Prompted by news articles on the bus boycott, Lawrence, national chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and a Morehouse alumnus, expresses his enthusiasm for King’s emphasis on love and nonviolent protest.1 Lawrence notes that while FOR, a Christian-based pacifist organization founded in 1914, was “very anxious to ‘do something,’” it was aware of the problems “outsiders” could create. “You are doing too good a job,” he writes, “to have it unwittingly harmed by even the best-meaning groups.” Nevertheless, Lawrence and others in FOR decided to send national field secretary Glenn E. Smiley to Montgomery and other southern towns to ‘find out what is happening and what the possibilities” are for nonviolence training workshops.2 Lawrence indicates that Smiley would be arriving in Montgomery shortly. Former FOR activist Bayard Rustin, who was dedicated to furthering social justice and peace issues, had also recently decided to visit Montgomery. A few days before this letter was written, Lawrence and others in FOR decided not to “compete with or collaborate with Bayard,’’ but to send Smiley on a fact-finding mission to Montgomery.3
Dr. M. L. King, Jr.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Dear Doctor King:
The accounts which I have read of the work which you and others are doing in Montgomery have been most gratifying. The TIMES and HERALD TRIBUNE stories of last night’s meeting I found among the most thrilling documents that I have ever read. It has been particularly good to read your own statements in which you have urged unwavering militancy in a spirit of love and non-violence. I was so impressed by the excerpts of your last night’s speech in this morning’s New York TIMES that I read it to my family at dinner this evening.
The solidarity of the Montgomery Negro population, their quiet dignity, and dogged determination have undoubtedly gained the admiration of millions of people throughout the world. During the past three months they have given the lie to those—often including ourselves—who have so often said that, “Negroes won’t stick together.” And they are blessed with leaders of courage and imagination.
You and other leaders of this movement have been very right in insisting upon the peaceful, non-violent and loving nature of the struggle. You are especially right to point out that this is not a Negro-White conflict but rather a struggle against injustice and for human dignity. Who knows? Providence may have given the Negroes of Montgomery the historic mission of demonstrating to the world the practical power of Christianity, the unmatched vitality of a non-violent, loving approach to social protest.
I know that the struggle has only begun, that there are many days and maybe years ahead of rough going for those who battle for human dignity in American race relations; but, even if the specific matter of Montgomery’s buses should remain unchanged for awhile, you have shown an image of religiously inspired, passive resistence which is bound to be a landmark in American human relations.
I am the National Chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) whose statement of purpose I enclose. (The statement was printed several years ago, before I became chairman.) I wish very much that you were one of us, for you have talked and acted more like we should like to than many of us could hope to do under similar pressure. Our National Field Secretary, the Reverend Glenn Smiley, will be coming to Montgomery the early part of next week. His mission will be primarily that of finding out what those of you who are involved directly would have those of us who are “on the outside” do. Glenn was born in the South, was ordained in what was then the Southern Methodist Church, and has been on the FOR staff for about fifteen years—a period of which he spent in prison as a conscientious objector. He is a person in whom you can have complete confidence. I hope that you can find time in your busy round of activities to have a good, long talk with him. While our organization is very anxious to “do something”, we do not wish to do anything which your group would feel unwise or ill-timed. You are doing too good a job to have it unwittingly harmed by even the best-meaning groups.
The enclosed check from Margaret Lawrence and me is to be used in whatever way will aid the cause, wither through the Montgomery Improvement Association or through whatever legal defense fund is set up. We wish that it could be more; and will certainly contribute to other efforts, such as the one being organized by A. Philip Randolph.4
May you continue to have strong local and national support and, above all, God’s guidance.
[signed] Charles R. Lawrence
Assistant Professor of Sociology-Anthropology, Brooklyn College)
1. Charles Radford Lawrence II (1915-1986) was born in Boston and graduated from Morehouse College in 1936. He received his master’s degree (1938) from Atlanta University and his Ph.D. (1952) from Columbia University. From 1936 to 1939 he taught in Atlanta public schools. He then served with the YMCA before becoming an instructor and research associate at Fisk University in 1943. In 1948 he joined the faculty at Brooklyn College, City College of New York. He served as national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1955 to 1963.
2. John M. Swomley, FOR’S national secretary, reported this decision in a 21 February 1956 letter to Wilson Riles. See also Swomley’s letter of support to King on 24 February 1956. Glenn E. Smiley (1910- 1993), born in Loraine, Texas, was educated at McMurry College, Southwestern University, the University of Redlands, and the University of Arizona. He joined FOR in 1942 and two years later was jailed for conscientious objection to World War II. He later worked with King on the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and helped found the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolence in Los Angeles.
3. Swomley to Wilson Riles, 21 February 1956. Swomley added that “Charles Lawrence feels strongly that it were better if Bayard did not go South, that it would be easy for the police to frame him with his record in L.A. and New York, and set back the whole cause there”—a reference to Rustin’s 1954 arrest for homosexual behavior and his past ties to the Young Communist League. For more information on Rustin and Smiley’s relationship with King, see Introduction, pp. 17-20 in this volume.
4. Lawrence refers to In Friendship, a New York-based civil rights support group organized by Randolph and Ella Baker.
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.