Saturday, January 20, 2007

Martin Luther King's Journey to Activism

For the last two years, the EAOP has sponsored a three-hour radio special during the Martin Luther King Holiday on our local community station. The show plays four complete speeches by King from the Pacifica Radio Archives and offers some commentary from me. The segment that gets the most listener comment every year is the little known story of how King became an activist, which only proves that activists are made, not born.

Before December 1, 1955, King had not met Rosa Parks. He was 26 years old and still new to town. His church was one of the smallest, wealthiest, and most conservative of the two-dozen Black churches in Montgomery. His professional ambitions at the time were to run a solid church program, be well paid for it, have a nice house for his growing family, perhaps write some theology pieces for his denomination’s magazine, and do a bit of adjunct teaching at a nearby college after he was better established. King’s long-term career goal was to become a college president.

King had simply never ever imagined himself as the most prominent activist leader in Montgomery, let alone America. Sure, he had experienced racism, and hated it, but all black folks in America had experienced racism and hated it. He had also read a bit of Gandhi and Marx at Boston University and written several thoughtful papers about theologians of the social gospel movement who challenged the Church to take up the fight for social justice. Yet, in December 1955, all these ideas were mostly academic concerns for King. His only act of activism up to this point had been to write a letter to the editor for the Atlanta Constitution back when he was seventeen.

It is hard to imagine now, but if it had been left up to King’s initiative, the Montgomery Bus Boycott would never have even happened. The real organizer of this effort was E.D. Nixon, an experienced civil rights and labor activist who created the Montgomery Improvement Association and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott within the first four days after Rosa Parks’ arrest. As the president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Nixon knew Parks well. She had worked as his volunteer secretary at the NAACP office for over 12 years. He also knew most of the city’s black clergy, a couple of reasonably sympathetic white journalists, and all of the local black activists, including folks from his union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

It was Nixon who recruited a very reluctant King to the civil rights movement. After bailing Rosa Parks out of jail for refusing to move to the back of the bus, Nixon and she talked together for hours and decided to launch a city-wide boycott of the bus system until the city desegregated the service. Nixon then went home and started calling local ministers to line up their support for the idea. As Nixon explained to one interviewer: “I recorded quite a few names… The first man I called was Reverend Ralph Abernathy. He said, ‘Yes, Brother Nixon, I’ll go along. I think it’s a good thing.’ The second person I called was the late Reverend H.H. Hubbard. He said, ‘Yes, I’ll go along with you.’ And then I called Rev. King, who was number three on my list, and he said, ‘Brother Nixon, let me think about it awhile, and call you back.’”

When King finally agreed to come to a meeting, Nixon chuckled and told King, “I’m glad you agreed, because I already set up the first meeting at your church.” At the ministers’ meeting, King was very nervous about the illegal boycott idea and several other ministers soon began to side with King against the boycott idea. In his own memoir of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King recalls how Nixon finally exploded towards the end of the meeting and shouted that the ministers would have to decide if they were going to act like scared little boys or if they were going to stand up like grown men and take a strong public stand against segregation.

King’s pride was so hurt, he shouted back that nobody could call him a coward. Then, to prove his courage, King immediately agreed to Nixon’s plan for an aggressive, community organizing campaign to build up the boycott. With that decision made, the group began to discuss who should lead this effort. Everyone present had expected Nixon to become the president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. But when he was asked about serving, Nixon answered, “Naw, not unless’n you all don’t accept my man.” When asked whom he was nominating, Nixon said, “Martin Luther King.” Having just loudly declared his courage to the whole group, King felt that he had to agree to take on this responsibility. Then, Nixon told King he would have to give the main address at the mass rally scheduled for that very night to announce the boycott plan to the black community.

King rose to Nixon's challenge. Serving as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the next twelve months changed King. Watching 42,000 poor and working-class black people stay organized and do without public transportation for a year, he discovered things about the courage and capacity of ordinary people to resist oppression and move toward freedom. Watching the conservative, rightwing city government finally cave in to the boycott, he discovered the power of mass nonviolent direct action campaigns to win real victories--even when they are opposed by powerful interests. By seeing his own power to inspire people to become active citizens for a noble cause, King discovered just what kind of Christian leader he wanted to be in this life. He now fully embraced his new mission as an activist leader for fundamental social change.

There is an important lesson here for all of us. We don’t have to be born leaders, we don’t have to know everything before we get started, we just have to get started.


At 6:16 PM, Blogger Pete said...

It's a good story, Steve, but surely this was a unique set of circumstances? The justice and appropriateness of the proposed action was clear, and Nixon must have seen something in King that King was unable to see for himself. In another context, 'getting started' might not be the right thing to do, either because there is no clear course of action to take or because the actor is not up to the job. Remember the doctrine of unintended consequences - it's not a matter of choice between changing ourselves or changing the world but of knowing how the world (and ourselves along with it) needs to be changed and acting accordingly.

At 8:30 PM, Blogger STEVE CHASE said...

Hi Pete,

Thanks for your note. While I would agree that this set of circumstances is not universal, I don't that circumstance like this are unique. I think we face unseen opportunities like this all the time. I do agree though that personal transformation and social transformation are intimately linked. While I do think each one of us can "get started" in appropriate, useful ways in any given moment, I also agree that how people get started matters. However, I also give a lot of value to being willing to make mistakes and learn from our experience. That seems more empowering to me than sitting on my hands worrying about all the mistakes I might make because I'm not a perfect person or saint.

Again, thanks for your thoughts.


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