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Chapter 10: The Expanding Struggle

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

History has thrust upon our generation an indescribably important destiny-to complete a process of democratization which our nation has too long developed too slowly, but which is our most powerful weapon for world respect and emulation. How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our moral health as individuals, our cultural health as a region, our political health as a nation, and our prestige as a leader of the free world.

  • February 14, 1957 King becomes head of Southern Leaders Conference (later SCLC)
  • May 17 Delivers address at Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C.
  • September 25 Applauds President Eisenhower's decision to use force to integrate Little Rock's Central High School
  • October 23 Martin Luther King III is born
  • June 23, 1958 King and other civil rights leaders meet with Eisenhower

On January 9, 1957, Ralph Abernathy and I went to Atlanta to prepare for a meeting of Negro leaders that I had called for the following day. In the middle of the night we were awakened by a telephone call from Ralph's wife, Juanita. I knew that only some new disaster would make her rouse us at two in the morning. When Ralph came back, his sober face told part of the story. "My home has been bombed," he said, "and three or four other explosions have been heard in the city, but Juanita doesn't know where yet." I asked about Juanita and their daughter. "Thank God, they are safe." Be fore we could talk any more, the telephone rang a second time. I was Juanita again, saying that the First Baptist Church had been hit Ralph's home and his church had been bombed in one night. I knew no words to comfort him. There in the early morning hours we prayed to God together, asking for the power of endurance, the strength to carry on. 

Ralph and I arranged to fly back, leaving the meeting of South ern leaders to begin without us. From the Montgomery airport we drove directly to Ralph's house. The street was roped off, and hundreds of people stood staring at the ruins. The front porch had beer almost completely destroyed, and things inside the house were scat tered from top to bottom. Juanita, though shocked and pale, was fairly composed. 

The rest of the morning was spent in a grim tour of the othe bombings. The Bell Street and Mt. Olive Baptist churches had beel almost completely destroyed. The other two churches were less se verely damaged, but nevertheless faced great losses. 

That afternoon, I returned to Atlanta to make at least an appear ance at the meeting of Negro leaders. There I found an enthusiastic group of almost a hundred men from all over the South, committee to the idea of a Southern movement to implement the Supreme Court's decision against bus segregation through nonviolent means We wired President Dwight D. Eisenhower, asking him to come south immediately, to make a major speech in a major Southern city urging all Southerners to accept and to abide by the Supreme Court's decisions as the law of the land. We further urged him toi use the weight of his great office to point out to the South the mora nature of the problems posed at home and abroad by the unsolved civil rights issue. Before adjourning they voted to form the Southen Leaders Conference (later the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC), a permanent organization to facilitate coordinate action of local protest groups. I became the group's president, a position I still hold.

Wave of terror

When I returned to Montgomery over the weekend I found the Negro community in low spirits. After the bombings the city commission had ordered all buses off the streets; and it now appeared that the city fathers would use this reign of violence as an excuse to cancel the bus company's franchise. As a result, many were coming to feel that all our gains had been lost; I myself started to fear that we were in for another long struggle to get bus service renewed. I was also beginning to wonder whether the virulent leaflets that were bombarding the Negro community might be having their effect. Discouraged, and still revolted by the bombings, for some strange reason I began to feel a personal sense of guilt for everything that was happening. 

In this mood I went to the mass meeting on Monday night. There for the first time, I broke down in public. I had invited the audience to join me in prayer, and had begun by asking God's guidance and direction in all our activities. Then, in the grip of an emotion I could not control, I said, "Lord, I hope no one will have to die as a result of our struggle for freedom in Montgomery. Certainly I don't want to die. But if anyone has to die, let it be me." The audience was in an uproar. Shouts and cries of "no, no" came from all sides. So intense was the reaction, that I could not go on with my prayer. Two of my fellow ministers came to the pulpit and suggested that I take a seat. For a few minutes I stood with their arms around me, unable to move. Finally, with the help of my friends, I sat down. It was this scene that caused the press to report mistakenly that I had collapsed. 

Unexpectedly, this episode brought me great relief. Many people came up to me after the meeting and many called the following day to assure me that we were all together until the end. For the next few days, the city was fairly quiet. Bus service was soon resumed, though still on a daytime schedule only. 

Then another wave of terror hit. Early in the morning of January 28, the People's Service Station and Cab Stand was bombed, and another bomb fell at the home of a sixty-year-old Negro hospital worker. The same morning an unexploded bomb, crudely assemble from twelve sticks of dynamite, was found still smoldering on my porch. 

Letter to Mrs. Fannie E. Scott (Coretta's Grandmother)

Dear Mrs. Scott:

Thanks for your very kind letter of recent date. I am very happy to know of your interest here in Montgomery. May I assure you that things are going very well with me and the family. Coretta and the baby are doing fine. We are determined as ever before to continue to struggle for freedom and justice here in Montgomery. The impression that the paper gave a few days ago was totally false. I neither collapsed nor broke down in tears. I am still as strong and healthy as ever before. Be sure to keep us in your prayers.

