Civil Rights, Non-violence
King is the only home-grown native son in our illustrious list of heroes, and the most famous in the West, but nonetheless offers us useful lessons.
He was a black American leader in an era that saw immense hatred, vitriol, and enmity against his people. In the “Jim Crow South,” prejudice was abetted by the racial scapegoating that bubbled beneath the surface of America’s growing prosperity. Blacks in America fought in the integrated armed forces defending our freedom, only to return as veterans to a lower class status and segregation in their homeland. Post-slavery America was, and continues to be to this day, a white male dominated social structure. In the late fifties and early sixties, this racial tension came to a head.
King was inspired by leaders like Gandhi and increasingly employed his tactics in a surprisingly effective fashion. We will focus on the 1955 incident in Montgomery Alabama, the “Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. Leaflets were distributed to black citizens calling for a one day citywide boycott of the bus system. This went so well that the leaders extended the boycott. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Reverend King was elected president of a newly formed organization, MIA (the Montgomery Improvement Association). He committed to further organize the boycott.
Montgomery’s response to MIA demands was to cut service to “most negro districts.” King responded by organizing carpools. Black cab drivers started charging ten cents for rides in defiance of a city enforced minimum of a forty-five cent fare. Throughout this protracted battle, King was arrested picking up riders in his car, received daily death threats by phone, and saw his home bombed. Angry crowds gathered outside his home, but King pled for his followers to adhere to his stated principles of non-violence.
After an intense back and forth debate with city officials over many meetings, the MIA did not concede any of its demands. They lost many battles but ultimately won the war. In the end, Montgomery realized that integration would be good for business. One by one, city officials conceded. Legally, Jim Crow would recede on both a national and a local level.
On December 21, 1956, over one year after Rosa Parks’ arrest, Montgomery City Lines resumed full service on all routes. King was among the first passengers to seat himself in the former white section.
King traveled to India in 1959. He met with the Gandhi family, as well as Prime Minister Nehru. Later King preached on the significance of Gandhi’s 1928 salt march and his fast to end discrimination against India’s untouchables. King ultimately believed that the Gandhian approach of nonviolent resistance would ‘‘bring about a solution to the race problem in America’’ (Papers 4:355).*
King observed that only by steadfastly adhering to nonviolent principles was real progress toward liberation possible.
Be like Martin.