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Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership
By Donald T. Phillips
Warner BooksCopyright © 1998 Donald T. Phillips
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Listen: Lead by Being Led
As he reached the top of the steps, twenty-five-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., must have paused to take a look around before entering the small two-story red-brick building for the first time. Looking to the east, he couldn't have missed the Confederate flag waving in the wind atop the old state capitol building-still there after having been unfurled for the first time nearly a century earlier. He probably would have noticed, too, that the American flag was positioned below the Confederate flag. Also from his position, he could have readily viewed the portico where, on February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. As it was, Martin found himself standing smack dab in the middle of downtown Montgomery, Alabama-the "Cradle of the Confederacy"-the first national capital of the Confederate States. The building he was about to enter was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church-the parish for which he had just accepted the job of pastor. It was to be his first professional position after leaving Boston University, one he had taken despite the initial reluctance of both his father and his bride, Coretta Scott.
Martin's new church, with its all-black congregation, was created during Reconstruction after the Civil War-purposely erected in the shadow of the all-white capitol building as a symbol of the newly mandated freedom of former slaves. But in 1954, Montgomery was a bastion of racial segregation. It had been that way for generations-part of an ingrained southern culture that perpetuated a never-ending downward spiral of oppression and despair for African-Americans. People were used to it. That's just the way it was.
Black citizens and white citizens, for instance, were not allowed to sit together on a public bus. If a white person took a seat next to an African-American, the African-American was required to stand in the aisle. Even though 75 percent of the bus company's clientele were African-Americans, they were always directed to the back of the bus and, by city ordinance, violators were subject to fines and imprisonment. Bus drivers, all of whom were white, were given authority to enforce the rules. Such power, though, often resulted in heated arguments that resulted in the drivers calling passengers a variety of racial epithets, including "black cow," "ape," and "nigger." In one ugly episode, a fifteen-year-old named Claudette Colvin, who also happened to be unmarried and pregnant, was dragged from a bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. For her resistance, the young woman was charged with assault and battery along with violating city and state segregation ordinances. This incident occurred shortly after Martin King settled into his new home.
Interestingly enough, immediately upon his arrival, Martin placed the existing racial situation in a context that had not previously been articulated to local residents. "It is a significant fact that I come to Dexter at a most crucial hour of our world's history," he said in his first sermon, "at a time when the flame of war might arise at any time to redden the skies of our dark and dreary world.... At a time when men are experiencing in all realms of life, disruption and conflict, self-destruction and meaningless despair and anxiety."
For him, the human environment in Montgomery was part of a national crisis not to be tolerated. And Martin let it be known that he intended to do something about it-and that he also expected his parishioners to do something about it. "Dexter," he went on to say in that same sermon, "must somehow lead men and women to the high mountain of peace and salvation. We must give men and women, who are all but on the brink of despair, a new bent of life. I pray God that I will be able to lead Dexter in this urgent mission."
Montgomery's newest preacher hit the ground running. He joined the NAACP's local chapter and was quickly elected to its executive committee. He became a member of the Planned Parenthood Federation in an effort to assist and educate unwed young mothers. And, in an attempt to build alliances and broaden his understanding of cultural issues, he joined the only interracial organization in Montgomery, the Alabama Council on Human Relations. "From the beginning, I took an active part in current social problems," he told a reporter in later years. "I insisted that every church member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP."
During Martin's second year in Montgomery, an incident occurred on a city bus that effectively ignited the American civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a forty-two-year-old tailor's assistant, was commanded by a bus driver to give up her seat to a white male passenger who had just boarded. Mrs. Parks simply said, "No." She knew she was breaking the law, but she nevertheless refused to move. In response, the driver stopped the bus, called the police, and had her arrested. "I don't really know why I wouldn't move," she later commented. "There was no plot or plan at all. I was just tired from shopping. My feet hurt."
Rosa Parks, however, was no ordinary woman. For the previous twelve years she had been a civil rights activist with the NAACP and heavily involved in voter registration drives. She was well known in Montgomery's African-American community. And when she called home from jail, word of her arrest spread around town like wildfire. At that point, E. D. Nixon, a lawyer and former president of the local NAACP chapter, rushed downtown and secured Mrs. Parks's release on bond. After hearing the details of the incident, Nixon told Mrs. Parks that, if she was willing to be the lightning rod, they would try to take her case all the way to the United States Supreme Court while also instituting a boycott of the bus company. With some hesitation, Rosa Parks gave the okay to let her attorney move forward with his ideas.
That was all Nixon needed to hear. The next morning he telephoned every black leader in town to let them know what had happened, to inform them that there was already a spontaneously generated boycott of city buses taking place, and to call an emergency meeting for that evening. He was also asking everybody to support the boycott. When Nixon reached Martin King, he detected some reluctance in the young minister's voice-even though Martin had agreed to host the gathering in Dexter's basement meeting room. Nixon then called Ralph Abernathy (pastor of the First Baptist Church), who had become fast friends with King, and asked him to help persuade the young pastor to become fully committed to the boycott.
That evening, somewhere between fifty and seventy leaders of Montgomery's African-American community met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Abernathy and Rev. L. Roy Bennett, president of Montgomery's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, ran the meeting. Anyone who wished to speak was allowed to do so. Martin, however, remained silent; listening intently, whispering to those near him; pondering, thinking.
