The classic story of nonviolent resistance in America the Montgomery bus boycott written by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s account of the first successful large-scale application of nonviolent resistance in America is comprehensive, revelatory, and intimate. King described his book as “the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.” It traces the phenomenal journey of a community, and shows how the twenty-six-year-old King, with his conviction for equality and nonviolence, helped transform the nation and the world.
A King Legacy Series Book
“Martin Luther King’s early words return to us today with enormous power, as profoundly true, as wise and inspiring, now as when he wrote them fifty years ago.” —Howard Zinn
From Chapter III: The Decisive Arrest
On December 1, 1955, an attractive Negro seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in downtown Montgomery. She was returning home after her regular day’s work in the Montgomery Fair, a leading department store. Tired from long hours on her feet, Mrs. Parks sat down in the first seat behind the section reserved for whites. Not long after she took her seat, the bus operator ordered her, along with three other Negro passengers, to move back in order to accommodate boarding white passengers. By this time every seat in the bus was taken. This meant that if Mrs. Parks followed the driver’s command she would have to stand while a white male passenger, who had just boarded the bus, would sit. The other three Negro passengers immediately complied with the driver’s request. But Mrs. Parks quietly refused. The result was her arrest.
There was to be much speculation about why Mrs. Parks did not obey the driver. Many people in the white community argued that she had been “planted” by the NAACP in order to lay the groundwork for a test case, and at first glance that explanation seemed plausible, since she was a former secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. So persistent and persuasive was this argument that it convinced many reporters from all over the country. Later on, when I was having press conferences three times a week-- in order to accommodate the reporters and journalists who came to Montgomery from all over the world--the invariable first question was: “Did the NAACP start the bus boycott”
But the accusation was totally unwarranted, as the testimony of both Mrs. Parks and the officials of the NAACP revealed. Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, “I can take it no longer.” Mrs. Parks’s refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not “planted” there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn. She was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny. She had been tracked down by the zeitgeist--the spirit of the time.
Fortunately, Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history. She was a charming person with a radiant personality, soft-spoken and calm in all situations. Her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted. All of these traits together made her one of the most respected people in the Negro community.
Only E. D. Nixon--the signer of Mrs. Parks’s bond-- and one or two other persons were aware of the arrest when it occurred early Thursday evening. Later in the evening the word got around to a few influential women of the community, mostly members of the Women’s Political Council. After a series of telephone calls back and forth they agreed that the Negroes should boycott the buses. They immediately suggested the idea to Nixon, and he readily concurred. In his usual courageous manner he agreed to spearhead the idea.
Early Friday morning, December 2, Nixon called me. He was so caught up in what he was about to say that he forgot to greet me with the usual “hello” but plunged immediately into the story of what had happened to Mrs. Parks the night before. I listened, deeply shocked, as he described the humiliating incident. “We have taken this type of thing too long already,” Nixon concluded, his voice trembling. “I feel that the time has come to boycott the buses. Only through a boycott can we make it clear to the white folks that we will not accept this type of treatment any longer.”
I agreed at once that some protest was necessary, and that the boycott method would be an effective one. Just before calling me Nixon had discussed the idea with Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the young minister of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church who was to become one of the central figures in the protest, and one of my closest associates. Abernathy also felt a bus boycott was our best course of action. So for thirty or forty minutes the three of us telephoned back and forth concerning plans and strategy. Nixon suggested that we call a meeting of all the ministers and civic leaders the same evening in order to get their thinking on the proposal, and I offered my church as the meeting place. The three of us got busy immediately. With the sanction of Rev. H. H. Hubbard--president of the Baptist Ministerial Alliance--Abernathy and I began calling all of the Baptist ministers. Since most of the Methodist ministers were attending a denominational meeting in one of the local churches that afternoon, it was possible for Abernathy to get the announcement to all of them simultaneously. Nixon reached Mrs. A. W. West--the widow of a prominent dentist--and enlisted her assistance in getting word to the civic leaders.
