My students are often surprised to learn that when Martin Luther King came to Montgomery in the spring of 1954, civil rights activism was not high on his list of priorities. King came to Montgomery because it offered a nice salary, a comfortable parsonage, and a highly educated congregation. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church had no interest in racial crusading either. King had been given an earful about the embarrassment and vexations which his predecessor, Vernon Johns, had heaped upon the congregation. Johns confronted the tweedy Dexter parishioners with their distrust of emotion and enthusiasm; and in a manner sometimes feckless and manic, he challenged and often mocked their complacency on race relations and their aspirations to middle-class respectability. His high-pitched yelps and hollers were meant as a not-so-gentle reminder that most black Baptists in the south intoned a different spiritual scale than the stodgy Dexter crowd. “If you ever see a good fight, get into it” was his motto, learned from his mother.
King, on the other hand had to be talked into accepting the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association when the organization formed, the day after Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat in the front of the bus. And he accepted that role only after being reassured, or perhaps tricked into thinking, that the boycott would be over in a day. He was busy with other things.
King counted himself no fan of nonviolence either. Glenn Smiley, a white staff member visiting Montgomery with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, claimed to have discovered “an arsenal” in the parsonage on South Jackson Street. “When I was in graduate school,” King later remarked, “I thought the only way we could solve our problem … was an armed revolt.”
As the boycott slowly unfolded, King began to glimpse a longer road ahead and to reckon, publicly and privately, with the greater demands of the enlarging protest. He would not be able to get back to his ambitious plans to overhaul the Sunday School curriculum by the end of the week as hoped, and his dissertation would consist largely in unoriginal and often plagiarized material.
As days turned weeks and the boycott entered its second month in January of the new year, 1956, King fell into despair over his own leadership, which he imagined to be a failure, and the direction of the movement: the protest lay in disarray and the fragile unity forged the month before was on breaking down. But—as he told the story in his 1958 memoir Stride Toward Freedom—a midnight vision of Jesus in the kitchen of his Montgomery parsonage saying, “be not afraid, never be afraid, never, never be afraid,” prompted a radical reexamination of his vocation and ministry. This vision graced King with new perceptionson the situation at hand.
On January 30, 1956, King was speaking to a standing-room only audience at the First Baptist Church (colored) when word reached him that his home had been bombed. King had been talking to the congregation about two distressing developments in the boycott: the city’s new get-tough policy and a discontent among certain members of the black community with the church-based disciplines of the 382-day protest. “We are a chain,” he told the audience. “We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be.”
King received the news that the parsonage had been bombed like a man inwardly prepared for battle, surprising many in the congregation when they later learned the details from Ralph Abernathy. “My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it,” King said. By the time he arrived home, a crowd was forming in the street and front yard. Memories of the size of the crowd vary greatly; some say hundreds, others thousands. But everyone recalls the anger and insult incited by police officers who pushed and threatened bystanders in an effort to clear the streets. As King made his way through the crowd to the house, he overheard one man saying, “I ain’t gonna move nowhere. That’s the trouble now; you white folks is always pushin’ us around. Now you got your .38 and I got mine; so let’s battle it out.”
King felt the undercurrents of rage that had run strong for years in the black community rising into an immediate threat of violence. The weeks of successful non-violent protest seemed on the verge of turning suddenly violent.
Inside the house, with the front window shattered and a hole blasted into the porch, King was relieved to find his wife Coretta and his daughter Yoki safe and in good spirits. Meanwhile, the crowd outside—still collecting newcomers from all corners of the neighborhood—continued to press forward against the police barricade. King knew he needed to address the people, and he walked onto the porch and called for order. He offered the reassurances that Coretta and Yoki were unharmed. Then he told the crowd from the damaged front porch, “Let’s not become panicky. If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ Remember that is what God said … We must meet hate with love.”
Jo Ann Robinson, in her marvelous memoir The Women Who Started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, recalled that as King spoke a “respectful hush” settled over the crowd. A scattering of gentle “Amen’s,” “God bless you’s,” and “We are with you all the way, Reverend’s” created a new momentum. Tears rolled down the faces of many people in the crowd, as some hummed church songs. Even the police grew still and listened to the pastor’s words. King’s words and the congregation’s response drew together the parsonage and the street and wrapped the expanse of the Montgomery night into a unifying evocation of peace.
He knew all too well that the gathering could have turned into the “darkest night in Montgomery’s history,” with hundreds—some say thousands—of angry men and women surrounding the middle-aged white mayor and his three sidekicks. But “something happened” to avert the disaster, King said. “The spirit of God was in our hearts, and a night that seemed destined to end in unleashed chaos came to a close in a majestic group demonstration of nonviolence.”