Two key decisions were agreed upon by the group. First, the ministers would launch at least a one-day boycott (starting on Monday, December 5) in a show of unity and support for Mrs. Parks's position. Second, they would hold a community-wide mass meeting that same evening in order to determine whether the public would support an indefinite extension of the bus boycott. After the meeting broke up, Martin and Ralph stayed at Dexter late into the night mimeographing flyers. The next day, hundreds of volunteers began spreading more than seven thousand notices all over town. Some of the ministers even went around to nightclubs to spread the word-and, at Sunday services, each alerted their congregation to the boycott and the upcoming mass meeting.
Over the next few days and weeks, Montgomery's African-American leadership team took five major steps that would result in the eventual success of their movement. These strategic actions would also become key elements in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, future approach to leadership.
1. Set Goals and Create a Plan of Action
A specific plan of action was created to implement a long-term boycott of city buses where people would use any other method of transportation possible until government officials agreed to their proposals. In addition, three goals (or demands) were set that would be the basis for negotiation with the opposition for ending the boycott. First, no rider would have to stand when there was a vacant seat nor would anyone be compelled to give up a seat already occupied. Second, bus drivers would have to be courteous to all patrons. And, third, African-Americans could apply and be hired as bus drivers.
These goals and the overall plan were conceived by the three-person committee of Nixon, Abernathy, and Rev. Edgar French (Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church)-and later presented to, and approved by, the larger team of leaders.
2. Create a New Formal Alliance
The leadership group founded a formal organization that was specifically designed to administer the boycott. When Abernathy suggested the name Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), it was immediately accepted. And then, to his surprise, Martin was nominated president of the new alliance. Those who supported him did so because he was well liked, highly educated, and an eloquent speaker. Also, because he was relatively new in town, he was not tied to any particular group and, therefore, had no known baggage or personal agenda. In essence, Martin Luther King, Jr., was something of a compromise, middle-of-the-road candidate. He accepted the position right off the bat. "Somebody has to do it," said Martin, "and if you think I can, I will serve."
3. Involve the People
A mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church was held in the evening of the first day of the boycott. Rather than riding the bus, over 99 percent of Montgomery's African-Americans walked, hitchhiked, rode mules and horses, or found some other way to get to work and back home again. Accordingly, the boycott started out as a tremendous success.
Thousands of people began assembling for the mass meeting several hours in advance. By the time it started, at least a thousand were in the church, spilling into the aisles, standing on the sides and in the back. An estimated four thousand more people were crowded together outside on the lawn and in the streets listening to what was being said from a loudspeaker that had been mounted on the church's roof.
The proceeding began with a prayer and scripture reading. Then Rev. King, as newly elected president of the MIA, rose to give a fifteen-minute opening speech. He spoke from an outline prepared less than an hour in advance. "We're here this evening for serious business," he began. "We are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning." After portraying Rosa Parks as a great heroine and retelling her story, his voice rose in a melodramatic tone. "There comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired-tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. We have no alternative but to protest," he said to thundering cheers from the crowd. Martin concluded by eloquently taking the cause to a higher level: "If we protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, 'There lived a race of people ... who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.'"
Rufus Lewis, a business leader who had nominated King for president of the MIA, later commented that this speech was a "great awakening." "It was astonishing," he said. "[We] were brought face-to-face with the type of man that Martin Luther King was...."
Rosa Parks was next introduced and the crowd gave her a standing ovation. They all knew that earlier in the day she had been convicted of her "crime" and fined $14. Then Rev. Abernathy went to the microphone and read a resolution calling for a boycott until the MIA's demands were met. When a voice vote was called for, the people in the audience unanimously thundered their approval.
In order to keep the citizens informed and up-to-date, similar mass meetings were held on a weekly basis and rotated to different churches. They were to become the chief form of two-way communication between the people and the movement's leaders.
4. Seek Dialogue and Negotiation
The next morning, a letter requesting formal negotiations, along with a copy of the people's three demands, was mailed to the bus company and to Montgomery city hall. That afternoon, the MIA leadership held a press conference to explain their goals. Two days later, a meeting was granted with city and bus company executives at city hall. At that gathering, however, King and the other black leaders were sternly informed that there would be no compromise, no meeting of demands, and no more discussions.
Although initially angry, Martin became more determined than ever in his quest, and philosophical concerning the reaction of the white majority. He recalled his study of the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who wrote: "Growth comes through pain and struggle."
Over the course of the boycott, MIA leaders would seek additional negotiations. On occasion they spoke with those in positions of authority, but without substantial gain. An important lesson they learned was that the opposition would not yield on any issue unless absolutely forced to do so. Clearly, the boycott would have to go on for an indefinite period of time before any progress was made.
The bus boycott created a major problem for Montgomery's African-American leadership. How would they get thousands of citizens to and from work without the benefit of the method of transportation to which people had long been accustomed?
Because they were faced with a new problem, one that had not been encountered before, it was obvious that they were going to have to generate some creative and imaginative solutions. Accordingly, the MIA set up a transportation committee to deal directly with the question to how to get people around town.
Someone came up with the idea of contacting all the taxi cab companies in town to work out some sort of a deal. Sensing a possible windfall in business, eight of Montgomery's taxi businesses agreed to transport people for the same fare as that charged on city buses' cents.
The committee also devised a clever car pool system with more than forty pickup and dispatch stations located strategically around the city. Hundreds of people volunteered automobiles and their time in order to make the car pool successful. People who did not work offered to drive any time of day (some drove all day long).
Excerpted from Martin Luther King, Jr. on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips Copyright © 1998 by Donald T. Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
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