I wonder if, as he celebrated his 26th birthday in 1955, he could have imagined that journey that he had been prepared for, and that he was about to undertake.
Newly married, less than a year into his appointment at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and working through the final draft of a painfully difficult dissertation in Systematic Theology, Martin Luther King, Jr. could no more slow the freight train of racial hatred than he could change the color of his skin or the commanding timbre of his voice.
“Lightning makes no sound until it strikes.”
Because her parents could not afford a car, 15 year old Claudette Colvin took the bus to and from high school every day. Taking the bus was a twice daily reminder that her life did not matter as much as the lives of her fellow White passengers, who had paid the same fare but were privileged with a different bus-riding experience. It was the same for all Black people in Alabama and throughout the South (and in less overt but more insidious ways in the North). Not only did the multitude of informal sociocultural cues and signals all send that same clear message (that Black lives do not matter), but the very laws of the land, the lawmakers, judges, juries, civil servants, police–the entire edifice that we think of as the government of, by, and for the people, manifesting the will of White Americans to maintain a permanent underclass by requiring mandatory racial separation in restaurants, schools, and yes: buses.
Maybe it was the lessons on Civil Rights that she was learning at her high school, which would remain segregated for decades afterwards, or the paper she had just turned in to her teacher about being forbidden from trying on clothes in department store dressing rooms because she was Black.
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Maybe it was the plain faced insult of being told that the standing White person was entitled to her seat in the colored section, leaving her to stand in the back as three others before her had already been ordered to do.
Maybe it was the deep seated animosity that had grown up between a vast multitude of people kidnapped and ransomed into forced labor, and a people so saddled with the guilt of their greed and cruelty that their collective consciences had long since been seared to the point of thinking that their privileged status came from some legitimate source.
Maybe it was seeing the courage of the pregnant woman, Ruth Hamilton, who protested that she had paid her fare, and did not feel like standing. (Did Claudette already know at this point that she herself was a few weeks pregnant?)
“When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Whatever her reasons, Claudette was not getting up. Not this time.
When the police arrived she still would not get up, even after they had convinced the young Black men in the next row to give up their seats. Even after Ruth had accepted the compromise and moved back a row, Claudette would not move and would thereby force the officers to arrest her —she would be the thing that her youthful indiscretion and our hypocritical society demands for moral purity from our heroes: she would be first.
The first documented case in Montgomery, that is.
10 years earlier, a young Black Army Lieutenant was riding a bus on the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, when a White woman boarded and he was asked to move to the back of the bus, because he was “colored.”
Jack Roosevelt Robinson would be court-martialed because he refused to give up his seat, and he would later write in his autobiography: “I was aware of the fact that recently Joe Louis and Ray Robinson had refused to move to the backs of buses in the South. The resulting publicity had caused the Army to put out regulations barring racial discrimination on any vehicle operating on an Army post. Knowing about these regulations, I had no intention of being intimidated into moving to the back of the bus…When we reached the last stop on the post…the driver jumped out of the bus…returning quickly with his dispatcher and some other drivers… We heard the screeching of tires and a military police jeep pulled up. The two military policemen asked a few questions, then, with great politeness, asked if I would be willing to go along with them to talk to their captain.”
When Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey was told about Jackie Robinson, he knew that a good player would not be enough to break the ‘color barrier’ in major league baseball. He chose Robinson because he read about his behavior during his court martial, where despite the accusations that he had behaved disrespectfully, he proved to the court that the charges were false and inconsistent with the soldier testifying in front of them.
“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
Surely others had taken a stand on the issue before, but somehow the situation in Montgomery was different, and within a few months, several more young Black women were charged with violating the bus segregation rules in Montgomery, including the famous one that signaled the beginning of the official boycott.
By his next birthday, Dr. King would be fully engulfed in the controversy and struggle of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which he had been asked to lead just before the arrest of Rosa Parks on 12/1/1955.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
E.D. Nixon, the President of the local NAACP chapter (no relation to that Nixon), had chosen Dr. King because he was relatively new to Montgomery, and had yet to experience the intimidation that was the hallmark of the town’s ruling class. Nixon knew that the time had come to take the fight against segregation to the mainstream, and that the bus issue could unite Black folks in Montgomery — but only in his most grandiose dreams could he have imagined the wide reaching impact that this work would ultimately achieve.
It is difficult for me at this stage of reading the history to reconstruct whatever motivations that prompt the deep cowardice that is terrorism. I have had some heated and emotional disagreements in my days, but I can say without hesitation that I have never felt so threatened or insulted that I would resort to the use of an explosive device as a way of getting the last word in an argument.
For the young Dr. King, that is what came next.
Infuriating as it is to retell, two months after the arrest of Rosa Parks, and two weeks after his 27th birthday, Dr. King received the message that his home had been bombed, and he rushed home to look into the safety of his wife and infant daughter.
