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From Harris Wofford

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Author: Wofford, Harris

Date: April 25, 1956

Location: Alexandria, Va.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Montgomery Bus Boycott



Since visiting lndia in 1949 Wofford, an attorney in the Washington law firm of Covington and Burling, had promoted Gandhian nonviolence as a strategy for confronting American segregation.1 On 13 March Wofford sent King a copy of India Afire (1951), a book he and his wife, Clare Wofford, had written after their visit.2 In this letter, to protest continued enforcement of segregation laws despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, Wofford urges “some straight Gandhian civil disobedience,” suggesting a test bus ride by ministers. Perhaps responding to King’s public statement that the bus boycott would continue until the demand to hire black drivers was met, he encourages King to leave out “the employment question in return for the complete end of segregation.” King replied on 10 May.3

{Thanks for your letter}4


To Messrs. King, Abernathy, Nixon, and Company:

Once again your arm chair strategist presumes to be presumptuous. Rev. Abernathy, however, invited this presumption, saying he wanted all the suggestions and criticisms anyone could give.5

Isn’t this the time for some straight Gandhian civil disobedience? With the Supreme Court sending the bus case back for trial and the Circuit Opinion thus standing as the highest law of the land, are you not almost invited by the law to ride the buses refusing to suffer segregation?

What if the several score ministers, as a first batch, announced that they intended to ride the buses at a certain time and place, and not submit to segregation, thus defending the Constitution and the law of the land? I would think that at first you would not want to call on all your companions to commit such civil disobedience, although such a stage might arrive. I would also think that since your end would be, as it has been, the persuasion and conversion of your opponents, that you would also announce in advance that you would not sue for private damages, no matter how you are mistreated. Thus you would be on this occasion foregoing the legal possibility of suit for damages for anything done to you while seeking your rights. I should think such a gesture would help make your point.

I also wonder if this isn’t the time to compromise on your demands, for the present, leaving out the employment question in return for the complete end of segregation. The latter is more than you sought originally, which is reason for suspending your campaign for something else you sought. One of the best ingredients of Gandhi’s campaigns was the willingness to compromise, to make really painful compromises, and then in good time to resume the struggle. Also Gandhi had a knack of knowing when to change the rythm of his campaigns, when to go from struggle to constructive service, from one form of action to another. But of course this is your campaign and not Gandhi’s, and you have already proved yourselves master artists of non-violent direct action. It would not be Gandhian at all if you were merely copying Gandhi. He was, like you, a creator, not a copier.

But some jail-going, at least by selected members of your body, would be a wonderful thing for this country and for the world. And I would think if enough of you, in the right cheerful spirit, rode the buses, and went to jail rather than to submit to segregation, the whole silly house of cards might now crumble on bus segregation.

Respectfully yours,
Harris Wofford, Jr.

1. Harris Llewellyn Wofford, Jr. (1926-), born in New York City, received his B.A. (1948) from the University of Chicago and received law degrees from both Howard and Yale in 1954. He later served as assistant to the Commission on Civil Rights (1958-1959) and, as President John F. Kennedy’s aide, helped forge the Kennedy administration’s civil rights policies. Wofford also helped establish the Peace Corps, of which he was associate director from 1964 to 1966.

2. Wofford praised King in the letter that accompanied the gift: “Your venture is improving us all. It is the most significant development I know of anywhere.” In addition to the book, he enclosed a booklet on nonviolent resistance and an assignment he had given his law school class (“Opinion Memorandum Assignment for the Howard University School of Law,” 1 April 1956) about legal issues facing a hypothetical Shapeless Shoe Company that sought to make a donation to the MIA, noting that the assignment “may amuse you.”

3. See p. 254 in this volume.

4. Wofford refers to correspondence that is no longer extant. Maude Ballou, King’s secretary, wrote “Please read this!”

5. Ralph Abernathy had met Wofford during a March visit to Washington, D.C.

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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