And if we go back to the buses and somehow become so weak that when somebody strikes us we gonna strike them back, or when somebody says an insulting word to us we gonna do the same thing, we will destroy the spirit of our movement and I know it's hard, I know that. And I know you're looking at me like I'm somewhat crazy when I say that. [laughter] I know that. I know that. You see it's sort of the natural thing to do when you're hit. You feel that you're supposed to hit back. That's the way we're taught, we're brought up like that. And that is certainly a corollary of our Western materialism. We have been brought up on the basis that we live, that violence is the way to solve problems. And we unconsciously feel that we must do it this way and if we don't hit back we are not strong, we're weak. And that's the way we've been brought up. But I want to tell you this evening, that the strong man is the man who will not hit back. (Yes) Who can stand up for his rights and yet not hit back. (Yes) Now I'm not asking you to be a coward. If cowardice was the alternative to violence, I'd say to you tonight, use violence. If that were the only alternative, I'd say, use violence. But I'm saying to you that cowardice is not the alternative. Cowardice is as evil as violence. (Yes) What I'm saying to you this evening is that you can be courageous and yet non-violent. You can take a seat on the bus, and sit there because it's your right to sit there, and refuse to move, no matter who tells you to move, because it's your right and yet not hit back if you are hit yourself. (That's right) Now that's what I call courage. (Amen, Amen) That's really courage. (Yes) And I tell you, if we hit back we will be shamed, (Let's hear it now) we will be shamed before the world. (That's right) I'm serious about this. (That's right) I'm not telling you something that I don't live. (That's right) I'm not telling you something that I don't live. I'm aware of the fact that the Ku Klux Klan is riding in Montgomery. I'm aware of the fact that a week never passes that somebody's not telling me to get out of town, or that I'm gonna be killed next place I move. But I don't have any guns in my pockets. I don't have any guards on my side. But I have the God of the Universe on my side. (Yes) [applause] I'm serious about that. I can walk the streets of Montgomery without fear. (Yes) I don't worry about a thing. (No) They can bomb my house. They can kill my body. But they can never kill the spirit of freedom that is in my people. [applause]
I'm saying that because I believe it firmly and I'm not telling you something that I don't do myself. I'm telling you, I'm telling you to live by nonviolence. (Yeah) I say that that is the command before us. And there is still a voice crying through the vista of time, saying to every potential Peter, "Put up your sword!" (Yes) History is replete with the bleached bones of nations (Yeah) that failed to follow the command of Jesus at that point. If we as Negroes succumb to the temptation of using violence in our struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and bitter night of--a long and desolate night of bitterness. And our only legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. (Yes) I call upon you to choose nonviolence. (Yeah) Go back to the buses and we're going in the next few days. And I'm not saying to you, go to the back of the bus. I want you to sit down on the bus. Sit down where a seat is convenient to sit down. Sit down because it's your right to sit down and you don't need to argue with anybody about sitting down, but just sit down on the bus.
Now I know that there's a danger here again, that we, you know, we've been going to the back so long. I mentioned a few minutes ago over at Hutchinson Street there was a psychologist in America by the name of John Watson and he became the father of behavioristic psychology. And I remember at least this one thing about behaviorism or behavioristic psychology: Watson built up a great theory of conditioned response. And he even went over and got some, a theory from a Russian who had tested this stimuli-response theory with a dog, you know, and how that if you are conditioned to a certain thing for so long, you are going to respond that way. You know you had just been working under this condition so long, you are just inevitably prone to respond that way. Now there is the danger that we've been going to the back so long that we'll unconsciously get on the bus and just go to the back and perpetuate segregation. We've just been conditioned to do it so long that we'll just go straight to the back of the bus because we've been doing it, you see. Now I hope we can break the conditioning process now and just go on on the bus and sit down, you see. Don't just go on to the back, that's what I'm trying to get over to you. Just take a seat. Now don't push over anybody. (No) You see if there's a seat in the back, and there are no seats in the front, you naturally will take that seat. But now if there is a seat in the front, you see, you will take that one also, if it's convenient. (Yes) [applause] That's what I'm trying to say. We just gonna take seats.
Now you know, in other southern cities this has worked and we feel that it can work here. We feel that it can work here. I can name Durham, North Carolina, they--when the vague decision in the Flemmings case came down some months ago, they just discontinued segregation. Little Rock, Arkansas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas and Houston, Texas, and just several other cities that I can name. And I just feel, I don't believe for the world of me that all of the white people in Montgomery think that the world is coming to an end if the buses are integrated. I just don't believe that. [laughter] Now I know that the politicians will often make us--you know one frog in a pond can sound like a hundred (Yes)--and I know that they can make us feel that the world is coming to an end and the streets are going to be flowing with blood if we integrate the buses. But I don't believe that, and I know one thing, we aren't going to have it flowing with blood. We aren't going to do anything violent. We are going back in a real spirit of love and the Christian faith. And that's the thing that I think is the real challenge before us.
I say to you my friends, in conclusion, that we've been struggling for eleven months, but I want you to know that this struggle has not been in vain. It hasn't been in vain. If it has done any one thing in this community it has given us a new sense of dignity and destiny. (That's right) And I think that in itself it is a victory for freedom and a victory for the cause of justice. It has given us a new sense of dignity and destiny. And I want to urge you this evening to keep on keeping on. Keep on moving.
Doesn't mean that when the bus problem is solved all problems are solved. (No) There will be others. But we must keep on moving and keep on keeping on. And there are some words that come down to us from Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son:"
Well, life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but we've got to keep going. We'll keep going through the sunshine and the rain. Some days will be dark and dreary but we will keep going. Prodigious hilltops of opposition will rise before us but we will keep going. Mountains of evil will stand in our path but we will keep going. (Yes) Oh, we have been in Egypt long enough (Well) and now we've gotten orders from headquarters. The Red Sea has opened for us, we have crossed the banks, we are moving now and as we look back we see the Egyptian system of segregation drowned upon the seashore. (Yes) We know that the Midianites are still ahead. We see the beckoning call of the evil forces of the Amorites. We see the Hittites all around us but, but we are going on because we've got to get to Canaan. (Yes) We can't afford to stop. (Yes) We've got to keep moving. So I want you this evening in a nonviolent sense, to go away [remainder of sentence and an unknown number of additional sentences missing]
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.