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From J. Raymond Henderson

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Author: Henderson, J. Raymond

Date: September 17, 1958

Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Threats/attacks againstMontgomery Bus Boycott


Henderson, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles and friend of the King family, urges King to leave Montgomery because he is a "marked man." Henderson also enclosed a letter he wrote the same day to Roy Wilkins, urging him to offer King a position with the NAACP: "It would be tragic if we allowed him to sacrifice himself on the altar of the white man's hatred in one city. . . . King's name is, and with prudence on his part, will for years remain, magic over this land.''

Rev. M. L. King, Jr.
309 S. Jackson St.
Montgomery, Ala.

Dear Brother King:

It is now 5 a.m. Sunday and I have spent a restless and sleepless night because of you—and Abernathy. I've written him. I now write you.1

I know that you know, because of certain confidences which I have divulged to none but you, that I have a most profound and unselfish interest in and concern for you. When I was a student at Oberlin, I was called into the Dean's office because I wrote and distributed a pamphlet on "Police Brutality Against A Negro". (The local Newspaper would not publish it.) As a student at Virginia Union in Richmond, I refused to give up my seat to a white man back in 1920, and was put forcibly off the Clay Street car. In Charleston, W. Va., I organized against a Jim Crow entertainment at Kearse Theater and the entertainment was cancelled. In Atlanta, when you were a baby, I carried the fight against police brutality, and for Angelo Herndon, even when the KKK stood inside the church as I, and a Methodist minister named Martin, spoke.2 Here in California, my unceasing efforts have been in cooperation with the attempt to help free our people, and the soul of America.

Why am I saying all this? Is it to set myself up as a liberator? It is not. It is merely to remind you that the passion which flames in your heart flames in mine. Montgomery dramatized it for you. Your popularity is not of your choosing. Fate, the gods, a concatenation of circumstances, perhaps evenGod Himself might have ordained that you be in Montgomery at that time, that you be the pastor at Dexter Avenue, that you be present at the protest meeting over the Rosa Parks bus incident. Had I lived in Montgomery, I might have been in your unenviable position. I am thoroughly identified with you, therefore, in this struggle, for it is "our" struggle.

You and Abernathy are among those who have to avoid the very "appearance of evil". That is why I cautioned you to have tickets (roundtrip) sent you for distant speaking engagements so that large sums would not show up on income tax. You are a "marked man". All sorts of subtle attempts will be made to discredit you. Some Negroes right in Montgomery would be glad to witness your downfall. Most whites would be happy. They will try to lead you into error, or a freak "car accident". One of the most damning influence is that of women. They themselves too often delight in the satisfaction they get out of affairs with men of unusual prominence. Enemies are not above using them to a man's detriment. White women can be lures. You must exercise more than care. You must be vigilant indeed. You must never allow yourself to be called out to a home where you are not acquainted. If so, take Coretta with you. Also, if an officer again says to you "move", then move—dont run, but move. It's easier to move than to be brutalized needlessly. Many a Negro has been beaten to death inside the jail. We have a case in point out here right now.3

I come again to a question which frankly I can not answer, namely, how much does a leader owe his people? How much is he called on to suffer for them? How fair is it to his wife and family to continue them over-long in a situation fraught with constant danger, tension, and the possibility of future neuroses, especially for the children? Can a man, having given much in a local situation, serve it and the larger cause more effectively by changing location?

It is my own inclination, not certain answer, led by some spirit (whether it be of God, I know not), to say to you I believe you should leave Montgomery. I enclose copy of a letter which in strict confidence I am sending to Roy Wilkins. Please do not reply to this letter in haste. Think it over. Pray it over. Talk with Coretta and with your father.

Please convey our best love to Coretta, and blessings be on you and the children.

J. Raymond Henderson

1. Henderson's 17 September letter to Abernathy noted that Abernathy "all but" needed a personal guard and suggested that the minister look into a recent vacancy at a church in New York. In a letter of the same date to King, Sr., Henderson reminded him of a promise to raise a "sizable gift" from Ebenezer to the NAACP, remarking: "You should lead your church to give largely because this entire nation has rallied to the support of your son."

2. Henderson probably refers to a 7 May 1933 rally at Taft Hall in Atlanta, organized by the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Angelo Herndon, at which both Henderson and J. A. Martin spoke on behalf of the imprisoned Communist organizer.

3. Henderson may refer to the case of Ralph Booker Grant. On 1 September the Los Angeles Sentinel reported the arrest and beating of Grant, who claimed he had been kicked, choked, and hit with a blackjack by a police officer who stopped him as he walked to a friend's house ("Lawyer, NAACP Aid 'Client' Surrendered to Authorities").

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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