Martin Luther King, Jr. was 25 years old when he and his new wife, Coretta, moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. He was to be pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Less than one year later, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery city bus.
Montgomery’s black leaders were looking for a court challenge to the state and city ordinances stipulating segregated buses. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress who was active with the NAACP, was a perfect test case.
Hastily, leaders called for a meeting of black citizens at the spacious Holt Street Church. Though new to town, Martin Luther King Jr. was known for the power of his sermons, so the leaders asked him to open the meeting.
With less than an hour’s warning about his role in the event, King rose to the occasion. His words energized the citizens that gathered, and the boycott was ultimately effective.
The Holt Street Church was his first public address. He was 25 years old.
Martin Luther King Jr.
King was born in 1929 in Atlanta. He was the middle child of Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta King. Growing up, King loved singing and was an active member of the church choir. In the segregated high school he attended, he also was a prominent member of the debate team.
King learned from his father about standing up for yourself. If a policeman addressed King Sr. as “boy,” the reverend respectfully corrected the officer.
Another time when Martin Sr. took his son shopping for a pair of new shoes, a clerk insisted they move to the back of the store to be served. The Kings left without making a purchase.
There were other indignities, large and small, and Martin absorbed the polite and measured way his father navigated through whatever came his way.
In his teen years, he was invited to compete in a debate competition in Dublin, Georgia, a little over 100 miles southeast of Atlanta.
On the way home, Martin and the teacher were asked to stand so that white people could sit. At first Martin refused, but his coach indicated he needed to get up. Later, King said he was “the angriest he had ever been in his life.”
King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. During his senior year (1947), he resolved to enter the ministry. He had doubts about the wisdom of becoming a minister, but time and experience made him feel that the church would give him a base for helping mankind.
From Morehouse, King went on toe Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania. His father connected him to the reverend at nearby Calvary Baptist Church, and he and a few other students were able to supplement their studies by working with J. Pius Barbour, a highly respected man in the Baptist Church.
On June 18, 1953, King married Coretta Scott in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. One year later, Martin and Coretta moved to Montgomery. King was to be the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, defined U.S. citizenship and forbade the states from restricting the rights of any citizen. However, in some parts of the country, cities and states overrode the amendment with local Jim Crow laws. Both the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama maintained ordinances that African Americans had to sit in the rear section of buses. And if a white rider got on and needed a seat, the black person was to yield their seat even if he or she was in the proper section of the bus.
Black leaders in Montgomery were looking for a good opportunity to fight this constitutionally in court. In March of 1955, they thought they had their case when Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat.
Leaders were preparing the legal work when they learned Claudette was only 15. They knew this challenge wouldn’t be easy, and they didn’t want a minor mixed up in what could be a lengthy protest. They opted to wait it out.
A new opportunity presented itself on December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also worked as a seamstress in a department store in downtown Montgomery.
After work one evening, Rosa boarded her usual bus for her trip home. She took a seat in the first row of the “colored section.” As more people boarded the bus, the driver came back and asked Parks and three others to vacate their seats. The other women did so, but Parks refused.
Rosa Parks was arrested and fined $10 plus $4 in court fees. Her hearing was scheduled for Monday, December 5. She would be kept in jail unless someone came to bail her out.
Parks called E.D. Nixon, one of the city’s well-respected black leaders. He came to the police station and paid bail. He knew this sweet, quiet woman was the perfect person to be a plaintiff in a legal challenge.
Two black organizations—the Women’s Political Council and the Montgomery Improvement Association–had been preparing for this opportunity. The Women’s Political Council circulated a flier announcing a meeting at the Holt Street Church on December 4. The purpose was to launch a bus boycott that would begin on December 5, the day of Parks’s first court hearing.
Holt Street Church
The Holt Street Church was selected for the meeting because it was the largest building available to the community. The leaders search for a big venue was justified. On the night of December 4, the church was filled, and people crowded along the streets and sidewalks surrounding the church. Men began stringing up loud speakers to help the word get out to as many people as possible.
On Sunday afternoon, King was contacted and asked to open the meeting that evening. He had under an hour to decide on his remarks and get to the church. A friend offered to drive him to Holt Street to give him added time to make notes
As they neared Holt Street, they had to park the car. There were so many people that they could not drive any closer. The two men got out and threaded their way through the people.
No one would have recognized King. He and Coretta had moved to Montgomery less than a year ago, and this would be his first public speech.
