(This short piece on MLK was written by Steve Chase, the Director of
Antioch University New England's Environmental Advocacy and Organizing
Program. His contact information is at the bottom of this email. The
piece is adapted from a posting on "The Well-Trained Activist" blog
. Please feel free to forward this on
to anyone you think might be interested.)
MARTIN LUTHER KING'S JOURNEY TO ACTIVISM
For the last two years, I've broadcast a Martin Luther King Holiday
special on WKNH, the Keene State College radio station. The segment
that always gets the most listener comment is the little-known story
about how King actually became an activist during the Montgomery Bus
In 1955, King was fresh from seminary, only 26 years old, and new to
town. His church was one of the smallest, wealthiest, and most
conservative of the two-dozen African-American churches in Montgomery.
His personal ambitions at the time were to run a solid church program,
be well paid for it, have a nice house for his growing family, write
theology pieces for his denomination's magazine, and do a bit of
adjunct teaching at a nearby college. He was not dreaming of becoming
a leader in the struggle for civil rights, economic justice, and a
peaceful US foreign policy.
Indeed, if it had been left up to King, the Montgomery Bus Boycott
would never have happened. The real organizer of this effort was E.D.
Nixon, an experienced civil rights and labor activist who created the
Montgomery Improvement Association and launched the Montgomery Bus
Boycott within the first four days after Rosa Parks' arrest for
refusing to move to the back of the bus. It was Nixon who recruited
King to the civil rights movement. After bailing Rosa Parks out of
jail, Nixon went home and started calling local ministers to line up
their support for his boycott idea. As Nixon later explained: "I
recorded quite a few names. The first man I called was Reverend Ralph
Abernathy. He said, `Yes, Brother Nixon, I'll go along. I think it's a
good thing.' The second person I called was the late Reverend H.H.
Hubbard. He said, `Yes, I'll go along with you.' And then I called
Rev. King, who was number three on my list, and he said, `Brother
Nixon, let me think about it awhile, and call you back.'"
When King finally agreed to come to a meeting, Nixon chuckled and told
King, "I'm glad you agreed, because I already set up the first meeting
at your church." At this first ministers' meeting, King was very
nervous about Nixon's idea of conducting an illegal boycott campaign.
Several other ministers soon began to side with King against the
campaign. In his own memoir on the Bus Boycott, King recalls how Nixon
exploded towards the end of the meeting and shouted that the ministers
would have to decide if they were going to be like scared little boys,
or if they were going to stand up like grown men and take a strong
public stand against segregation. King's pride was so hurt by Nixon's
comment, he shouted back that nobody could call him a coward. Then, to
prove his courage, King immediately agreed to Nixon's plan for an
aggressive, community organizing campaign to build up the boycott.
Everyone in the room quickly agreed with King and the matter was settled.
With that decision made, the group began to discuss who should lead
the effort. Everyone present had expected Nixon to become the
president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. But
when he was asked about serving, Nixon answered, "Naw, not unless'n
you all don't accept my man." When asked whom he was nominating, Nixon
said, "Martin Luther King." Having just loudly declared his courage to
the whole group, King felt that he had to agree to take on this
responsibility. Then, Nixon told King he would have to give the main
address at the mass rally scheduled that very night to announce the
boycott plan to the black community.
King rose to Nixon's challenge. Serving as the leader of the
Montgomery Bus Boycott for the next twelve months changed King.
Watching 42,000 poor and working-class black people stay organized and
do without public transportation for a year, he discovered things
about the courage and capacity of ordinary people to resist oppression
and move toward freedom. Watching the conservative, rightwing city
government finally cave in to the boycott, he discovered the power of
mass nonviolent direct action campaigns to win real victories--even
when they are opposed by powerful interests. By seeing his own power
to inspire people to become active citizens for a noble cause, King
discovered just what kind of person he wanted to be in this life. He
now fully embraced his new mission as an activist leader for building
what he called the "Beloved Community."
There is an important lesson here for all of us. We don't have to be
born leaders. We don't have to know everything before we get started.
We just have to get started.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Steve Chase, Ph.D.
Director, Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program
Department of Environmental Studies @ Antioch University New England
40 Avon Street, Keene, NH 03431
; 603-283-2336 (office); 603-357-0718 (fax)
* EAOP's Main Website: http://www.antiochne.edu/es/eao/
* EAOP's "Well-Trained Activist" Blog: http://eaop-blog.blogspot.com
* EAOP's Online Activist Bookstore:
(7.5% of the purchase price is donated to the EAOP Scholarship Fund at
no extra cost to you)