January 28, 1957

I was staying with friends on the other side of town, and Corett and Yoki were in Atlanta. So once more I heard the news first on the telephone. On my way home, I visited the other scenes of disastc nearby, and found to my relief that no one had been hurt. 

At home I addressed the crowd from my porch, where the mar of the bomb was clear. "We must not return violence under an condition. I know this is difficult advice to follow, especially sinc we have been the victims of no less than ten bombings. But this the way of Christ; it is the way of the cross. We must somehow believe that unearned suffering is redemptive." Then, since it was Sunday morning, I urged the people to go home and get ready forchurch. Gradually they dispersed. 

With these bombings the community came to see that Montgomery was fast being plunged into anarchy. Finally, the city began to investigate in earnest. Rewards of $4,000 were offered for informatic leading to the arrest and conviction of the bombers. On January 3 the Negro community was surprised to hear that seven white me had been arrested in connection with the bombings. 

The defense attorneys spent two days attempting to prove the innocence of their clients, arguing that the bombings had been carried out by the MIA in order to inspire new outside donations for their dwindling treasury. At the end of the second day I was called to the witness stand by the defense. For more than an hour I was questioned on things which had no relevance to the bombing case. The lawyers lifted statements of mine out of context to give the impression that I was a perpetrator of hate and violence. At many points they invented derogatory statements concerning white people, and attributed them to me. The men had signed confessions. But in spite of all the evidence, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Justice had once more miscarried. But the diehards had made their last stand. The disturbances ceased abruptly. Desegregation on the buses proceeded smoothly. In a few weeks transportation was back to normal, and people of both races rode together wherever they pleased. The skies did not fall when integrated buses finally traveled the streets of Montgomery.

A symbol of a movement

After Time magazine published a cover story on our movement in February 1957, I thought I observed a lessening of tensions and feelings against me and the movement itself.

To Coretta Scott King


14 February 1957 
New Orleans, La.



During this period, I could hardly go into any city or any town in this nation where I was not lavished with hospitality by peoples of all races and of all creeds. I could hardly go anywhere to speak in this nation where hundreds and thousands of people were not turned away because of lack of space. And then after speaking, I often had to be rushed out to get away from the crowd rushing for autographs. I could hardly walk the street in any city of this nation where I was not confronted with people running up the street: "Isn't this Reverend King of Alabama?" And living under this it was easy to feel that I was something special.

When you are aware that you are a symbol, it causes you to search your soul constantly-to go through this job of self-analysis, to see if you live up to the high and noble principles that people surround you with, and to try at all times to keep the gulf between the public self and the private self at a minimum. 

One of the prayers that I prayed to God every day was: "Oh God, help me to see myself in my true perspective. Help me, oh God, to see that I'm just a symbol of a movement. Help me to see that I'm the victim of what the Germans call aZeitgeist and that something was getting ready to happen in history. And that a boycott would have taken place in Montgomery, Alabama, if I had never come to Alabama. Help me to realize that I'm where I am because of the forces of history and because of the fifty thousand Negroes of Alabama who will never get their names in the papers and in the headlines. Oh, God, help me to see that where I stand today, I stand because others helped me to stand there and because the forces of history projected me there."

New Negro in the South

It was clear that things were much better than they were before December 5, 1955, but Montgomery's racial problems were still far from solved. The problem in Montgomery was merely symptomatic of the larger national problem. Forces maturing for years had given rise to a crisis in race relations. The social upheavals of the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the spread of the automobile had made it both possible and necessary for the Negro to move away from his former isolation on the rural plantation. The decline of agriculture and the parallel growth of industry had drawn large numbers of Negroes to urban centers and brought about a gradual improvement in their economic status. New contacts had led to a broadened outlook and new possibilities for educational advance.

The Consequences of Fame

One of the frustrations of any young man is to approach the heights at such an early age. The average man reaches this point maybe in his late forties or early fifties. But when you reach it so young, your life becomes a kind of decrescendo. You feel yourself fading from the screen at a time you should just be starting to work toward your goal.

Frankly, I'm worried to death. A man who hits the peak at twentyseven has a tough job ahead. People will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of the hat for the rest of my life. If I don't or there are no rabbits to be pulled, then they'll say I'm no good.

Quoted in the New York Post, April 14, 1957

All of these factors conjoined to cause the Negro to take a fresh look at himself. His expanding life experiences had created within him a consciousness that he was an equal element in a larger social compound and accordingly should be given rights and privileges commensurate with his new responsibilities. Once plagued with a tragic sense of inferiority resulting from the crippling effects of slavery and segregation, the Negro was driven to reevaluate himself. He had come to feel that he was somebody.