By early afternoon the arrest of Mrs. Parks was becoming public knowledge. Word of it spread around the community like uncontrolled fire. Telephones began to ring in almost rhythmic succession. By two o’clock an enthusiastic group had mimeographed leaflets concerning the arrest and the proposed boycott, and by evening these had been widely circulated.
As the hour for the evening meeting arrived, I approached the doors of the church with some apprehension, wondering how many of the leaders would respond to our call. Fortunately, it was one of those pleasant winter nights of unseasonable warmth, and to our relief, almost everybody who had been invited was on hand. More than forty people, from every segment of Negro life, were crowded into the large church meeting room. I saw physicians, schoolteachers, lawyers, businessmen, postal workers, union leaders, and clergymen. Virtually every organization of the Negro community was represented.
The largest number there was from the Christian ministry. Having left so many civic meetings in the past sadly disappointed by the dearth of ministers participating, I was filled with joy when I entered the church and found so many of them there; for then I knew that something unusual was about to happen.
Had E. D. Nixon been present, he would probably have been automatically selected to preside, but he had had to leave town earlier in the afternoon for his regular run on the railroad. In his absence, we concluded that Rev. L. Roy Bennett--as president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance--was the logical person to take the chair. He agreed and was seated, his tall, erect figure dominating the room.
The meeting opened around seven-thirty with H. H. Hubbard leading a brief devotional period. Then Bennett moved into action, explaining the purpose of the gathering. With excited gestures he reported on Mrs. Parks’s resistance and her arrest. He presented the proposal that the Negro citizens of Montgomery should boycott the buses on Monday in protest. “Now is the time to move,” he concluded. “This is no time to talk; it is time to act.”
So seriously did Bennett take his “no time to talk” admonition that for quite a while he refused to allow anyone to make a suggestion or even raise a question, insisting that we should move on and appoint committees to implement the proposal. This approach aroused the opposition of most of those present, and created a temporary uproar. For almost forty-five minutes the confusion persisted. Voices rose high, and many people threatened to leave if they could not raise questions and offer suggestions. It looked for a time as though the movement had come to an end before it began. But finally, in the face of this blistering protest, Bennett agreed to open the meeting to discussion.
Immediately questions began to spring up from the floor. Several people wanted further clarification of Mrs. Parks’s actions and arrest. Then came the more practical questions. How long would the protest last? How would the idea be further disseminated throughout the community? How would the people be transported to and from their jobs
As we listened to the lively discussion, we were heartened to notice that, despite the lack of coherence in the meeting, not once did anyone question the validity or desirability of the boycott itself. It seemed to be the unanimous sense of the group that the boycott should take place.
The ministers endorsed the plan with enthusiasm, and promised to go to their congregations on Sunday morning and drive home their approval of the projected one-day protest. Their cooperation was significant, since virtually all of the influential Negro ministers of the city were present. It was decided that we should hold a city-wide mass meeting on Monday night, December 5, to determine how long we would abstain from riding the buses. Rev. A. W. Wilson--minister of the Holt Street Baptist Church-- offered his church, which was ideal as a meeting place because of its size and central location. The group agreed that additional leaflets should be distributed on Saturday, and the chairman appointed a committee, including myself, to prepare the statement.
Our committee went to work while the meeting was still in progress. The final message was shorter than the one that had appeared on the first leaflets, but the substance was the same. It read as follows:
Don’t ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place Monday, December 5. Another Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. If you work, take a cab, or share a ride, or walk. Come to a mass meeting, Monday at 7:00 p.m., at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instruction.
Introduction by Clayborne Carson
I Return to the South
II Montgomery Before the Protest
III The Decisive Arrest
IV The Day of Days, December 5
V The Movement Gathers Momentum
VI Pilgrimage to Nonviolence
VII Methods of the Opposition
VIII The Violence of Desperate Men
IX Desegregation at Last
X Montgomery Today
XI Where Do We Go from Here?
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. This was Dr. King’s first book. How does writing a memoir fit into his project of movement-building?
