1: Today, we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the most influential American of the 20th century.
And yet, the greatest American civil rights leader was at first an unwilling one.
In September 1954, Martin was 25 years old. He had just completed studying for his doctorate at Boston University. He and his wife, Coretta, moved to Montgomery, Alabama to realize his career goal of becoming a pastor. A little more than a year later, on November 17th, their first child, Yolanda, was born.
“Around the same time, the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP—of which Rosa Parks was the secretary—offered King the chapter’s presidency, having heard him deliver an impressive speech to the chapter’s members a few months before,” write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in their terrific book Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.
Martin declined, citing his responsibilities as a new pastor and father.
Then, on Thursday, December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery.
2: The city’s black leadership organized a meeting for that Friday night. They asked Martin if they could hold the meeting at his church. At first, Martin hesitated. “Let me think about it awhile and call you back.” Which he did. He then agreed to host the meeting so long as he “did not have to do the organizational work.”
At the meeting that night, the group agreed to proceed with a boycott of the city’s buses for the following Monday and to hand out leaflets about the boycott over the weekend.
“On Monday morning, only a handful of black passengers rode on Montgomery’s buses,” Raymond and Michael write. “Meanwhile, hundreds of blacks walked to work or gathered for rides in cars driven by friends and acquaintances.”
The leadership group met again on Monday afternoon. “King thought that a prominent member of his church, Rufus Lewis, should be president of the new organization. But Lewis had other ideas: at the Monday meeting, Lewis promptly nominated King for the role. As a Baptist minister who was both articulate and extremely well educated, King could appeal to all segments of the city’s black community, working-class and professional alike. No other nominations were made.”
Martin was asked if he would accept the role. After a pause, he said, “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will.”
The attendees then left to join a city-wide meeting scheduled for that evening at another of the city’s Baptist churches. As president of the newly-formed group, Martin would now be the featured speaker. As Martin drove to the church, there was so much traffic and people he had to park his car and walk.
With people streaming past all around them. Martin paused and said to his friend who was accompanying him, “You know something, Finley; this could turn into something big.”
3: It took Martin fifteen minutes to push his way through the crowd to enter the church. More than one thousand people were already inside, and another four thousand were outside, listening on a loudspeaker. Soon after arriving, Martin was called to the pulpit.
For a moment, he stood silently. The crowd was packed into the pews, aisles, and balconies. “We are here this evening for serious business,” Martin said. “We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens… But we are here in a more specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected.”
Martin then described Rosa Parks’s arrest and her character, saying, “Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian person, unassuming, and yet there is integrity and character there. And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested.
“And you know, my friends,” he continued, “there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” At that, a rising cheer exploded into deafening applause, rolling on and on. “We are here, we are here this evening because we are tired now.”
The church was now humming.
“And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing.” Martin’s voice began to rise. “If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!”
Again, the crowd exploded.
“If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to earth! If we are wrong, justice is a lie.”
The applause was now so thunderous Martin’s voice could not be heard.
When the crowd quieted, he quoted from the Old Testament book of Amos, “And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight ‘until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!'”
Beginning to conclude, Martin said. “Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really just love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which would work against love.”
Finally, he called the crowd to action: “Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future,” they will say that there was “a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.” Then he abruptly closed, saying, “Let us think on these things.”
In a single afternoon, Martin had gone from a hesitant participant in the boycott to its unquestioned leader.
Reflection: Consider a time when I reluctantly took on responsibilities that ultimately led to a positive personal change or transformation. Why was I reluctant? What did I learn?
Action: Journal about the experience or discuss with a friend or colleague.