The King Years
Beyond state and local laws, which mandated racial separation everywhere from schools and businesses to public libraries, custom enforced segregation in houses of worship.
Since 1982, it took me twenty-four years and 2,306 pages to compile a three-book narrative history, America in the King Years, and the same enthrallment has distilled that work now into this slender volume. A singular wonder continues. I was not born or raised to care about politics, let alone to write history. The landmark Brown decision of 1954 had caught me a white first-grader in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, and my college graduation fourteen years later closely followed the King
assassination. Through all the formative years in between, I remained fearfully oblivious to race until the relentless freedom movement redirected my entire life’s interest. Permanent curiosity drove what would become a career ambition. As an outsider, I needed to learn what had sustained such resonant witness among near-peers of African descent.
Well before the 1988 publication of the first installment, Parting the Waters, I resolved to present my findings in storytelling form rather than the analytical synthesis common to history. No stylistic device can escape interpretation, and all history at bottom is an argument, but it seemed evident that cross-racial perspective has been especially vulnerable to distortion. Many standard histories taught, for instance, that the Civil War had little to do with slavery. President Kennedy recalled lessons at Harvard that Reconstruction trampled the rights of prominent white Southerners. Some textbooks still use an earnest, religious word—“Redeemers”—to describe the late-nineteenth-century politicians who imposed white supremacy and segregation, often by Klan-led terror. Clearly, over time, racial undercurrents have tilted and even inverted the prevailing view of our past.
This pitfall recommended a determined effort to ground cross-cultural history in fully human actors on all sides. Therefore, I resolved to avoid insofar as possible the distinctive labels of the civil rights era—“militant,” “racist,” “radical,” “integrationist”—because such terms invite comfort and caricature rather than discovery. The goal was to pursue stories of impact until the clashing characters felt convincing by all available evidence, including their own lights.
My regimen made for a sprawling text and carried its own burdens of craft. Parting the Waters is dedicated to the late Septima Clark for a peculiar reason. Interviews with her left a strong personal effect on me, confirming what others from the civil rights movement felt, but she had functioned almost entirely “offstage” from the main historical narrative, as it were, teaching literacy and citizenship to rural sharecroppers. My dedication was a personal gesture of tribute mixed with regret, because I found it impossible within my storytelling rules to include Septima Clark in proportion to her influence.
Those same rules delayed my writing altogether at the outset, because
they prohibited an introductory essay on the movement’s incubator and laboratory, Southern black churches. Only luck turned up a potential solution in an unwritten trove of memory about Vernon Johns, Dr. King’s predecessor at his church in Montgomery. The opening chapter presented this remarkable but unknown character on the calculated hope that his story itself could introduce the separate world of preachers and congregations, of warring politics and inspiration, from which the civil rights movement emerged.
Septima Clark and Vernon Johns are omitted from these pages along with many other figures I consider historically significant. Brevity offsets their absence. A hybrid framework for this volume seeks to preserve the authenticity of narrative detail within limited space. I have selected eighteen historical turning points from the 1954–68 era, described here in less than ten percent of the complete trilogy. Some are simple. Others are complex. They follow the spine of consequence through a transformative period that remains controversial. Each chapter begins with a short transitional summary, sometimes covering major events and intertwined plots with a paragraph or two. These new passages are necessarily compressed, interpretive, and open to argument, but they provide economical context so that readers can experience and absorb the key moments.
Those moved to seek fuller descriptions can find them in my books and many others, with voluminous reference notes. Our goal in this edition is to convey both the spirit and sweep of an extraordinary movement. Newer generations will find here the gist of a patriotic struggle in which the civil rights pioneers, like modern Founders, moved an inherited world of hierarchy and subjugation toward common citizenship. Others can recall vivid triumph and tragedy at the heart of national purpose for the United States, whose enduring story is freedom. The unvarnished history should resist fearful tides to diminish that story. Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together despite every hardship, against great odds.
The King Years
A community-wide assembly responds to oratory during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Within the precarious sanctuary of black churches, such mass meetings grew into a distinctive tool of solidarity for the civil rights movement.
— CHAPTER ONE — The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Martin Luther King’s First Public Address, 1955
U.S. history has been marked and largely defined by political struggle over a “self-evident” truth asserted in the (1776) Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal.” From the American Revolution forward, that founding principle has ignited controversy over the role of free government to secure “civil rights.” The phrase,
which pertains literally to anyone’s rights of citizenship, acquired a strong racial connotation through chronic upheavals over slavery and segregation, lasting more than a century before and after the Civil War of 1861–65. Even today, the civil rights cause is associated in common parlance with Americans of African descent.
