The South in which Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in 1929 had changed little in regard to race relations since Reconstruction. King grew up in comparatively privileged and protected conditions close to the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, which his father pastored. Precocious and self-conscious, young King did not at first intend to follow his father and maternal grandfather in the Baptist ministry, but he learned early the power of the spoken word and longed to be important and influential. Although more isolated than poorer blacks from the direct impact of racism, he did not escape it entirely and frequently witnessed his family’s spirited opposition to it.
King excelled as a student and was graduated from high school early. During World War II he studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta. There, and later at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University, he became adept at analyzing philosophy and social theory and prepared for a church ministry. By 1954 he was ready to assume the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, as he was completing his doctoral dissertation at Boston University. In Montgomery, King was drawn into the new wave of black resistance to segregation and racism that was emerging in several Southern cities. Albeit reluctantly, King became the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association that spearheaded a 381-day boycott of Montgomery’s segregated transit system triggered in December, 1955, by the refusal of a local black seamstress, Rosa Parks, to comply with demands that she yield her seat to a white man on a crowded bus.
The familiar story of King’s rise to prominence in Montgomery is told in elaborate detail by David J. Garrow. A particular emphasis of Garrow’s account, however, is less typical: On January 27, 1956, at a particularly trying juncture in the boycott, King had a profound spiritual experience that Garrow identifies as seminal in King’s public career. Alone, discouraged, and virtually ready to quit the effort, King wrestled within himself with the implications of Christian experience and his own calling as a leader. From pain and frustration King moved to confidence and resignation to God’s will. “I didn’t have to worry about anything. I have a marvelous mother and father,” he recalled. They were far away in Atlanta, however, and unable to come to his rescue this time. With that realization, King placed his faith in God’s presence in his own life.And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
Over the years King returned to this experience when resistance was particularly intense or when he was uncertain about his own capacities or role. Indeed, there were many such occasions. Just a year after the experience of January, 1956, and only weeks after the successful completion of the Montgomery boycott which resulted in the Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of the blacks, King helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Garrow provides extensive details of SCLC’s early development and institutional structure without losing his primary focus on King the man. In a series of conferences in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Montgomery in 1957, SCLC took shape under the influence of King, his close friend and aide Ralph David Abernathy, pacifist Bayard Rustin, white Socialist attorney Stanley Levison, and a host of others, particularly Southern black ministers from Tallahassee, Birmingham, Mobile, and other sites across the South.
King was chosen president of SCLC and held that post until his death in 1968. At first, the organization had limited resources and a hazy focus that militated against a repetition of the Montgomery success. Ella J. Baker, who was never particularly fond of King or willing to accept the male chauvinism she saw among the black ministerial leadership of SCLC, was its first executive director. Baker and King moved quickly to draw into the nonviolent camp the unexpected energy of the sit-in movement that flourished in 1960 and 1961. The young people of the movement had already been influenced by Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolent resistance, and the transition was relatively smooth. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was formed at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April, 1960, however, had a mind of its own and was never fully led by King or any other mainstream black spokesperson. Nevertheless, the King mystique carried over into the work of SNCC, despite differences between King and SCLC in the 1962 Albany campaign and other activist efforts of the early and middle 1960’s.
In 1963, in the historic Birmingham campaign, King and SCLC reached a new pinnacle of...
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