At a prayer meeting on 23 February, King reflected on his arrest that day and promised to continue using the weapons of love and protest to effect change. Several thousand people attended the mass meeting at Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, including many reporters. The following quotations from King’s speech appeared in a New York Times article the next day, its first front-page article on the bus boycott.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which has directed the eighty-day boycott, told the gathering that the protest was not against a single incident but over things that “go deep down into the archives of history.”
“We have known humiliation, we have known abusive language, we have been plunged into the abyss of oppression,” he told them. “And we decided to rise up only with the weapon of protest. It is one of the greatest glories of America that we have the right of protest.”1
“There are those who would try to make of this a hate campaign,” the Atlanta born, Boston-educated Baptist minister said. “This is not war between the white and the Negro but a conflict between justice and injustice. This is bigger than the Negro race revolting against the white. We are seeking to improve not the Negro of Montgomery but the whole of Montgomery.2
“If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally reponsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.”
1. Another account extends King’s remarks (“Boycotters Plan Passive Battle,” Montgomery Advertiser, 24 February 1956): “[King] told the audience that the bus boycott began because Negroes in Montgomery ‘were tired of the conditions they had experienced over a number of years.’ ‘We are using the weapon of protest. We are using the weapon of love. For ours is a protest for right,’ he said. He added that in a democracy a man ‘could protest but that behind the Communist Iron Curtain a man could not protest. That is the glory of democracy. We are free men and we can protest.’ ”
2. Ibid.: “ ‘There is not a tension between the Negro and whites. There is only a conflict between justice and injustice. If our victory is won—and it will be won—it will be a victory for Negroes, a victory for justice, a victory for free people, and a victory for democracy. This is bigger than Negroes revolting against whites. We are not just trying to improve Negro Montgomery but we are trying to improve the whole of Montgomery,’ he declared. ‘There are some who like to use the word boycott. The word is too small. The word can be interpreted as economic reprisal or economic squeeze. This movement is more than an economic squeeze. It is a moral and spiritual movement. We are using moral and spiritual force. That is all we have. We are using the weapon of love.’ ”
ACLUR-NjP-SC, American Civil Liberties Union Records, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.