2. (If appropriate) Look at the packaging and cover. How much does the outside of this book seem to be about Dr. King himself, and how much does it seem to be about Montgomery, the bus boycott, and the overall struggle for civil rights(See p. xxix on “I” and “we” as the subject of the memoir.)
3. What does Stride Toward Freedom mean to you? Why might Dr. King, or his editors, have picked it as the title?
4. The memoir was written in 1958. Think about the historical context in which it was written, and then about the time period it covers (December 1955–December 1956). What events took place in between that might have provided new perspectives not available while the struggle was happening? (See p. xxx on Little Rock and the Tallahassee bus boycott.)
1. Right from the beginning, Dr. King uses the word “Negro,” capitalized, to describe his community. What are the politics of naming here? What resonance might that word have had then, and how does it differ from how the word is< used or not used today?
2. Dr. King describes the book as the “chronicle of 50,000 Negroes” and “the
white community of Montgomery.” What does this framing device tell you
about whom Dr. King envisioned as his readership? (pp. xxix–xxx)
I: Return to the South
1. The book opens with Dr. King in his car en route from Atlanta to Montgomery,
listening to opera. How does this position him as a narrator? (p. 1)
2. Dr. King’s description of the State Capital in Montgomery mentions how he
would often see it again. Do you see this as a use of foreshadowing, and if so,
of what? (pp. 1–2)
3. Dr. King worries about what tactic to use in preaching so as to “impress the
congregation,” waffling between an intellectual bent and a spiritual one, and ultimately
decides to focus on the spiritual. Do you see this choice reflected in his
later, more famous, speeches? (p. 3)
4. Dr. King describes his mother’s explanation of segregation as “the problem of
explaining the facts of life to [a] child,” one specific to “every Negro parent.”
What are moments when you have had to explain to someone difficult truths
about life? How did you approach them? Or were you on the receiving end of
such an explanation? What did you take away from the conversation? (pp. 4–5)
5. Dr. King realizes that he has “a chance to escape from the long night of segregation”
by remaining in the North. What leads him to decide to “return to a
society that condones a system I have abhorred since childhood”? (p. 7)
6. Returning South, for Dr. King, is a “moral obligation.” Does this concept make
sense to you? Have you ever made a big life decision on the basis of a “moral
obligation”? (p. 8)
II: Montgomery before the Protest
1. Dr. King is anxious to “change the impression” that Dexter’s congregation was
all of one class background. Where else does a commitment to cross-class
engagement or economic justice surface in this memoir? (p. 11)
2. Dr. King gives a detailed description of the economic and labor demographics
in Montgomery. How do these specifics seem to have impacted Dr. King’s
thinking and strategies—and how might someone doing the work of community
organizing there today have to adjust to changes in those demographics since
the 1950s? (pp. 13–14)
3. Schools remained segregated even through Brown v. Board of Education had come
down from the Supreme Court in 1954. Where else do we see a gap between de
jure and de facto rules—in the book or in our own lives? (p. 14–15)
4. Many people in Montgomery found Dr. King’s “dual interest in the NAACP
and the Council surprising” because, though the two organizations shared a goal
of integration, their tactics were “diametrically opposed.” Can you think of any
parallels to our own time, where organizations that share a goal are seen as
being opposed to each other because of a difference in tactics? (p. 20)
5. “Many of the educated group were employed in vulnerable positions, and a
forthright stand in the area of racial justice might result in the loss of a job.”