An intense phase of this history, known as the modern civil rights movement, coincided with the short public career of its signature leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1954–68). The effects have rippled far and deep, from freedom abroad to cultural identities at home. The chief instigators referred to themselves first as Negroes, then black people, and subsequently African Americans. Prominent among catalyzing events came the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, and a unanimous Court struck down as unconstitutional the school segregation laws of twenty states from Florida to Kansas.
The political earth shook, but then again it did not. Very little changed. A year later, two men kidnapped and lynched fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in rural Mississippi, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. Till’s mother insisted that her son’s bloated, mutilated corpse, when pulled from the Tallahatchie River, be displayed in an open casket “for all the world to see,” and a sensationally segregated trial promptly acquitted two defendants who all but boasted of committing their crime to enforce the racial caste code. The Till case revealed a gaping chasm between real life and the Supreme Court’s arid pronouncement of equality in law.
No one predicted the next spark. It was novel in venue, method, and cast, with a female protagonist. Other Negroes had been arrested off the segregated public buses of Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing orders to surrender seats to white people, but none had the galvanizing effect of the soft-spoken, determined seamstress Rosa Parks. On Thursday evening, December 1, 1955, word of her arrest spread by mouth, leaflet, and emergency conclave, amplified from Negro church pulpits that
Sunday. On Monday, stunned that ninety percent of Negro passengers boycotted the buses, an ad hoc protest committee chose a well-educated newcomer in town to address an assembly on what to do next.
[From Parting the Waters, pp. 137–42]
King raced home to his wife and new baby sometime after six. Hesitantly, he informed Coretta that he had been drafted as president of the new protest committee. Much to his relief, she did not object to the fait accompli and in fact said quietly that she would support him in whatever he did. King said he would have no time for supper. He had to leave for the mass meeting within half an hour, and after that he had to address a banquet sponsored by the YMCA, one of the only integrated organizations in Montgomery. Most on his mind was the speech at Holt Street—his first appearance as the new protest leader, the first words most of the audience would have heard from him. He went into his study and closed the door, wondering how he could possibly create such an important speech in a few minutes, when he required fifteen hours to prepare an ordinary sermon. His mind raced. He knew from his conscience that he wanted to answer one peevish charge that had appeared in both newspaper articles thus far—that the Negroes had borrowed the boycott tactic from the White Citizens Councils, which had openly adopted a policy of harsh economic reprisal against Negroes who fought segregation. King searched for the correct words by which he might distinguish the bus boycott from un-Christian coercion. He had written only a few notes on a piece of paper when it was time to go.
Elliott Finley, King’s Morehouse friend with the pool table, drove him to the rally. King had a few minutes to think in the car. A traffic jam on the way to Holt Street extended the time a bit, and then a bit more, until they realized they could go no farther—the church was surrounded. The hostile press later estimated the crowd at five thousand people; Negroes put it at two or three times that figure. Whatever the exact number, only a small fraction of the bodies fit inside the church, and loudspeakers were being set up to amplify the proceedings to an outdoor crowd that stretched over several acres, across streets and around cars that had been parked at all angles. The prominent local patrons Clifford and Virginia Durr never got within three blocks of the church door. The missionary Lutheran pastor Robert Graetz was the only white supporter inside—the only white face seen there other than reporters and cameramen. “You know something, Finley,” said King, as he prepared to abandon the car. “This could turn into something big.” It took him fifteen minutes to push his way through the crowd. Shortly thereafter, the Holt Street pastor called him to the pulpit.
King stood silently for a moment. When he greeted the enormous crowd of strangers, who were packed in the balconies and aisles, peering in through the windows and upward from seats on the floor, he spoke in a deep voice, stressing his diction in a slow introductory cadence. “We are here this evening—for serious business,” he said, in even pulses, rising and then falling in pitch. When he paused, only one or two “yes” responses came up from the crowd, and they were quiet ones. It was a throng of shouters, he could see, but they were waiting to see where he would take them. “We are here in a general sense, because first and foremost—we are American citizens—and we are determined to apply our citizenship—to the fullness of its means,” he said. “But we are here in a specific sense—because of the bus situation in Montgomery.” A general murmur of assent came back to him, and the pitch of King’s voice rose gradually through short, quickened sentences. “The situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. Just the other day—just last Thursday to be exact—one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens—but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—was taken
from a bus—and carried to jail and arrested—because she refused to give up—to give her seat to a white person.”
