Following the court-ordered desegregation of Montgomery buses, activists in Tallahassee, Birmingham, and other southern cities announced their intention to ride desegregated buses. On 26 December Tallahassee leader C. K. Steele, along with sixteen others, attempted to board city buses to test its segregation ordinance but called off the protest after confronting a shouting mob. The day after the Christmas night bombing of his parsonage, Fred Shuttlesworth and twenty-one others were arrested in Birmingham for violating that city's bus segregation law.1 Following a two-hour mass meeting, Shuttlesworth decided to call off the protest, noting that “since the issue is properly one for the court we now believe that all purposes can be settled in the courts.”2 Later that night at a second mass meeting Shuttlesworth read a telegram (a draft of which appears below) from King asking the protesters to “keep riding” desegregated buses and to "fill up the jails of Birmingham” if necessary. The four hundred participants then voted unanimously to follow King's advice and continue the integration effort. Although King’s letterhead is from a hotel in Detroit, he notes in the text that he can’t get away from Montgomery, which suggests that the letter was written after he had returned home from Detroit.
Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights,
Rev. F. L. Shuttlesworth,
I had hoped to be with you in your meeting tonight, but important developments here in Montgomery made it impossible for me to get away. You are deeply in my prayers and thoughts as you confront arrests, threats, bombings and all types of humiliating experiences. Your wise restraint, calm dignity and unfliching courage will be an inspiration to generations yet unborn. History records nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of a people willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom. The days ahead may be difficult, but do not despair. Those of use who stand amid the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man must gain consolation from the fact that there is emerging a bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. In closing I must say to you, keep moving toward the goal of justice. Keep riding the buses on a non-segregated basis. Keep living by the principle of non-violence. If necessary, fill up the jails of Birmingham.
Remb Remember. God lives! They that stand against him stand in a tragic and an already declared minority. They that stand with him stand in the glow of the world’s bright tomorrows.
M. L. King Jr.
1. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth (1922-), born in Montgomery, earned his B.A. (1951) from Selma University and his B.S. (1953) from Alabama State College. In 1956, while pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church, he founded and led the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), which after the banning of the NAACP in Alabama engaged in direct-action protest against segregation. In early 1957 Shuttlesworth helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in which the ACMHR became an important affiliate.
2. “Negroes at Tallahassee, Birmingham Halt Plans for Mass Demonstrations,” Montgomery Advertiser, 28 December 1956.
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.