How does Dr. King address the tension between standing up for justice and
remaining employed? (p. 22)
6. Dr. King writes that religion should deal “with both earth and heaven,” addressing
both spiritual concerns and humanitarian problems. How does this line up
with your belief system, or with your ideas about the role of religion in the
world? (p. 23)
7. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
What is the difference between the peace described by Montgomery residents
and the peace envisioned by Dr. King? (p. 27)
8. Right after Dr. King’s arrival in Montgomery, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin is
arrested in an incident foreshadowing Rosa Parks’ arrest. Why did Colvin’s story
not spur the same kind of action on the part of the community? (p. 28)
III: The Decisive Arrest
1. “Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history.” What underlies
this comment? Why is it so important that the public figures at the center for
movements for change be “ideal for their roles,” and what does that look like in
practice? (p. 31)
2. A white newspaper picked up the announcement of the bus boycott and meeting,
with unexpected effects. What are other media efforts that have backfired in
similar ways? (p. 37)
IV: The Day of Days, December 5
1. What is the significance of E. D. Nixon’s insistence that the leaders not conceal
their names? (p. 45–46)
2. Coretta tells Martin that “whatever you do, you have my backing.” How does
Coretta emerge as a player in this series of events? How does Dr. King describe
her? (p. 47)
3. Dr. King uses the concept of love to draw together self-respect and nonviolence
as the key principles of the protest action, and soon the protest movement. Is
this emphasis on love something we still see in politics today? Why or why not?
V: The Movement Gathers Momentum
1. Dr. King spends a full three pages describing the other members of the strategy
committee. Why go into so much detail about them? (pp. 57–60)
2. Dr. King describes a number of white housewives who “had no intention of
being without their maids” and so picked up and dropped off their employees
daily in “Negro neighborhoods” for the length of the boycott. What do you
make of the interaction he describes on p. 65 between the “old domestic” and
her employer? (pp. 64–65)
VI: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence
1. What is Dr. King’s aim in describing at such length his intellectual journey to
nonviolence? Who might he be appealing to in this section of the book? (pp.
2. Dr. King vehemently dismisses Marxism, while maintaining that he “found it
challenging.” Given the Cold War context of his writing, how do you read this
section? (pp. 79–81)
VII: Methods of the Opposition
1. Dr. King and his colleagues “ask for justice within the segregation law” and are
refused. What do they learn from this experience? (pp. 101–102)
2. When Dr. King is arrested, he has a long car ride before he arrives at the jail.
Why is he so relieved to see it? (p. 118)
VIII: The Violence of Desperate Men
1. After Dr. King’s house is bombed, he implores the crowd outside to remain
nonviolent, even while one of his colleagues directly places the blame for the
incident on city officials and their “get tough” policy. How does Dr. King shape
the crowd’s reaction to the city commissioner? (pp. 126–128)
2. Members of Dr. King’s church take different roles in the movement, roles that
fall along gendered lines. Have you noticed a gendered division of labor in other
social movements? If so, what did it look like? If not, why not? (p. 132)
3. How does Dr. King’s relationship with his father impact his leadership style?
What influence does his father have on his decision making? (pp. 134–137)
4. “I was a convicted criminal, but I was proud of my crime.” Dr. King characterizes
his actions as “noncooperation with evil” by breaking the law. Have you
ever broken the law in service of a higher ideal? What were the consequences?
IX: Desegregation at Last
1. Dr. King contrasts the “relief ” of being in federal court with the “sabotage of
justice in the city and state courts of the South.” What provides this contrast?
2. Why does U. J. Fields make accusations against the MIA? How do King and
Fields address the conflict that ensues? (pp. 145–150)
3. Why is it so important that the community see the Supreme Court ruling not
“as a victory over the white man, but as a victory for justice and democracy”?
X: Montgomery Today
1. Dr. King relates the use of “courtesy titles” like Mr. and Mrs. for men and
women of color to the success of the bus boycott. Why might or might not that
be the case? What evidence does he provide? (p. 176)
2. The Montgomery courts decide to charge those who defy segregation with “disorderly
conduct,” so as to avoid “the possibility of a test case.” Does this prove to be an effective tactic? (pp. 178–180)
by “the freedom of exhaustion”? Why does it trouble
him? (p. 207)
3. Dr. King calls for a combined program of “nonviolent resistance to racial injustice” and “imaginative, bold, constructive action to end the demoralization caused by the legacy of slavery and segregation.” The book provides ample illustration of the first aspect of the program. (p. 220)
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