The crowd punctuated each pause with scattered “Yeses” and “Amens.” They were with him in rhythm, but lagged slightly behind in enthusiasm. Then King spoke of the law, saying that the arrest was doubtful even under the segregation ordinances, because reserved Negro and white bus sections were not specified in them. “The law has never been clarified at that point,” he said, drawing an emphatic “Hell, no” from one man in his audience. “And I think I speak with—with legal authority—not that I have any legal authority—but I think I speak with legal authority behind me—that the law—the ordinance—the city ordinance has never been totally clarified.” This sentence marked King as a speaker who took care with distinctions, but it took the crowd nowhere. King returned to the special nature of Rosa Parks. “And since it had to happen, I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks,” he said, “for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.” That’s right, a soft chorus answered. “And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested,” King repeated. The crowd was stirring now, following King at the speed of a medium walk.
He paused slightly longer. “And you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” A flock of “Yeses” was coming back at him when suddenly the individual responses dissolved into a rising cheer and applause exploded beneath the cheer—all within the space of a second. The startling noise rolled on and on, like a wave that refused to break, and just when it seemed that the roar must finally weaken, a wall of sound came in from the enormous crowd outdoors to push the volume still higher. Thunder seemed to be added to the lower register—the sound of feet stomping on the wooden floor—until the loudness became something that was not so much heard as it was sensed by vibrations in the lungs. The giant cloud of noise shook the building and refused to go away. One sentence had set it loose somehow, pushing the call-and-response of the Negro church service past the din of a political rally and on to something else that King had never known before. . . .
Perhaps daunted by the power that was bursting forth from the crowd, King moved quickly to address the pitfalls of a boycott. “Now let us say that we are not here advocating violence,” he said. “We have overcome that.” A man in the crowd shouted, “Repeat that! Repeat that!” “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people,” said King, putting three distinct syllables in “Christian.” “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.” There was a crisp shout of approval right on the beat of King’s pause. He and the audience moved into a slow trot. “If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation—we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime—we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” When the shouts of approval died down, King rose up with his final reason to avoid violence, which was to distinguish themselves from their opponents in the Klan and the White Citizens Council. “There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery,” he said. “There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and murdered. There will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation.”
King paused. The church was quiet but it was humming. “My friends,” he said slowly, “I want it to be known—that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination—to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong. We are not wrong in what we are doing.” There was a muffled shout of anticipation, as the crowd sensed that King was moving closer to the heart of his cause. “If we are wrong—the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong,” King sang out. He was rocking now, his voice seeming to be at once deep and high-pitched. “If we are wrong—God Almighty is wrong!” he shouted, and the crowd seemed to explode a second time, as it had done when he said they were tired. Wave after wave of noise broke over them, cresting into the farthest reaches of the ceiling. They were far beyond Rosa Parks or the bus laws. King’s last cry had fused blasphemy to the edge of his faith and the heart of theirs. The noise swelled until King cut through it to move past a point of unbearable tension. “If we are wrong—Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth!
If we are wrong—justice is a lie.” This was too much. He had to wait some time before delivering his soaring conclusion, in a flight of anger mixed with rapture: “And we are determined here in Montgomery—to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!” The audience all but smothered this passage from Amos, the lowly herdsman prophet of Israel who, along with the priestly Isaiah, was King’s favorite biblical authority on justice.
He backed off the emotion to speak of the need for unity, the dignity of protest, the historical precedent of the labor movement. Comparatively speaking, his subject matter was mundane, but the crowd stayed with him even through paraphrases of abstruse points from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. “And I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love,” he said. “Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which would work against love.” He said that God was not just the God of love: “He’s also the God that standeth before the nations and says, ‘Be still and know that I am God—and if you don’t obey Me I’m gonna break the backbone of your power—and cast you out of the arms of your international and national relationships.’ ” Shouts and claps continued at a steady rhythm as King’s audacity overflowed. “Standing beside love is always justice,” he said. “Not only are we using the tools of persuasion—but we’ve got to use the tools of coercion.” He called again for unity. For working together. He appealed to history, summoning his listeners to behave so that sages of the future would look back at the Negroes of Montgomery and say they were “a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.” He said they could do that. “God grant that we will do it before it’s too late.” Someone said, “Oh, yes.” And King said, “As we proceed with our program—let us think on these things.”
The crowd retreated into stunned silence as he stepped away from the pulpit. The ending was so abrupt, so anticlimactic. The crowd had been waiting for him to reach for the heights a third time at his conclusion, following the rules of oratory. A few seconds passed before memory and spirit overtook disappointment. The applause continued as King made his way out of the church, with people reaching to touch him. Members from
King’s own church marveled, having never seen him let loose like that. Rev. Ralph Abernathy remained behind, reading negotiating demands from the pulpit. The boycott was on. King would work on his timing, but his oratory had just made him forever a public person. In the few short minutes of his first political address, a power of communion emerged from him that would speak inexorably to strangers who would both love and revile him, like all prophets. He was twenty-six, and had not quite twelve years and four months to live.