This growing self-respect has inspired the Negro with a new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first-class citizenship becomes a reality. This is the true meaning of the Montgomery Story. One can never understand the bus protest in Montgomery without understanding that there is a new Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny.

Along with the Negro's changing image of himself has come an awakening moral consciousness on the part of millions of white Americans concerning segregation. Ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America has manifested a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves-a self in which she has proudly professed democracy and a self in which she has sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. The reality of segregation, like slavery, has always had to confront the ideals of democracy and Christianity. Indeed, segregation and discrimination are strange paradoxes in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal.

Climaxing this process was the Supreme Court's decision outlawing segregation in the public schools. For all men of goodwill May 17, 1954marked a joyous end to the long night of enforced segregation. In unequivocal language the Court affirmed that "separate but equal" 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. This decision brought hope to millions of disinherited Negroes who had formerly dared only to dream of freedom. It further enhanced the Negro's sense of dignity and gave him even greater determination to achieve justice.

This determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from all forms of oppression springs from the same deep longing that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world. The rumblings of discontent in Asia and Africa are expressions of a quest for freedom and human dignity by people who have long been the victims of colonialism and imperialism. So, in a real sense, the racial crisis in America is a part of the larger world crisis.

Give us the ballot!

On the seventeenth of May, 1957, civil rights advocates commemorated the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's momentous decision outlawing segregation by leading a Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. On that day thousands of Negroes and white persons of goodwill from all over the country assembled at the Lincoln Memorial and had a service about two hours in length. We received strong and powerful support from organized labor. Walter Reuther, for instance, sent letters to all of his locals requesting them to send delegations and also money. The overall purpose of this pilgrimage was to arouse the conscience of the nation in favor of racial justice. The more specific purposes were to demonstrate the unity of the Negro in the struggle for freedom, the violence and terror which we suffer in the southland at this time, and to appeal to Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill, which was being bottled up in committees by Southern congressmen.

In the midst of these prevailing conditions, we came to Washington to say to the men in the forefront of our government, that the civil rights issue was not an ephemeral, evanescent domestic issue that could be kicked about by reactionary guardians of the status quo; it was rather an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation in the ideological struggle with Communism. 

Our most urgent request to the President of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a Southern manifesto because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the Southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine. Give us the ballot and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court's Decision of May 17, 1954 . . . .

If the executive and legislative branches of the government were as concerned about the protection of our citizenship rights as the federal courts have been, then the transition from a segregated to an integrated society would be infinitely smoother. But we so often look to Washington in vain for this concern. In the midst of the tragic breakdown of law and order, the executive branch of the government is all too silent and apathetic. In the midst of the desperate need for civil rights legislation, the legislative branch of the government is all too stagnant and hypocritical.

This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary Northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.

Crusade for Citizenship

During the summer of 1957 the SCLC made plans for a Crusade for Citizenship, a new Southwide educational and action campaign for the enforcement of Negro voting rights. The recently enacted Civil Rights law would be meaningless unless it was translated into action by Negroes exercising their right to vote. The main purpose of the Crusade for Citizenship was to get Negroes throughout the South to exercise that right. 

It was my firm conviction that if the Negro achieved the ballot throughout the South, many of the problems which we faced would be solved. Once we gained the ballot, we would see a new day in the South. I had come to see that one of the most decisive steps that the Negro could take was a short walk to the voting booth. Until we gained the ballot and placed proper public officials in office, this condition would continue to exist. 

In September 1957 I thought it was quite regrettable and unfortunate that young high school students in Little Rock, Arkansas, had to go to school under the protection of federal troops. But I thought it was even more unfortunate that Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, through irresponsible actions, left the president of the United States with no other alternative. I believe firmly in nonviolence, but, at the same time, I am not an anarchist. I believe in the intelligent use of police force. And I thought that was all we had in Little Rock. It wasn't an army fighting against a nation or a race of people. It was just police force, seeking to enforce the law of the land. It was high time that a man as popular in the world as Eisenhower-a man with his moral influence-speak out and take a stand against what was happening all over the South. So I backed the President, and I sent him a telegram commending him for the positive and forthright stand that he took in the Little Rock school situation. He showed the nation and the world that the United States was a nation dedicated to law and order rather than mob rule. 

Nevertheless, it was strange to me that the federal government was more concerned about what happened in Budapest than what happened in Birmingham. I thought Eisenhower believed that integration would be a fine thing. But I thought he felt that the more you push it, the more tension it would create, so, just wait a few more years and it will work itself out. I didn't think that Eisenhower felt like being a crusader for integration. President Eisenhower was a man of integrity and goodwill, but I am afraid that on the question of integration he didn't understand the dimensions of social change involved nor how the problem was to be worked out.

NEXT: Chapter 11: The Birth of a New Nation