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Robert L. Cannon to Alfred Hassler and Glenn E. Smiley

Author: 
Cannon, Robert L. (Fellowship of Reconciliation (U.S.))
Date: 
October 3, 1956
Location: 
Nashville, Tenn.
Genre: 
Letter
Topic: 
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Nonviolence

Details

Cannon reports to fellow field secretary Smiley and to Fellowship editor Hassler on King’s direction of the MIA's first nonviolent training session. After the session, which took place during a regular mass meeting on 1 October at Hutchinson Street Baptist Church, Cannon presented FOR's recently completed documentary film on the bus boycott, Walk to Freedom.1

Mssrs. Hassler and Smiley
21 Audubon Ave.
New York 32, N.Y.

Dear “Comrades”:

Need I say it? The showing of our new movie to the mass meeting in Montgomery last Monday night was a howling success. I mean that literally as well as in its deeper sense. The meeting was, as usual, well-attended. The MIA leadership was in full force, including the new “hero” Pastor Graetz who came late and sat in the balcony. We were the only two white persons present.

A special significance was added to the premier showing. Either it was plain coincidence or something planned by King, but this meeting also marked the first in what is to be a series of mass training sessions in nonviolence. Now with the possibility looming that these people might wake up some morning to integrated busses, {Martin Luther} King and the MIA have decided to begin the process of going {training the people to go} back to integrated busses with as much creative goodwill and quiet determination as they carried out with the boycott. The showing of our film tied in beautifully with this new emphasis in the mass meetings. King, displaying the marvelous gift of leadership he has with the people, pointed out that the end of the boycott may be quite near. [strikeout illegible] Even tho our hopes must not be raised too high, he said, it is nevertheless important to consider how we our {are} to manage ourselves on integrated busses, because it is only to integrated busses that we plan to return (thundering applause here). Said King: “There will be some people who will not like this change and they will not hesitate to express themselves to you. There will possibly be some unpleasant experiences for us at the hands of people who will not immediately accept the idea of sitting with us on the bus. It is important that we begin to think seriously about how we are going to face up to these possibilities of abuse, slander, and embarrassment.” Then the following took place:

King asked, “Now, I want just two persons to stand up and tell us how they plan to act on the busses. Suppose you sat down next to a white person on a bus. Suppose this person begin to make a fuss, calling you names, or even going so far as to shove you? What would you do?” The feelings over this were electric.

Two women stood up. King recognized one of them: “All right, Sister———” She began, “Well, if someone was to start calling me names, I guess I would be kinda upset, but mind you, I don’t intend to move . . . I think I would just sit there and ignore her and let folks see how ignorant she was. But if she were to start pushin’ me, maybe I would give her just a little shove.”

At this point there were many murmurings of “No! No!” King then replied, “Thank you for your candid opinion. Now let me ask you this. If you were to shove this white person back, what would you achieve?” There were shouts of “Nothing!” in response to King, and the woman conceded the point. But King pursued it, addressing himself to the woman, “Now, do you agree with the opinion expressed here that nothing would be achieved by treating the white person in question the same way you are treated?” She agreed. “Then why,” King asked, “Would you push that person back?” The woman replied, “Well, I guess I wouldn’t.’’

The other woman was more forthright: She made this choice observation: “Now, I think most of us know the white folks pretty well. [strikeout illegible] We have to remember that they are not used to us, but we’re used to them. It isn’t going to do us any good to get mad and strike back, ‘cause that’s just what some of them want us to do. (Cries of ‘That’s right!’) Now we’ve got this freedom. It is something they cain’t take away from us. But we will lose it if we get mad and show them we are incapable of acting like good Christian ladies and gentlemen . . . ” A wild applause followed this.

King then concluded, “This is good. Now you can see the seriousness of our task here. We are going to be doing some more of this in the meetings to come. Let’s discuss and think this through together, for this is serious business. I want you to feel free to discuss and express your opinions about this, but I also want you to see what our Christian responsibility is to each other when we return to the busses of Montgomery.”

The meeting was cut short in order to give more time to the film. King was most generous in his introduction. He pointed out how “the F.o.R. needs no introduction to us here. It is an organization of concerned Christians that has been with us from the very beginning.” And so on. I was asked to say a few words of preface to the film. I pointed out how members and friends of the Fellowship have been thrilled and deeply moved by the courage and nonviolence of this movement for justice and human dignity. I mentioned how the F.o.R. for 40 years has sought to impress this same spirit upon the world. In commenting on the movie I tried to explain how because of its message—[strikeout illegible] “your message,” I said—the lives of people who have come into contact with its making have been visibly moved. (Toward the beginning of my remarks I tried to point out bring the courage of Negro students at Clinton and Sturgis into the focus of the spirit of Montgomery.)

The thrill of seeing this movie with these history-making citizens of Montgomery will probably never be duplicated. I have often thought what it would be like to hear people cheer and applaud the virtues of nonviolence and Christian love the same way people go nuts over seeing “our boys” march to war or the impressive fluttering of Old Glory in the winds. That night my wondering was answered. The appearance of Rosa Parks on the screen brought the house down. King’s remarks in his church church with the white reporter were followed by an ovation-like applause.2 For me any shadow of a doubt that “Walking to Freedom” had “made its point” was quickly eliminated by King’s whole-hearted reaction to the showing. He was obviously deeply moved and followed the showing with a brilliant, short summary of the power of nonviolence.

I got a thrilling indication of the priceless leadership this movement has aft when Ralph Abernathy got up and made this unforgettable remark:

“Children, I know how much this film has meant to you. But it is not something to be laughed at. When you see the feet of our people walking the streets with worn-out, scuffed, and turned in shoes you should feel glad inside and proud of those feet! You should have joy in your hearts for this movement and be able to say, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ ”

So went the premier showing of “Walking for Freedom.” King is quite certain the MIA will buy a copy. I suggest you send down a copy immediately, because in any event they are willing to use the film under the second condition mentioned in Al’s recent letter on the use of the film. Besides, Bob Graetz is eager to get his hands on it. We discussed this, and {he} plans to have it shown before white groups in Montgomery, Mobile, and Birmingham. And when Graetz says he will do it, it is as good as done. King agrees with my contention that there is ample need to show this film among the Negroes of Montgomery itself, because now a small percentage of the 46,000 or more Negroes attends the mass meetings. He has asked me to send him a note this week as a reminder to him to bring the matter of purchase before the MIA.

I felt lonely without you guys there, and I mean this. I was holding out a last minute hope that at least one of you could make it. Anyway, I hope I have been able to convey to you a meaningful sense of the impact the film made on the mass meeting.

My thanks to you both for allowing me to represent you at such an event.

in fellowship,
[signed] Bob
Robert L. Cannon

1.Robert L. Cannon worked out of Nashville as FOR’s field secretary for the mid-South region during 1955 and 1956. In 1957 he moved to California to serve as a minister in the United Methodist church.

2.The film depicts King telling the reporter, “We never intend to participate in violence. We depend solely on moral and spiritual forces.”

Source: 

FORR-PSC-P, Fellowship of Reconciliation Records, 1943-1973 , Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, Pa.