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The Making of a King

Historians often, when studying famous men and women, raise the question: does the individual initiate the historical event, or does the event’s circumstances create the hero? The identical question can be pondered in our study of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In just a 13-year period, he evolved from a young Baptist preacher to the hero of the Civil Rights Movement. Within those years, he took on the great enemy of Black Americans and that was an apartheid system of government that was oppressive and a nemesis to the country’s system of justice.

Parks was arrested in violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 of the Montgomery City Code. She was booked and temporarily jailed until E. D. Nixon, President of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, paid her $100 bail bond. Four days later, she was found guilty of disorderly conduct and fined $10 with a $4 court fee.
Park’s defiance of the demeaning treatment of Black Americans in a segregated city led to the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The architects of the Association were E. D. Nixon, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Attorney Fred Gray, and Rufus Lewis, owner of a prominent funeral business. The purpose of the Association was to implement and coordinate a bus boycott of the Montgomery Bus System. The strategy was to encourage Black residents who rode the buses to boycott until the segregation law was rescinded. The question of who the leader of this new movement should be temporarily became a stumbling block. After some debate, Lewis nominated King and he was voted in as the President. There were a number of speculative assessments as to why King was finally chosen. In his Pulitzer Prize work, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” Taylor Branch explains the different versions: “Idealists would say afterward that King’s gifts made him the obvious choice. Realists would scoff at this, saying that King was not very well known and that his chief asset was his lack of debts or enemies. Cynics would say that the established preachers stepped back for King only because they saw more blame and danger ahead than glory.”

Nixon immediately informed King of his new position and also told him to go home and prepare an acceptance speech. He had only 20 minutes to prepare it. In his autobiography, King wrote that he wasted five of the 20 minutes in a panic attack. When he finally arrived at Holt Baptist Church, over 5,000 men and women waited anxiously to hear the spoken words of this young 26-year-old minister, who had been awarded his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University’s graduate school only three months prior. King rose to the occasion with an eloquent and stimulating speech. He told the cheering audience, “They had gathered because, first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning…We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exists. And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. 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. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, and love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” When he finished, he had all 5,000 standing and applauding.” Reverend Abernathy then read the boycott resolution the committee had drafted and the members overwhelmingly approved it.
The Executive Committee of the Association consisted of Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy, Attorney Gray, businessman Lewis, who was appointed director of the transportation pool, Reverend Robert Graetz, a white pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church located in a predominantly Black neighborhood and Reverend S.S. Seay, one of the most respected Black ministers in Montgomery. Besides the bus boycott, the committee agreed to file a federal lawsuit against bus segregation in Montgomery. The lawsuit, “Aurelia S. Browder V. William A Gayle,” challenged the Alabama Statutes and the Montgomery City Ordinances requiring municipal bus segregation. They also organized a carpool to assist in the bus boycott. Over 30,000 Black residents joined in the boycott. Half of them would walk every day from their side of town to the other side, where they did chores in the white homes. For various reasons, many of the participants required transportation and it was Lewis who organized a 300-vehicle carpool. The determination to support the boycott was best expressed by one woman when asked why she was walking such a long distance every day and she responded, “I’m walking for my freedom.”
The boycott lasted for over a year and the issue was finally resolved when, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s finding that segregation was unconstitutional. King decided to continue with the boycott until the order arrived in Montgomery. That occurred on December 20, 1956, and the next day, Dr. King and Glen E. Smiley, a white pacifist minister from California, boarded the bus and sat next to each other right at the front entrance.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continued his commitment to the eradication of segregation through the use of non-violent social protest right up to the very night of his assassination on April 4, 1968. He was instrumental in the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed all forms of segregation based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that also led to the election of thousands of Black officials throughout the entire country and ultimately the election of the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama. From the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, to the office of the Presidency, Dr. King’s legacy is firmly entrenched.

 

 

 

 

Frederick Williams is the author of four novels, has ghostwritten three autobiographies, and has edited numerous works, including “The Color of Strength: Embracing the Passion of Our Culture.”

Fred worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Birch Bayh as a legislative aide. He assisted in the drafting and management of the first Senate legislative proposal to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. He also assisted in the creation of the African American Studies minor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He designed and taught a number of classes to include African American Political Thought, African American Politics, African American Literature from Phyllis Wheatley to the Black Arts Movement, Politics of the Civil Rights Movement, and a course on Novelists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Fred teaches creative writing courses for Black Writers on Tour in Los Angeles, Calif., and for the Zora Neale Hurston Festival Education Day in Eatonville, Florida. He also teaches writing courses at Gemini Ink in his hometown of San Antonio. Fred was named one of the four recipients of the “Men of the Year Award” by San Antonio Magazine. He also received the 2011 Arts and Letters Award from the Friends of the San Antonio Public Library.

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