King’s First Public Speech
King’s mission was to set the scene. Activist and minister Ralph Abernathy would follow King with specifics about the boycott.
As the time for the meeting neared, the Holt Street pastor called King to the podium and introduced the young man.
Reverend King paused for a moment and then began:
“We are here this evening—for serious business.”
He started slowly, pacing his words effectively. “…And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” There was applause and a chorus of yeses from the listeners. As King’s volume and his cadence grew, the crowd picked up the momentum.
They were with him. Because the loud speakers were spreading the word to those outside, the clapping and foot stomping rolled like a wave.
King also talked of the importance of avoiding violence: “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”
Right to Protest
He pointed out the glory that American people have the right to protest, and he prophesied that citizens would …“work with grim and bold determination—to gain justice on the buses in this city.”
As King drew to the conclusion of his 15-minute speech, he built to a crescendo: “And we are determined here in Montgomery –to work and fight ‘until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!’” citing a paraphrase from the Book of Amos in the Old Testament.
As he slowed and quieted a bit, he ended with: “Sages of the future should look back at the Negroes of Montgomery and say they were ‘a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.’”
King left the podium and found his way out of the church, letting Abernathy take over regarding the requested demands of the city and the process for the boycott.
To listen to a recording of the speech, click here.
The plan was for all black citizens to boycott the city buses. They made up about 75 percent of the ridership at that time, so the city would notice their absence.
Their original ask was simple. They wanted the city to hire some black drivers, and they asked that seating be on a first-come, first-seated policy. Whites would still enter from the front of the bus and blacks would enter from the rear.
But as the strike dragged on, the Montgomery Improvement Association began to see that if they could get the legal case away of the municipal court system, they could ask for the equality they deserved as citizens of the United States.
In the meantime, people still had to get to work. Leaders organized carpools with regular pick-up and drop-off spots. Black taxi drivers agreed to charge only 10 cents (the price of bus fare) for African American riders. Day-to-day life was more difficult, but it could go on.
Leaders also maintained a regular schedule of meetings to keep spirits and enthusiasm up.
After consulting with the national group, Alabama-based civil rights attorney Fred Gray approached several women who encountered discrimination from bus drivers. Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanetta Reese all agreed to become plaintiffs in a federal civil action lawsuit, which permitted Gray to take the case beyond the Alabama court system. (This wasn’t an easy decision for the women. Reese backed out almost immediately because of pressure from her employer.)
On Feb 1, 1956, Fred Gray filed Browder v. Gayle in the U.S. District Court of United States for the Middle District of Alabama on the matter of Montgomery and Alabama bus segregation laws. (Aurelia Browder was selected as lead plaintiff. She was active in black voter registration drives and was in her 30s, giving her the experience and the stamina for what was likely to come.) The case was filed against the mayor of Montgomery, W. A. Gayle.
As specified by law, this type of case was to be heard in a federal district court by three judges.
On June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled that “the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States” because the conditions deprived people of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court further enjoined the state of Alabama and the city of Montgomery from continuing to operate segregated buses.
The city and state appealed the decision, and it went to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s ruling and ordered Alabama and Montgomery to desegregate their buses.
One month after the mayor was handed official notice by federal marshals, the Montgomery buses began the desegregation process. The first integrated buses rolled on Montgomery streets on December 21, 1956. The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended
The ruling was met with resistance and violence. Because Montgomery maintained segregated bus stops, shooters took aim at waiting black citizens. Some snipers also fired into buses, maiming targeted passengers.
Then in January 1957, tension escalated. Four black churches and the homes of prominent black leaders were bombed. (King’s house was bombed a year earlier; the bomb set set at his home in 1957 was diffused before exploding.)
On Jan 30, 1957, the Montgomery police arrested seven bombers, all members of the Ku Klux Klan. The arrests largely brought an end to the busing-related violence.
Though it was accomplished with sacrifice and struggle by all the black citizens of Montgomery, a segregation law was removed by the city and the state.
This was the earliest mass protest on behalf of civil rights in the United States, and it brought national and international attention to the issue of American treatment of African American citizens.
Martin Luther King Jr., though only 26 when victory was declared, emerged as a national leader of the civil rights movement. His nonviolent method of protest prevailed throughout the 1960s.
To read more about Martin Luther King, click: “MLK: Thoughts to Live By,” or “Martin Luther King Jr. on the Declaration of Independence.”