Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 02/25/2011 by John Bird.
Recommended. A worthy and engaging attempt to place Martin Luther King Jr. in accurate historical context.
Author Troy Jackson says that it was the people of Montgomery who shaped Martin Luther King Jr. rather than Martin Luther King Jr. who shaped the people of Montgomery. Civil rights advocate Virginia Durr described Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s as a place of "death, decay, corruption, frustration, bitterness and sorrow." And Jackson convinces us that she wasn't exaggerating. Blacks were oppressed, intimidated, and abused, and they were ready for change. Durr wrote: "I think the Negroes are stirring and they won’t be held down much longer."
Through Jackson's thorough research and extensive quotes, we come to know and appreciate many of the African Americans working for change in Montgomery before King arrived - those like E.D. Nixon, a Pullman Porter and "tireless fighter for justice," and his secretary, "a local seamstress" named Rosa Parks. Along with Nixon, there were other courageous men like Vernon Johns, pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist church, who posted the title of an upcoming sermon on the church billboard (which was only a block from the State Capitol): "It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Alabama." But Jackson shows that it was the women who were most essential to the movement:
Though many black men in the city were just as frustrated with the racial status quo, they had more to lose by being outspoken. Whites believed they had much more to fear from black men, and therefore they responded more quickly, and often violently, to any who got out of line. As whites fixed their attention on black men, several black women were stirring the waters of racial change in Montgomery.
When the young Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Montgomery in 1954 to replace Johns as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he didn't plan to lead a civil rights movement. But plans change.
Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T. Washington High School, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in March of 1955. When an officer tried to physically move her, "she fought like a little tigress" and was arrested. Soon after, Rosa Parks was also arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. Jackson explains the aftermath of the arrest: "After a little more than a year in Montgomery, Park's arrest thrust King into the front lines of a local movement for civil rights." The bus boycott began. "Because the people of Montgomery were willing to walk, King had the opportunity to lead."
The newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which elected King as president, led the boycott for the next thirteen months. Jackson gives a detailed account, telling the good and the bad, and correcting the idea that it wouldn't have happened without King. It was Nixon's idea, and the working people carried it out. "King brought the refined dimension required," but never took any credit for himself:
If I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.
The locals responded to the boycott with threats, legal action, and violence. King's house, along with Nixon's and several others, was bombed. And the city government wouldn't budge until the U.S. Supreme Court found bus segregation unconstitutional. Even then, Jackson says there were minimal gains for the local blacks:
The U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting integrated buses in the city proved more of a victory for King and the burgeoning civil rights movement than it was for the Montgomery African American community.
While "King became the face for the national struggle for civil rights," the conditions in Montgomery worsened. Violence increased, and lots of those who took part in the boycott lost their jobs. Many had to move, including Rosa Parks.
In the introduction to Jackson's book, Clayborne Carson writes:
By acknowledging that the bus boycott had only a limited impact on the lives of Montgomery's black working class, Becoming King is a necessary correction to romanticized versions of Civil Rights progress and Great Man historical myths.
When King announced that he was leaving Montgomery in 1960, a Dexter member wrote: "The history books may write it Rev. King was born in Atlanta, and then came to Montgomery, but we feel that he was born in Montgomery in the struggle here, and now he is moving to Atlanta for bigger responsibilities."
E.D. Nixon put it less politely: "If Mrs. Parks had gotten up and given that cracker her seat you'd never heard of Reverend King."
Nixon may or may not have been correct, but Jackson makes it clear that it was in Montgomery that King became the leader we remember. Jackson's work is as engaging as it is important, and I highly recommend it.