Following a September fact-finding visit to Little Rock, Smiley recommended to FOR's executive committee that he and King organize a workshop on nonviolence to diffuse racial tensions in that city.1 In this letter King expresses his misgivings about going to Little Rock, fearing that local leaders might presume he was “overlooking their ability to handle the situation."
Rev. Glenn Smiley, Field Secretary
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Nyack, New York
I have been intending to write you for the past several days, but an extremely busy schedule stood in my way. Several important matters came up that demanded my immediate attention; thus the delay.
I have thought about the question of going to Little Rock very seriously in the last few days. Having worked with many of our Negro leaders I am aware of the various problems that arise if one is not very discreet in dealing with them. For instance, I suspect that many of the leaders of Little Rock will feel that I am overlooking their ability to handle the situation themselves if I just decide to go in and offer my advice. I think they have done an exceptionally good job up to this point, and I would not like to give the impression that I am in doubt concerning their capabilities. A good example in point is that I sent Mrs. Bates a wire several weeks ago urging her to keep the philosophy of non-violence before the people of Little Rock. Up to now I have not received a reply from this rather lengthy telegram.2 Of course, it may be that Mrs. Bates is confronted with such tremendous responsibilities and such an overcrowded schedule that she has not had an opportunity to reply. On the other hand, there is a possibility that she interpreted the telegram as an attempt on my part to interfere with their running of the situation.
I am saying all of this to say that I would prefer not going to Little Rock at this time unless I have a direct invitation from Mrs. Bates or the ministerial alliance.3 I feel that this would clear up any feelings that might arise. I hope you understand my feelings at this point. Certainly, my reluctance is not due to a lack of interest, but to the desire to clear all possible repercussions as a results of my acceptance. You may feel free to correspond with me further on this whole matter. I hope something can be worked out.
Very sincerely yours,
P.S. I am a new father. The baby was born yesterday evening at 7:40. It is a boy.4
(Signed in the absence of Rev. King.)
1. FOR, Minutes, Executive committee meeting, 14 October 1957; Glenn Smiley, Report on Little Rock, 29 September 1957.
2. On 29 October Smiley responded that Bates “spoke most appreciatively of your telegram” and that there was “no word in Little Rock that would indicate any feeling of jealousy.” Less than two weeks later in Washington, D.C., King shared a platform with Bates at the annual convention of the National Council of Negro Women. In his remarks, King praised the “dignified leadership” Bates had provided in Little Rock (King, “A Look to the Future,” 9 November 1957). For further discussion of King’s relationship to the Little Rock movement, see James Lawson to King, 3 November 1958, pp. 522-524 in this volume.
3. In a 19 June 1957 letter, Bates had invited King to speak at the Arkansas NAACP conference in October. Writing on King’s behalf on 21 June, Maude Ballou declined Bates’s request. Ballou also declined Little Rock minister Roland Smith’s request that King speak at the September meeting of the Arkansas Christian Movement (Ballou to Smith, 29 July 1957). King visited Bates and her family following his 27 May 1958 commencement address at Arkansas AM&N College in Pine Bluff (see King to Bates, 1 July 1958, pp. 445-446 in this volume).
4. Martin Luther King III.
FORR-PSC-P, Fellowship of Reconciliation Records, 1943-1973 , Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, Pa.