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Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader

Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader

by Troy Jackson

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"The history books may write it Reverend 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." — Member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 1959 Preacher — this simple term describes the twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. in


"The history books may write it Reverend 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." — Member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 1959 Preacher — this simple term describes the twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. in theology who arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. His name was Martin Luther King Jr., but where did this young minister come from? What did he believe, and what role would he play in the growing activism of the civil rights movement of the 1950s? In Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader, author Troy Jackson chronicles King's emergence and effectiveness as a civil rights leader by examining his relationship with the people of Montgomery, Alabama. Using the sharp lens of Montgomery's struggle for racial equality to investigate King's burgeoning leadership, Jackson explores King's ability to connect with the educated and the unlettered, professionals and the working class. In particular, Jackson highlights King's alliances with Jo Ann Robinson, a young English professor at Alabama State University; E. D. Nixon, a middle-aged Pullman porter and head of the local NAACP chapter; and Virginia Durr, a courageous white woman who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. Jackson offers nuanced portrayals of King's relationships with these and other civil rights leaders in the community to illustrate King's development within the community. Drawing on countless interviews and archival sources, Jackson compares King's sermons and religious writings before, during, and after the Montgomery bus boycott. Jackson demonstrates how King's voice and message evolved during his time in Montgomery, reflecting the shared struggles, challenges, experiences, and hopes of the people with whom he worked. Many studies of the civil rights movement end analyses of Montgomery's struggle with the conclusion of the bus boycott and the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jackson surveys King's uneasy post-boycott relations with E. D. Nixon and Rosa Parks, shedding new light on Parks's plight in Montgomery after the boycott and revealing the internal discord that threatened the movement's hard-won momentum. The controversies within the Montgomery Improvement Association compelled King to position himself as a national figure who could rise above the quarrels within the movement and focus on attaining its greater goals. Though the Montgomery struggle thrust King into the national spotlight, the local impact on the lives of blacks from all socioeconomic classes was minimal at the time. As the citizens of Montgomery awaited permanent change, King left the city, taking the lessons he learned there onto the national stage. In the crucible of Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. was transformed from an inexperienced Baptist preacher into a civil rights leader of profound national importance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

An oft-told story, this account of the Montgomery desegregation struggle benefits from a subtle shift in focus to the ordinary men and women who served as the foot soldiers in the 1955 bus boycott. Besides a dutiful overview of King's formative years, pastor and editor Jackson (The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., Volume VI) shines a spotlight on Montgomery community leaders like E.D. Nixon, a member of the influential Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Jo Ann Robinson, of the local Women's Political Council, who fought for civil rights (and clashed over tactics) long before King arrived on the scene. The decisive battle began as a modest attempt to gain concessions such as hiring African American bus drivers and restraining white drivers from verbally abusing black passengers; though King and Rosa Parks brought the boycott unprecedented attention, the movement's greatest resource was its historic alliance of working and professional classes-men and women who rarely mingled but suffered alike at the hands at the whites. Success was bittersweet: King outgrew the Montgomery crisis; Rosa Parks, destitute, left the city for Detroit; remaining leaders squabbled or succumbed to the white backlash. Jackson's storytelling skill and broad perspective make this a worthy addition to the literature of the U.S. civil rights movement.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

Jackson (senior pastor, University Christian Church, Cincinnati; editor, The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948-March 1963 ) has written a convincing reinterpretation of the role of King in the Montgomery, AL, bus boycott of 1955-56. Jackson grants that King's inspirational oratory and ability to communicate to African Americans across class lines made him a powerful symbol and chief spokesman of the movement there. However, the black community in Montgomery had laid the groundwork through its organizing activities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Local activists, white and black, including NAACP leader E.D. Nixon and Women's Political Council president Jo Ann Robinson, as well as civil rights lawyers Virginia and Clifford Durr and librarian Juliette Morgan, planted the seeds that flowered in the boycott. Jackson concludes that in many ways, King did not make the boycott movement; the blacks of Montgomery made him. Highly recommended for all major libraries.-Anthony Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN

From the Publisher
"This short, well-written, and thoroughly researched account of the forces that made King a national leader should be studied by every student of the modern civil rights movement."— Multicultural Review" —

"Jackson writes well of the transformation that took place, valuing the input of the Montgomery leaders and community to the minister's 'becoming King.' Highly recommended."— Choice" —

"Becoming King would be a wonderful addition for advanced high school and college students involved in history, religion, sociology...the themes he explores offer a thoughtful basis for debate and discussion not only about King and the civil rights era but the complexities and challenges of social change in our society."— Teaching History: A Journal of Methods" —

"Jackson shows in glowing detail how King raised the sights of a local movement to encompass large moral issues and shaped the black struggle for freedom into a human rights movement with international dimensions...This book...is a fundamental freedom movement primer."— Journal of American History" —

"[Becoming King] illuminates how ordinary people's commitments to human rights and nonviolence inspired King as much, if not more, than he inspired them.... Troy Jackson abundantly demonstrates how King's religious faith drew strength from mass struggle."— American Historical Review" —

"Jackson's book is a finely conceived and well-crafted volume that deepens our understanding and appreciation of the young King.... this study is not only a refreshing approach and great contribution to King scholarship but also a rich addition to the literature on southern religious historiography and culture."— Journal of Southern History" —

"[Jackson] tells a remarkable story about how the local people of Montgomery in their fight for racial equality helped to shape the life of one of the world's greatest civil rights leaders."— Alabama Review" —

"Becoming King explores the iconic leader's first and most sustained intimate connection with local people within the civil rights movement. As such, the monograph provides further contemplation of King's legacy along with its place in the ever burgeoning civil rights literature."— Georgia Historical Quarterly" —

"Becoming King is a concise and credible introductory text for students at the undergraduate level. Like effective, nuanced treatments of other wise monumental personages, Jackson humanizes Martin Luther King Jr., without diminishing his greatness."— Journal of African American History" —

"Jackson provides a handy bibliography and a fine narrative of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama."— American Studies" —

"Clearly and persuasively written... should not only inform but also challenge reader to think more deeply about faith under pressure and about one's responsibilities to promote social and economic justice." — Restoration Quarterly" —

"An important addition to the growing shelf of America's most famous civil rights leader."—Historian" —

"Anyone interested in Martin Luther King's growth into the man and icon we have come to cherish would do well by starting with this well-written, richly researched contribution to the historical literature." — Louisiana History" —

Product Details

University Press of Kentucky
Publication date:
Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Troy Jackson is an editor of The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948—March 1963. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky, he became Senior Pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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