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From Bayard Rustin

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Author: Rustin, Bayard?

Date: December 23, 1956

Genre: Letter

Topic: Montgomery Bus Boycott



Rustin sent King three short memos: a historical overview, “The Negroes’ Struggle for Freedom”; a memo on the importance and future of the Montgomery movement (reprinted below); and a third that has not been located. In the following memo Rustin refers to plans to form a regional “Congress of organizations” dedicated to nonviolent mass action, an idea that he helped formulate with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison, another New York activist.1 As a first step toward initiating such an organization, Rustin, writing on behalf of Levison, proposes a Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation to bring together black leaders from around the South.2 Rustin and Levison also arrange to meet with Martin and Coretta during King’s 29 December visit to Baltimore to address the annual meeting of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Harris and Clare Wofford also accompanied the group on its tour of Baltimore, which included a meeting with officers of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation to discuss a proposed visit by the Kings to Africa and India.3

Dear Martin:

Here are three separate but related papers which Stanley Levison and I felt you could use for the purpose we discussed by telephone.

We shall write you more fully soon on the Africa-India deal and shall send the kind of prospectus we feel would be excellent for the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation that we feel should be called.


P.S. I shall let you know more fully on the Conference either in Baltimore on Saturday or New York next Sunday.


  1. Montgomery possessed three features which are not found in other movements or efforts:
    1. It was organized; used existing institutions {as foundations} so that all social strata of the community were involved. It thus had the strength of unity which the school integration efforts have lacked, thereby leaving the fight to heroic but isolated individuals. Montgomery could plan tactics, seek advice and support, develop financial resources and encompass a whole community in a crusade dominating all other issues. The reason there were those who did not want to give up the boycott is due in part to the consciousness that this welding of a comprehensive, unified group had a quality not to be lost. The fellowship, the ideals, the joy of sacrifice for others and other varied features of the movement have given people something to belong to which had the inspiring power of the Minute Men, the Sons of Liberty, and other organized forms which were products of an earlier American era of fundamental change.
    2. The actions of the people won the respect of their enemy. The achievement of unity, the intelligence in planning, the creation of a competent, complex system of transportation, the high level of moral and ethical motivation, all combined to give the closed mind of the white southerner an airing it has never before had. It is not only the Negroe’s self-respect which was won—but the respect of white people, who though they retain basic prejudice, have lost something in the course of this year that begins their long struggle to genuine understanding. In short, Montgomery has contributed to the mental health and growth of the white man’s mind, and thus to the entire nation.
    3. Montgomery was unique in that it relied upon the active participation of people who had a daily task of action and dedication. The movement did not rely exclusively on a handful of leaders to carry through such fundamental change.
  2. The more advanced white people must be encouraged to develop more open relations through various agencies so that a beginning toward Negro-White relationships can be organized. Special recognition, in the form of honoring speeches, or if possible, formal events, must be accorded such figures as Rev. Turner of Clinton, Attorney Lee Grant, the superintendent of schools in Louiseville.4 It must be pointed out that their devotion to the principles of morality, respect for law, the decent-minded human response to their fellow men, express the truest and finest traditions of our nation.
  3. Similarly, the new southern Negro leaders must recognize that they built upon the work of those men who for decades fought a more lonely fight… The Randolphs, Wilkins, Bunches.
  4. The movement must now widen to political areas. Rpr Representation in all levels of political life from the exercise of the ballot to the holding of office and participation in administrative agencies, is a next most vital step. (Here consultation with men who led great national movements, such as Reuther, Randolph, Potofsky, Quill, should be set up.5 Note that all have a special social outlook and all except Reuther represented minorities in trade union and social life).
  5. Regional groups of leaders should be brought together and encouraged to develop forms of local organization leading to an alliance of groups capable of creating a Congress of organizations. Such a Congress would create both the alert leadership capable of reacting promptly and effectively to situations and possessing ties to masses of people so that their action projects are backed by broad participation of people who gain experience and knowledge in the course of the struggles. We will be sending a prospectus on this latter later. The final stage may be the [strikeout illegible] conference of leaders on transportation but its broader perspectives must be implicit in the deliberations.
  6. The next stage must see the development of a strategy group of national leaders who will be able to guide spontaneous manifestations into organized channels. They will be able to analyze where concentration of effort will be fruitful and while not discouraging any effort, be mobile enough to through throw reserves and support to areas where a breakthrough is achievable. The assessment of urban centers as areas of concentration should be studied against rural centers to determine possibilities of setting up practical goals so that the whole movement can balance successes with setbacks.
  7. The fight of the Negro for integration and equality is a vital component in the fight of the common man, Negro and white, to realize higher living standards, higher education, and culture, and a deeper commitment to moral and ethical principles. It is contributing to the movement of America to achieve a nation capable of utilizing its vastly impressive industrial might for the benefit of all.

1. Stanley David Levison (1912-1979), born in New York City, studied at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and the New School for Social Research. He then earned his LL.B. (1938) and LL.M. (1939) at St. John’s University. Levison practiced law in New York City and managed a real estate company and other investments. He was active in the American Jewish Congress and helped form In Friendship with Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin.

2. This conference took place in Atlanta on 10-11 January 1957.At its next meeting a month later in New Orleans the group elected King president and eventually changed its name to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

3. The foundation eventually approved a $4,000 grant to help support the Kings’ travels. They attended Ghana’s independence ceremony in March 1957 and toured India during February and March 1959. See Stanley Levison, interview with James Mosby, 14 February 1970, Ralph J. Bunche Oral History Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University; Jack Clareman to A. Philip Randolph, 5 February 1957, APRC-DLC; and King to Christopher Reynolds Foundation, 7 March 1958, MLKP-MBU: Box 1.

4. Rustin and Levison refer to Paul Turner, a Baptist minister who was severely beaten after escorting black schoolchildren into a school in Clinton, Tennessee.

5. Rustin and Levison refer to Walter P. Reuther (1907-1970), president of the United Automobile Workers; A. Philip Randolph; Jacob Samuel Potofsky (1894-1979), president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; and Michael Quill, international president of the Transport Workers Union.

Source: BRP-DLC, Bayard Rustin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Reel 3, frame 59 (CSKV92-A34).

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