A group of supporters had assembled on his front lawn, and he had the unique opportunity to share in Christ’s unique sufferings by being improperly persecuted, but having to convince his devoted followers to put away their swords. Despite the belittling tone that some regard nonviolent principles with today, it is undeniable to my mind that petty vengeance is a shallow substitute for the desperately needed work of organizing our people to achieve lasting change and real power.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.”
In the days that followed, the young couple would take calls from their parents, filled with that fear and concern that only a parent can feel for their child. Martin Luther King Sr., who had for some time objected to his son’s choice of Coretta Scott as his bride, arrived in Montgomery almost at the same time as Correta’s father, mother, and brother, Obie Scott (Coretta’s father) delivered the ultimatum that, lest Martin Jr. return with his young family to Atlanta, he would take his daughter and granddaughter back with him to Marion — a demand that Martin Sr. agreed with.
Four days earlier, Dr. King had been jailed for the first time in his life, and had committed himself more deeply to the struggle for the unqualified freedom of his people. Now Coretta would follow her husband’s lead: committing herself to their cause in the face of legitimate fears, even of death, she refused to allow her father to dictate the terms of their retreat from Montgomery.
Coretta had been concerned for some time with taking up the mantle of a preacher’s wife, and had wrestled with disappointment when they received the call to Dexter Baptist. Her love for her husband, and trust in her God however had persuaded her. Only now, facing the yawning abyss of hatred and violence in Birmingham did she see with clarity the role that God had in mind for her and for her husband, and said with the conviction of a saint: Amen. Let it be so.
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There would be at least six more bombings, and many other violent and hateful outbursts, but there was also the courage of countless men and women standing up for themselves and for their neighbors. Bus boycotters organizing and volunteering in carpools. Southern housewives who picked up their domestic employees, and taxi drivers who would only charge their customers the 10 cent fare that the buses charged.
Lloyds of London, which had gotten it’s start insuring slave ship owners, agreed to insure carpool drivers that had been denied insurance by racist local agents who knew too well the economic impact of the boycott. Men and women, young and old hitchhiked, rode bicycles, or rode mules or in horse drawn carriages.
“One day the South will recognize its real heroes…They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.”
People acted out their principles by walking, choosing the exhaustion of a long walk after a full day’s work to the humiliation of an insulting bus ride, and churches from all over the nation and beyond, inspired by this imitation of their own righteous and self-ambulatory messiah, sent in new and used shoes to replace those that had been worn thin by the protest, and funds to support their brethren now in need.
When Dr. King’s house was bombed a second time, a crowd of hundreds of angry men gathered, and as he had done the first time, Martin now pleaded with his brothers:
“If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you”. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.”
Criminalized and prosecuted, Dr. King chose to serve over a year in jail rather than pay a fine that might be seen as an acknowledgement that he had done something wrong, or else an example of his desire to preserve his own comfort. When the press learned of his noble conviction, they made national news of it, and he was released after only two weeks.
“I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.”
Two historic years after Claudette Colvin rode that fateful bus, the Supreme Court would once again strike down southern segregation as unequal protection under the law (a violation of the 14th Amendment), just as it had done three years earlier in the matter of school segregation (you know, the victory won in that landmark federal case? Mendez v. Westminster? Anyone?).
The community at Montgomery would not be allowed, however, to celebrate their victory for long as violence and vengeance sought to reestablish through intimidation the rule of separate and unequal. In the short weeks between the court’s ruling and Martin’s 28th birthday, shootings, lynchings, and the firebombing of five black churches would overshadow any thoughts of celebration.
He was far from a perfect man. Like W.E.B. DuBois, he held many problematic beliefs about respectability politics and uplift suasion, but who is to say that Dr. King would not have come around to a more fully anti-racist viewpoint. DuBois did not begin to abandon his assimilationist views until he was well into his 60s, what might Dr. King have accomplished in the second half of his life?
Perfect or not, Dr. King demonstrated for us all the impact of a man committed to his principles despite any obstacle to the truth, the justice, and the sacrificial life that must accompany any true profession of Christian doctrine. The man himself put it best, two months before his 39th and final birthday, in a sermon to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the very place of his own birth and baptism, and his final resting place today:
“Somehow you go on and say “I know that the God that I worship is able to deliver me, but if not, I’m going on anyhow, I’m going to stand up for it anyway.” What does this mean? It means, in the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell then you aren’t doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure then you aren’t doing right. Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. And you’ve got to say “But if not.” You must love ultimately because it’s lovely to love. You must be just because it’s right to be just. You must be honest because it’s right to be honest. This is what this text is saying more than anything else. And finally, you must do it because it has gripped you so much that you are willing to die for it if necessary. And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause — and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
May you stand with the strength and conviction of a King.