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Participation by African American churches in American public life surged in the I 1940s and I 1950s throughout the United States, but especially in the American South. These churches often formed both formal and informal alliances with organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUL) in order to resist Jim Crow. For example, the Reverend Oliver Brown, pastor of the St. Catherine's African Methodist Episcopal Church, allowed his daughter to participate in the NAACP's litigation of the historic Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954.
But rather than initiate change, the religious community was often a respondent to crises originating elsewhere. On December 1 , 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a forty- two-year -old seamstress, refused to vacate her seat on a public bus so that a white man, as Alabama state law required, could have her seat. The bus driver called the police who immediately arrested Mrs. Parks, a well-known community activist. Four days later, on December 5, African Americans began a bus boycott after an evening rally was held. The black community unanimously elected the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the first president of the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association. This nonviolent organization signaled a new alliance between black institutions such as churches, fraternal orders, professional associations of teachers and doctors, and mass protests. A strong belief in social responsibility and consciousness hadpermeated a new generation of church leaders who sought to wed religious convictions with the need to change various hypocrisies of American public life. There were many forerunners of this effort. Dr. King himself indicated that he learned much from prior nonviolent resisters such as the Reverend Theodore J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who had led a successful boycott against that city's public bus system as early as 1953, and from the earlier attempts of the Reverend Vernon Johns, who preceded King as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.
After the African American community of Montgomery, Alabama, proudly walked rather than ride the buses for over eleven months, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's decision to declare unconstitutional Alabama's segregationist laws that required racial separation on buses. It took another month to force state and local officials to respect the Supreme Court's interpretation of the low. The buses were finally integrated on December 21, 1956.
The following essay, which was published in the religious journal Liberation, is a summary of Dr. King's book, Stride Toward Freedom. It offers a passionate analysis and defense of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This succinct essay was one of the first summaries of the motivations and objectives that eventually led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
The segregation of Negroes, with its inevitable discrimination, has thrived on elements of inferiority present in the masses of both white and Negro people. Through forced separation from our African culture, through slavery, poverty, and deprivation, many black men lost self-respect.
In their relations with Negroes, white people discovered that they had rejected the very center of their own ethical professions. They could not face the triumph of their lesser instincts and simultaneously have peace within. And so, to gain it, they rationalized--insisting that the unfortunate Negro, being less than human, deserved and even enjoyed second-class status.
They argued that his inferior social, economic and political position was good for him. He was incapable of advancing beyond a fixed position and would therefore be happier if encouraged not to attempt the impossible. He is subjugated by a superior people with an advanced way of life. The "master race" will be able to civilize him to a limited degree, if only he will be true to his inferior nature and stay in his place.
White men soon came to forget that the southern social culture and all its institutions had been organized to perpetuate this rationalization. They observed a caste system and quickly were conditioned to believe that its social results, which they had created, actually reflected the Negro's innate and true nature.
In time many Negroes lost faith in themselves and came to believe that perhaps they really were what they had been told they were--something less than men. So long as they were prepared to accept this role, racial peace could be maintained. It was an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced to accept patiently injustice, insult, injury and exploitation.
Gradually the Negro masses in the South began to reevaluate themselves--a process that was to change the nature of the Negro community and doom the social patterns of the South. We discovered that we had never really smothered our self-respect and that we could not be at one with ourselves without asserting it. From this point on, the South's terrible peace was rapidly undermined by the Negro's new and courageous thinking and his ever-increasing readiness to organize and to act. Conflict and violence were coming to the surface as the white South desperately clung to its old patterns. The extreme tension in race relations in the South today is explained in part by the revolutionary change in the Negro's evaluation of himself and of his destiny and by his determination to struggle for justice. We Negroes have replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity. I Have a Dream
. Copyright © by Martin King. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.