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Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

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September 17, 1958

According to Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, his memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, is “the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth” (King, 9).

In early 1957 numerous publishers began encouraging King to write a book about the boycott. By October of that year, he signed a contract with Harper & Brothers that was negotiated by his new literary agents, Joan Daves and Marie Rodell, and began work on the manuscript.

In Stride Toward Freedom, King delineates racial conditions in Montgomery before, during, and after the bus boycott. He discusses the origin and significance of the boycott, the roles that residents, civic leaders, and community organizations played in organizing and sustaining the movement, and the reactions of white Montgomery officials and residents. According to King, before the boycott African Americans in Montgomery were victims of segregation and poverty, but after the boycott, when bus desegregation was achieved, they evidenced a new level of self-respect (King, 28; 187). King points out that most African Americans in Montgomery accepted a nonviolent approach because they trusted their leaders when they told them that nonviolence was the essence of active Christianity.

In the chapter “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King delves into the intellectual influences that led him to nonviolent philosophy. He discusses the impact made upon his thinking by the works of Thoreau, Marx, Aristotle, Rauschenbusch, and Gandhi. King also outlines his understanding of nonviolence, which seeks to win an opponent to friendship, rather than to humiliate or defeat him (King, 102).

Throughout the writing process, King was dependent on friends and colleagues who supplied text to aid him in meeting publishing deadlines. Stanley Levison, Bayard Rustin, and Harris Wofford provided significant guidance. In fact, King’s discussion of nonviolence is drawn from an address by Wofford. King also received editorial help from Lawrence D. Reddick, a professor at Alabama State College, Hermine I. Popper, a freelance editor, and Melvin Arnold, of Harper & Brothers.

In revisions of King’s manuscript, the meticulous editors from the press made “every effort to see that not even a single sentence can be lifted out of context and quoted against the book and the author” (Papers 4:404). For instance, they were extremely cautious about King’s discourse on communism, and they suggested changes, such as using the phrase “social cooperation” instead of “collectivism,” and calling Marxism “a partial truth” instead of “a half truth” (Papers 4:405).

Stride Toward Freedom was officially released on 17 September 1958. It was lauded by both the general public and literary critics, who repeatedly labeled it “‘must’ reading” (Mays, “My View”). In describing the book in 1958, Benjamin Mays wrote, “Americans who believe in justice and equality for all cannot afford to miss the book. Negroes can not afford to miss it because it tells us again how we can work against evil with dignity, pride and self-respect” (“My View”).


Arnold to King, 5 May 1958, in Papers 4:404–405.

Introduction, in Papers 4:29–33.

King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.

Mays, “My View,” Pittsburgh Courier, 25 October 1958.