Rosa Parks Wouldn’t Budge

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King’s education equipped him to talk to Montgomery’s white leaders in their own terms. King had a reputation for courage, too. As Nixon said, “You knew he wasn’t any white man’s nigger.” And he had not been in Montgomery long enough to become entangled in any of the factional struggles that divided the black community.

Abernathy agreed that King was a good choice, but thought he would decline. So it was decided to nominate him without warning at a session of the “planning committee”—which would frame resolutions to present to the mass meeting. King was so astonished by the very fact of his election—it was unanimous—that he put up no resistance, confessing later that if he had had time to think, he would have almost certainly refused. Immediately afterward he received a tough assignment : presenting to the crowd not merely the routine matters of choosing a name and officers but the hard choice of whether to continue the boycott or merely threaten to renew it if demands were not met. That decision, clearly, had to be made by those who would carry it out: the thousands of humble people who had walked on this cold, gray morning. Many of them would be present at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and they would there be asked to vote on whether they could sustain their incredible initial momentum by approving a recommendation to continue.

By the seven o’clock meeting time there was not a seat empty in the Holt Street church. Loudspeakers had been installed on the roof to accommodate latecomers who might not find room inside. It took Dr. King fifteen minutes to work his way through the crowd from his car, and ten more to get to the platform after he was inside. The audience was singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” when he joined Nixon, Abernathy, a number of other ministers, Mrs. Parks, and Fred Gray. After the ritual of prayer and scripture reading—with which all such meetings open in the South—and an ovation for Mrs. Parks, E. D. Nixon rose, glancing at Montgomery’s police commissioner, whom he saw seated in one of the pews.

“Before you brothers and sisters get comfortable in your seats,” Nixon began, “I want to say if anybody here is afraid, he better take his hat and go home. This is going to be a long, drawn-out affair, and before it’s over, somebody’s going to die.”

There were loud amens, but no one reached for his hat. Nixon then delivered a rouser in favor of continuing the boycott, ending with the challenge: “We’ve worn aprons long enough. It’s time for us to take them off!”

 

The next speaker was Martin Luther King, Jr. He came to the rostrum almost completely unprepared for what he knew by now would be one of the most important addresses of his life. There had hardly been time in the two hours since he had been given this task to think through the basic purpose of his speech. His analysis had gone as far as dividing it into two possibly contradictory aims: the first, to drain off the anger of those who were “tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression"—anger that might lead to violence of which he disapproved; and a second, to “keep them courageous and prepared for action.” Or, as he put it in another place, the problem was to be militant and moderate at the same time. To make things more difficult, he would have to face the microphones and lights of television crews, for news of the morning’s action had focussed national attention on Montgomery.

King rose to the moment. Pulpit oratory, once a typical American art, is obsolete in most parts of the country today. But it lingers on in the black South, and King’s sermon was a classic production. Stating the Christian case for nonviolent protest, he said: “We have been amazingly patient … but we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” Though he roused his audience at first by shouting, “We are tired. Tired of being segregated and humiliated,” he brought them down to calmness again by declaring, “Once again we must hear the words of Jesus. ‘Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history. … We must not become bitter and end up by hating our white brothers.” And in a final chord, he wooed them to their better selves.

“If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, future historians will say, ‘There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”

The audience rose, cheering, and one elderly woman remembered afterward the feeling that she “saw angels standing all around him when he finished, and they were lifting him up on their wings! ”

Even before Ralph Abernathy read the recommendation, the verdict was in. It was, in Clifford Durr’s recollection, “a grass roots verdict if there ever was one. Some of the [black] middle-class professionals were saying, ‘Well, we showed them this morning.’ But the maids and the cooks, the ones who had done the walking, were saying, ‘We haven’t showed them a thing yet! But we’re going to stay off those buses until they make up their minds to treat us decently.’”