The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

THE PAPERS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: BIRTH OF A NEW AGE: DECEMBER 1955-DECEMBER 1956 (VOL. 3) contains an impressive and varied array of documents, including correspondence, minutes of meetings, and articles and sermons by King. What results is an insider’s guide to the major events, feelings, motivations, and personalities that fueled the Montgomery bus boycott. The volume begins shortly after the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white passenger. It concludes the following December, when the United States Supreme Court upheld a ruling finding state and city statutes that enforced racial discrimination in transportation unconstitutional. The boycott ended in victory for the protesters and marked the beginning of the civil rights movement to come.

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In the course of the boycott, King emerged as the leading spokesperson for racial rights. He set civil rights protest in the context of larger democratic traditions in America. Through his embrace of Gandhian principles of non-violence, he placed the American struggle side-by-side with anti-colonial independence movements. He and his colleagues in Montgomery laid the groundwork for what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and their protests and arrests provided the foundation for the coming mass movement to end segregation. This volume makes the history of these events both personal and accessible. There is something of inspiration for everyone in its pages.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, February 15, 1997, p. 980.

Crisis. CIV, July, 1997, p. 42.

Library Journal. CXXII, March 1, 1997, p. 86.

The Nation. CCLXIV, May 12, 1997, p. 28.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

This collection of historical documents is the third volume in a series being produced by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project, a documentary history project sponsored by the Martin Luther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 guide to the major events, feelings, motivations, and personalities that fueled the Montgomery boycott. The editors do an excellent job in presenting that history from multifaceted perspectives and in using documents drawn from different genres, including those in which King speaks in first person and those in which he was a participant with others in a collective endeavor. They also underscore the point that King himself made: that the boycott welled up within the community under the leadership of many, and that circumstance—including the state’s legal actions against King—made King, over the course of the months of activism, into the movement’s main spokesperson and figurehead.

Despite acknowledgment of the work of a large number of student and postgraduate researchers and interns, evidence of research in this volume, aside from the impressive compilation of documents itself, is quite slim. Headnotes to individual documents offer helpful and enjoyable introductions to major themes and personalities and set the context for the texts that follow. Annotation is sparse and basic. Footnotes offer the reader short general identifications of correspondents and organizations or people mentioned in the text, occasional brief explanations of, or follow-up information on, issues expressed in the text, and identification of source citations or of literary or biblical allusions. The reader is further guided by a detailed chronology in the front of the volume and by a copious calendar of documents at the book’s end. The calendar is an especially helpful source for those wishing to pursue further reading and research. It includes the listing of over one thousand King-related items for the period covered by the book (chosen from a project database of some 3,500), including material authored by King and primary and secondary material written to or about him.

The volume begins, appropriately, with a powerful facsimile of a typed leaflet prepared by Jo Ann Robinson and members of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council shortly after the arrest of Rosa Parks in the beginning of December, 1955. Parks, a local NAACP leader and graduate of an activist workshop at the famed Highlander Folk School, was arrested on December 1, 1955, after she refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger and move to the rear of a city bus. Robinson, who worshipped at King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, joined other women in calling for a one-day boycott of the bus line in protest over the treatment of Parks and of other individuals who had previously refused to give up their seats on the bus. The subsequent boycott on December 5 was so successful that it led to the formation of the MIA and a long-term, unified spurning of the bus system by Montgomery’s black residents. The boycott lasted throughout the year, ending only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle (1956) that city and state segregation statutes such as those previously in effect in Montgomery public transportation were unconstitutional. The ruling represented a great legal victory for King and the many people who made the boycott work, but it proved to be just the beginning of a much larger struggle for civil rights.

As the selected documents show (and as the editors discuss in their introduction to the volume), the Montgomery boycott proved many things. Among them was the effectiveness of King in articulating the sense of mission that lay behind his own leadership and the dedication of the hundreds of people who participated in the boycott. They showed what an African American community could do operating together under their own leadership. They demonstrated a deep sense of decency and dignity in their actions and experimented with tactics that later would be utilized in the court cases, demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins of the larger Civil Rights movement to follow. When King, Parks, and other boycott leaders were indicted under a 1921 state law regarding conspiracy to interfere with the lawful operation of businesses, the terms for constitutional protest that would be used successfully in the civil rights fights of the future were set: King’s position in his trial was that the issue at hand was the legality of Jim Crow laws, not the economic boycott of businesses. He in turn argued that the movement was a case of mass protest, not the action of an elite cadre of individual leaders. His case made headlines in northern newspapers, and King was crowned a national leader, a spokesperson for racial rights and Christian idealism. He used his pulpit and public meetings to articulate the connection between brotherly love, social justice, and spiritual redemption. He used networks of ministers and black fraternities to build a new kind of civil rights base. He strode a fine line between moderation and militancy, and after his home was bombed in January, 1956, he embodied the personal danger involved for those brave enough to openly confront deeply entrenched social and political mores. His leadership linked the Montgomery boycott to ideas embedded in earlier black uplift organizations and benevolent societies. He articulated a larger understanding of civil rights protest in the context of an American tradition in which liberty was defined through processes of rebellion and dissent. Through his embrace of Gandhian principles, he also internationalized those processes, placing the activism in Montgomery in the context of larger anticolonial independence movements, especially the one in India. He began to address issues of social class and the fact that racial discrimination went hand- in-hand with gross economic inequities—themes that later would be more fully played out in the 1960’s Poor People’s Campaign.

In spite of rifts and disagreements over such things as the involvement of non southerners in the movement and the extent to which connections to the American Left should be acknowledged, the activists in Montgomery succeeded in acting in unison and winning their immediate goal. That they did all this not just within a firmly Jim-Crowed South but also in an era when the nation’s politics were dominated by the Cold War is all the more remarkable. In the events documented by this volume, King grows in stature and positions himself in an independent way relative to older civil rights advocates. In the years to follow the Montgomery boycott, King and his colleagues would expand the scope of civil rights protest beyond transportation issues to include voter registration, residential and school desegregation, access to health care and recreational facilities, and other rights. Montgomery’s and King’s network of activist ministers and parishioners laid the groundwork for what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and their protests and arrests provided the foundation for the coming mass movement for civil rights. This volume makes King’s private dilemmas and his public actions in this heroic chapter in the early history of the Civil Rights movement both personal and accessible. There is something of inspiration for everyone in its pages.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, February 15, 1997, p. 980.

Crisis. CIV, July, 1997, p. 42.

Library Journal. CXXII, March 1, 1997, p. 86.

The Nation. CCLXIV, May 12, 1997, p. 28.

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