Martin Luther King Jr. Part I

A short summary.

I’m a great admirer of Dr. King and his methods of direct action and community organizing.  If he were alive today would be his 79th birthday.  In celebration of his life and work I’m putting together a brief outline of some of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

My primary source is going to be the Wikipedia, not because it’s especially good or complete, but simply because I think it’s instructive to see how this pivotal and relatively recent period in American History is treated by their procedures and writers (for a slightly longer discussion of my feelings about Wikipedia read here).

Brief as my treatment is, it’s slightly longer than I can comfortably fit in a single diary so I’m going to split it up into several sections, all of which I hope to publish by the official celebration of his birthday the 19th.  I do have some regularly scheduled diaries that will interrupt the series on Friday and Sunday.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Martin Luther King Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954.  He was twenty-five years old.

His first involvement with what he called “direct action” came the next year in the Mongomery Bus Boycott.  In March a 15 year old girl was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.  Claudette Colvin was a member of the NAACP youth group and one of her group advisors was Rosa Parks.  Yup, that one.

After her arrest E.D. Nixon, a leader of the Montgomery NAACP, and a number of community leaders began raising funds for her court costs.  They had been waiting for a case to test bus segregation.  Unfortunately she was raped and became pregnant, and the local leaders backed off waiting for the next opportunity.

Which came a little over six months later-

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

Nixon bailed out Parks and set up a meeting to organize a boycott and start the legal work going at King’s Dexter Avenue Church.  He couldn’t come so he arranged that they wouldn’t pick a leader then, but he later met with Ralph Abernathy and Rev. E.N. French and they named the group the “Montgomery Improvement Association” and selected King as leader.

King was Nixon’s choice because he was new to town and hadn’t been intimidated yet.

Shortly after they had a larger meeting and several ministers objected to getting involved.  Nixon basically accused them of stealing their congregation’s donations because they weren’t willing to stand up.  When Nixon threatened to reveal their cowardice, King loudly proclaimed that he was not afraid to support the boycott and became the leader of the MIA with Nixon as his Treasurer.

By December 3rd the boycott was already underway.  The group initially started with the compromise position of merely demanding a fixed colored section that couldn’t arbitrarily be reduced by the bus driver.  As the protest continued it started to cause a serious decline in ridership.  Black cab drivers would charge only bus fare to their passengers who were participating and carpools were arranged by those who had them.

Montgomery pressured local insurance companies to deny policies to carpoolers.  The boycotters went out and got a policies from Lloyd’s of London.  When they found out about the taxis the city instituted a fine for any driver charging less than 4 and a half times bus fare.  Churches across the country held collections and donated shoes to the newly pedestrian boycotters.

One hundred and fifty six of them were arrested, including King.  He was fined $500 and sentenced to a year and a day in jail.

That’s not all the push back though, King’s and Abernathy’s houses were fire bombed along with 4 churches.  Membership in the White Citizen’s Council doubled.  Unfortunately for the segregationists these actions attracted national attention to the boycott.

On June 4th, 1956 the Federal District Court ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional, but this verdict was not accepted until confirmed by the United States Supreme Court on November 13th.  The boycott did not end until December 20th.  King served only 2 weeks.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

It’s not like nothing happened in the 3 years between 1957 and 1961.  Campaigns to desegregate buses began to spread across the South and as early as January 1957 King, Abernathy, and 60 other activists met at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta and formed the Negro Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration which became The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In it’s early years the SCLC didn’t do it’s own organizing, but supported the actions of it’s individual affiliated organizations, primarily churches with some community groups like the MIA.  It was seen as a means of organization and a clearinghouse for information and was primarily involved in education and voter registration.

King wrote two books, Stride Toward Freedom (1958) which is notable because he was stabbed at a book signing and nearly died, and The Measure of A Man (1959) from which What is a Man is taken.

Oh, and J. Edgar started tracking him as a subversive.

The Albany Movement

In 1961, King and the SCLC became involved in the Albany Movement.  King went with an SCLC delegation to Albany, Georigia intending to chat with the local organizers when they got arrested.

What had happened was that there had been all the usual NAACP voter registration kind of activism for years, some young community organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to town and persuaded the NAACP to join them in a general strike.

Bus stations, libraries, and lunch counters reserved for White Americans were occupied by African Americans, boycotts were launched, and hundreds of protesters marched on City Hall.

They were opposed by Laurie Pritchett who believed in mass pre-emptive arrests and renditions, dispersing his prisoners in jails over a wide area of sympathetic sheriffs.  This was so there wouldn’t be any messy attention getting protests in front of his jail.

So this kind of thing had been happening for about a month and the day after he got to town King got swept up in a mass bust of a peaceful rally.  He made a big deal about refusing to post bail and was able to put the local segregationist government in an embarrassing position.  He extracted some concessions and left.

Things didn’t get much better in Albany and King came back about 7 months later and was hauled into court and sentenced to 45 days or $178.  King again preferred to serve his time but after three days Pritchett of all people paid the fine and booted him out of jail.  It went around again like that about a year later, but in his autobiography King expresses his opinion that the Albany action had been too diffuse and had attacked too many segregationist practices at once.

It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale.

In looking at my narrative this seems a logical place to stop for the moment.  The next installment will cover at least Birmingham and the March on Washington.


  1. Interestingly enough, to me at least, National City Lines bus No. 2857 is on display at The Henry Ford.

  2. in orange.  ETA 9:30 (et).

    • BobbyK on January 16, 2009 at 18:52

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