King and other members of the MIA’s executive committee request that the Montgomery Board of Education begin good-faith efforts to desegregate local schools.1
The Board of Education
Mr. Harold Harris, Chairman
305 South Lawrence Street
The era following World War II finds the United States catapulted into the forefront of world affairs. Through the forces of history, she has been thrust into the lofty and responsible position of leader and defender of the democratic nations. One of the cardinal principles of the democratic creed is that the individual has inherent dignity and worth that is neither derivative from nor subjected to the state. But today the United States and all the free nations are challenged by a strange philosophy of communism which would relegate the individual to the status of a cog in the wheel of the state, and leave man’s sacred destiny in the hands of a small ruling clique.
To properly combat this foreign ideology the United States must create the conditions for its citizens to achieve both spiritual maturity and technical competence. We are challenged more than ever before to achieve excellence in our various fields of endeavor. The public school system is the free societies’ response to this important challenge. It is, therefore, mandatory for this system to be preserved if we are to continue to progress as a nation. In the face of the responsibilities that have come to our nation as a result of its unique niche in history, it becomes increasingly necessary for us to strengthen our public school system, and provide the millions of youth of our nation with educational opportunities that are non-discriminatory.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of our nation rendered a momentous decision declaring segregation unconstitutional in the public schools. The decision stated in substance that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. A year after the supreme court rendered this decision, it handed down a decree outlining the details by which integration should proceed “with all deliberate speed.”2 While the court did not set a definite deadline for the determination of this process, it did set a time for the beginning. It was clear that the court had chosen this reasonable approach with the expectation that the forces of goodwill would immediately get to work and prepare the communities for a smooth and peaceful transition.
When the decision was rendered seventeen (17) states and the District of Columbia practiced segregation in the public schools. Today, the process of integration has started in all but five (5) of these states. In some cases-- such as Kentucky, Kansas, Missouri, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Maryland and the District of Columbia-- the public schools have been almost completely desegregated. In most cases the transition took place smoothly and peacefully. Contrary to the thinking of some southerners, integrated schools have tended to lift the moral and cultural standards of both races rather than pull them down-- a fact which was positively affirmed by the superintendent of the Washington, D.C. school system in a recent speech in Atlanta, Georgia.
Five (5) years have elapsed and no discernable move has been made toward integrating the schools of Montgomery, Alabama. We feel that this is contrary not only to the constitution of our nation, but also to the best interest of our children. We would, therefore, like to humbly request that you announce your plan of integration to the community. We make this request because already Negro parents and students are making inquiries relative to the desegregation of schools in Montgomery, and several of them are already prepared to apply for formerly all white schools.3 We are also mindful of the fact that Alabama’s Placement Act, which has been declared constitutional on its face, has not been implemented.4 In order for our state to be true to its face, we are obliged to start the process of integration in the public schools.
We know that there are some problems involved in changing from a segregated to an integrated school system and we realize that mores are not changed without difficulty. Therefore, we are simply calling on you to begin in good faith to study the idea, and then provide a reasonable start. We hope that this problem can be worked out in our community through voluntary goodwill; and that it will not be necessary to carry it into the courts. Since our aim is to presuade, and our end is a community at peace with itself, we will always be willing to talk with you and seek fair adjustment.
Please know that the foregoing is neither a threat nor an ultimatum. It is rather a sincere effort to urge you to begin some reasonable compliance with the “law of the land,” and to cease the maintenance of a system which is injurious to both Negro children and white. We urgently request that you let us hear from you on this matter in a few days.5
Executive Committee of the
Montgomery Improvement Association
Reverend Martin L. King, Jr.
Reverend Robert E. DuBose, Jr.
Reverend H. J. Palmer
Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy
Reverend H. H. Hubbard
Reverend S. S. Seay
1. In a typewritten draft of this statement King wrote: “Therefore be it resolved that: 1. the Board of Education announce it plans not later than January 1, 1960 for conforming with the mandate of the Supreme Court of the United States” (King, Draft, Proposed statement to the board of education, 28 August 1959). King later complained to a northern supporter that “there is no integrated school in the whole state of Alabama” and that state officials “say in no uncertain terms that they will never comply” with federal desegregation laws (King to Linda Carver, 16 November 1959).
2.Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., 349 US. 294 (1955).
3. Following the start of the 1959 fall term, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that “Negroes heeded the advice of their leaders and made no effort to enroll in all-white schools” (“Enrollment Shows Rise in Montgomery Schools,” Montgomery Advertiser 4 September 1959).
4. Passed in the wake of the Brown decision, the placement law allowed Alabama school boards wide latitude in assigning students to schools. Fred Shuttlesworth challenged this law, but the Supreme Court ruled that it was not discriminatory “upon its face” (Shuttlesworth et al. v. Birmingham Board of Education of Jefferson County, Alabama, 358 US. 101 ).
5. In his annual address to the MIA in December, King complained that the local board of education “has not even given us the courtesy of an answer” (Address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church, 3 December 1959, p. 337 in this volume).
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.