This collection of historical documents is the third volume in a series being produced by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project, a documentary history project sponsored by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in association with Stanford University and Emory University. Together with its predecessors, Volume I: Called to Serve, January 1929- June 1951, and Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955, the volume covers the early career of King and charts the ways in which King’s political convictions grew out of his theological training, his skills as a minister, and the social gospel background of his family. Volume III: Birth of a New Age specifically focuses on the organization and legal challenges of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956 and treats this campaign as a pivotal political turning point for King. During the boycott, King and his colleagues honed ideas and practices later utilized in the Civil Rights movement at large. Through the events chronicled in this volume, King himself emerged as a nationally recognized spokesperson of the struggle against segregation.
Correspondence to and from King makes up the bulk of the nearly three hundred documents selected to be printed in the volume. Transcriptions and facsimiles of telegrams or letters are used to illustrate both top-down and bottom-up approaches to understanding the impact of the Montgomery movement. Famous correspondents include President Dwight D. Eisenhower, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, educator Nannie Helen Burroughs, Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Roy Wilkins, novelist Lillian Smith, and such luminaries of the emerging Civil Rights movement as Medgar Evers, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker. Printed alongside these missives from or to the well-known are messages exchanged between King and his friends, fellow pastors, and distant supporters who were personally unknown to him. Letters in the latter category—to such people as Lottie Mae Pugh, a student in Suffolk, Virginia, who had written to King for guidance in choosing her own career, or from the impoverished Earline Browning, who had read of the boycott in the Pittsburgh Courier and sent two pairs of her own shoes to be worn by domestic workers walking to work in Montgomery—are representative of the sentiments of common folk across the country who were stirred by reports of King’s inspirational oratory and the example of courage and decency he presented in his handling of boycott events. A February 28, 1956, telegram from black and white members of the Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union in San Francisco (in which they sent encouragement and expressed their support for the fight for rights in the South) similarly represents the receptiveness of people of different races and regions to the boycott, and the belief held by many that the efforts of the protesters in Montgomery were being made on behalf of an all- encompassing democratic ideal. This correspondence from the great and from people at the grassroots is interspersed with key articles, sermons, and addresses by King—including the one (“The Birth of a New Age,” 1956) that gives the volume its title. Minutes or reports of mass meetings are also included, such as the one at which the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was founded in December, 1955. Facsimiles and transcriptions of documents that demonstrate the state’s reaction to King’s activism include a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance report on King activities filed with J. Edgar Hoover and the indictment and later testimony and judgment of the court in the state of Alabama’s case against King in February and March, 1956.
The majority of documents presented in the book were drawn from the King collections at the King Center in Atlanta and at Boston University, but material also came from some seventy-five other manuscript collections and from private donors who lent their previously unpublished personal papers to the use of the project. The result is an impressive and varied array that tells the story of the boycott from several different angles—legal, political, popular, and official, from court transcript to a leaflet produced on a church mimeograph machine.
The Papers Project’s stated goal of presenting a definitive edition of King’s papers is a difficult one to achieve, given the copiousness of documentation available. What results from the selection the editors have made is not a definitive history but rather an insider’s...