The Unexpected Emergence of Martin Luther King,
It would have happened without him, but Martin Luther
King Jr. gave the Montgomery Bus boycott a historical significance
it would not otherwise have had. The first day of the boycott, Dec.
5, 1955, was already an overwhelming success when black residents
chose King to head the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA),
which was formed to continue the protest against the city's bus
segregation policy. King would later admit that his unanticipated
call to leadership "happened so quickly that I did not have
time to think it through. It is probable that if I had, I would
have declined the nomination." A 26-year-old minister with
little more than a year's experience as pastor of Mongomery's Dexter
Avenue Baptist Church, he was uncertain about his future, but he
quickly sensed that he had become part of a historic movement. At
an evening mass rally on the initial day of the boycott, he conveyed
the deeper significance of the day's unfolding events. "Right
here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future,
somebody will have to say, 'There lived a race of people, a black
people, fleecy locks and black complexion, but a people who had
the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they
injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.'
During subsequent weeks King gradually became more
assured in his understanding of the boycott movement's historical
meaning even as he recognized his own limitations and frailities.
His resolve weakened during January 1956 as Montgomery city commissioners
announced that they had joined the White Citizens Council and launched
a "get tough" policy that resulted in King's jailing on
a minor traffic violation. Telephone threats from anonymous callers
further heightened his fears. Internal conflicts within the black
community also became apparent when white officials negotiated with
black ministers other than King and suggested that the MIA leader
was the main obstacle to resolving the dispute. An editorial in
the local newspaper implied that funds raised for the boycott movement
had been diverted to personal use. " I almost broke down under
the continual battering," he admitted later. At the Jan. 23
MIA Executive Board meeting, he defended himself against criticisms
before his spirits were briefly revived by a unanimous vote of confidence
from the other MIA leaders. King reached bottom on Jan. 27 when
a particularly threatening late-night telephone call brought him
to "the saturation point." He went to his kitchen and
sat before an untouched cup of coffee, exhausted, his courage "all
but gone." As he considered ways to "move out of the picture
without appearing a coward," he began to pray aloud. "At
that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never
experienced Him before."
King's spiritual experience in the kitchen deepened
his understanding of the meaning of his life and of the Montgomery
struggle. Press accounts increasingly portrayed him as the great
leader responsible for the boycott movement, but he recognized that
he was part of a great movement beyond the control of any single
individual. On Jan. 30, he warned "weary" black leaders
that they could not convince local residents to return to the buses.
"If we went tonight and asked the people to get back on the
bus, we would be ostracized." When he spoke at a mass rally
later in the day, he affirmed that if he "had never been born
this movement would have taken place. I just happened to be here."
After allaying his doubts and feares, King came to accept his unanticipated
roles, first as a symbol of civil rights protest and then as a proponent
of Gandhian nonviolence.
King would later admit that at the start of the boycott
be was not firmly committed to Gandhian principles. He had initially
advocated nonviolence not as a way of life but as a practical necessity
for a racial minority. When his home was bombed at the end of January,
he had cited Jesus-- "He who lives by the sword whill perish
by the sword"-- rather than Gandhi in urging angry black neighbors
to remain nonviolent. At the time of the bombing, King was seeking
a gun permit, and he was protected by armed bodyguards. Only after
the bombing did King alter his views on the use of weapons for protection.
His reconsideration was encouraged by the arrival in Montgomery
of two pacifists who were far more aware than he of Gandhian principles.
Competing with each other for the influence over King,
Bayard Rustin, a black activist affiliated with the War Resisters
League, and Glenn E. Smiley, a white staff member of the Fellowship
of Reconciliation, saw themselves as King's tutors on Gandhian precepts.
Rustin was shocked to discover a gun in King's house, while Smiley
informed fellow pacifists that King's home was "an arsenal."
Smiley described King as either a "Negro Gandhi" or perhaps
an unfortunate demagogue "destined to swing from a lynch mob's
tree." King's conversion would, according to Smiley, have major
consequences for the Gandhian movement in the United States: "If
he can really be won to a faith of nonviolence there is no end to
what he can do."
King was hardly a passive receptacle for the teaching
of Rustin and Smiley. Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays
had exposed him to Gandhian principles during his undergraduate
years, but King had remained skeptical afterward: "I thought
the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed
revolt. I felt that the Christian ethic of love was confined to
individual relationships." By the time of the bus boycott,
however, King had begun to see nonvolence not only as a pragmatic
choice but a moral necessity. His Christian convictions converged
with his increasingly sophisticated understanding of Gandhian ideas.
He would explain to a reporter that "the spirit of passive
resistance came to me from the Bible, from the teachings of Jesus.
The techniques came from Gandhi." In King's view Gandhi had
proved that nonviolence could work as a method of resistance for
oppressed people. "A little brown man in India" confronted
the British empire, King told a cheering audience at the annual
convention of the NAACP. "But in the midst of that physical
force he confronted that empire with soul force."
Once King assumed the burdens of nonviolent leadership,
he continued to express uncertainty about his role in the expanding
African American freedom struggle, but he would never waver in his
commitment to Gandhian principles. By the time the boycott movement
came to a successful conclusion in November 1956, King had been
permanently transformed. "Living through the actual experience
of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I
gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life,"
he would later explain. "Many of the things that I had not
cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved
in the sphere of practical action."
The Montgomery struggle marked the birth of a new
era of African American history; it also signaled the beginning
of a new phase of King's life. Doubts persisted, but, by the end
of 1956 he had accepted his calling: "I feel that the confidence
that the people have in me and their readiness to follow my leadership
have thrust upon me a responsibility that I must follow through
with." In the aftermath of the boycott he received attractive
job offers, but he assured a reporter that he would continue to
expand his ministry. "I do have a great desire to serve humanity,"
he explained, "but at this particular point, the pulpit gives
me an opportunity and a freedom that I wouldnt have in any other
sphere of activity." During the interview, he recalled a conversation
with J. Pius Barbour, an old family friend living in Chester, Pa.,
who had often provided fatherly guidance to King during his student
years at Crozer Theological Seminary. When Barbour teased King about
his growing national fame, King allowed himself to reflect on what
he had acheived and on the uncertainties ahead: "Frankly, I'm
worried to death. A man who hits the peak at 27 has a tough job
ahead. People will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of the hat
for the rest of my life."
Campus Report, 17 January 1996.