In the final weeks of this 382-day protest, King was speaking at the Holt Street Baptist Church when he and the congregation received word of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the Montgomery Improvement Association. King told a jubilant audience that while there is a need to protest and to boycott, the end is not the protest and the end is not the boycott. The end of our struggle, he said, is “reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
When King boarded the bus the next week, sitting by Glenn Smiley, the white Texas minister, he told reporters, “Now is the time to move from protest to reconciliation.” King had also put away his gun. “I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house,” he said. The gun was not only an emblem of fear but an incubator as well, and its removal, he believed, cleared a wider space for God’s purposes to be discerned. And there was too much in the gun’s machinery that obscured the disciple’s call to go the distance for peace.
PERHAPS AMERICAN RACE RELATIONS remain frozen in that moment. Perhaps the move from protest to reconciliation remains forever dialectical, that is to say, a swinging between the two, neither one nor the other, always a going back and forth, an imperfection in which somebody is always left out, the restless demands of justice and love.
King, and the campaigns he lead, did not move directly from protest to reconciliation. Shortly after the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended, in 1957, King helped formed a brotherhood called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which gathered around the mission to “redeem the soul of America.”
What would it mean to redeem the soul of America? To create the Beloved Community? To achieve the American dream? To win equal rights for the races under the law? To realize the coming “New Order”? To consummate history’s pulse toward the “inter-relatedness of all things”? For a while, King pursued them all. And at least until 1965, “a confluence of optimisms” enabled him to imagine a convergence of these hopes in the Civil Rights Movement. In these halcyon days of American democratic piety, Christian faith would serve the cause not as an opiate but as a stimulant; and the mission of redeeming the Soul of America rested comfortably in the arms of sympathetic federal judges and legislators. The roaring Lion of Zion God was flanked by the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution in the triumphant march towards Freedom. There were voter registration drives, freedom schools, campaigns, sit-ins, marches, and protests. In southwest Georgia and Mississippi, there was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s disciplined work. There were the martyrs of Birmingham and Neshoba County, the Pentecostal fires of the Black Freedom Struggle, and a maelstrom of other related activities and efforts. Then, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 were enacted and forever changed race relations in the United States. The aging legal structures of segregation steadily collapsed under the new framework of federal protections.
But the story of the civil rights movement that ran from Montgomery to Atlanta, from Albany to Jackson, Rock Hill to Saint Augustine, concluded in shattered dreams and crushed expectations. What happens to “the crusade to redeem the soul of America” when the coalescence of hope and progress dissolves into the brutal ambiguities of history? When the daybreak of freedom gives way to the “cry of disappointment,” as King poignantly wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here?
According to Duke theologian Richard Lischer, after 1966, King altogether removed the term “beloved community” from his speeches and sermons, preferring now only the “Kingdom of God,” the Biblical term for the eschatological reign of God breaking into history in crisis and judgment. What then becomes of hopes for national redemption as victories give way to ordinary brutalities? So many frustrations arise in the between-times.
In his righteous and wearied 1967 sermon at Riverside Church in New York, delivered one year to the date of his death, Dr. King revealed the fault lines in a chastened vision of history. Renewing his “commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ,” standing in the “fierce urgency of now,” his words rang out with the searing clarity of holy despair. He told the congregation that only a few years earlier, during America’s “shining moment” of compassion, there was “a real promise of hope” for people of every race; “there were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.” Then the escalation of war, the storm clouds of Vietnam graying the American soulscape, and the many courageous experiments abandoned as if they were idle political playthings of a “society gone mad on war,” ravaging our soul “like some demonic destructive suction tube.” Later, he would say, “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” SCLC had sought to redeem the soul of America, yet now King howled a broken-hearted lament that America’s soul was “poisoned.” At Riverside, he said, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
In the final year of his life, King turned his attention directly to the economic sources of inequality when he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, hoping to cast as public theatre that the new legal landscape had failed to address the material conditions of the poor, and that the poor needed something more. Among the campaign’s demands were full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and construction funds for low-cost housing. King had planned to lead a procession of mule carts, with thousands of people in tow, from Mississippi to Washington, where the participants would construct a shantytown near federal buildings. King thought it would be especially effective to haul a caravan of shotgun shacks from the blighted terrain of the Delta on flat-bed trucks for the D.C. site. The proposed date for the beginning of the Poor People’s Journey was April 22, 1968. King was assassinated on April 4.
King surely never abandoned the hope of the lion lying down with the lamb, but his hope endured a final eschatological intensification that unsettled his worldly confidences, took him to wits end, and finally led him back to his earliest convictions. Justice comes as an interruption, not as a continuation.
It was in the community of the outcasts that the in-breaking New Kingdom could be glimpsed, tasted and felt. To redeem the soul of America, King turned to spaces of redemptive action and fellowship, to beloved communities, excluded neighborhoods, bold experiments in love, God-Movements, quiet revolutions, enfleshened congregations, and non-violent armies. Redeeming the soul of the nation? A vision of justice and mercy no less arresting than the solitary midnight epiphany.
Charles Marsh is professor of religious studies and director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. This essay was excerpted from a lecture he gave at the center on October 8, 2012.