Book 1 A Mighty Stream (1955-1957)

ONE


First Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, January 30, 1956.

“Onward Christian soldiers,” the spirited assembly belted out, “marching as to war.” The hymn had been written to inspire Union forces during the Civil War. Prayer followed, then another hymn, “Plant My Feet on Higher Ground.” A short somber minister rose to the pulpit for that evening’s pep talk.

“Some of our good white citizens told me today that the relationships between white and colored used to be good,” he said softly, “that the whites have never let us down and that the outsiders came in and upset this relationship. But I want you to know,” his voice building volume, “that if M. L. King had never been born, this movement would have taken place. I just happened to be here.

“There comes a time,” his words now a resonating shout, “when time itself is ready for change. That time has come in Montgomery and I had nothing to do with it.

“Our opponents—I hate to think of our governmental officers as opponents, but they are—have tried all sorts of things to break us, but we still hold steadfast. Their first strategy was to negotiate into a compromise and that failed. Secondly, they tried to conquer by dividing and that failed. Now they are trying to intimidate us by a get-tough policy and that’s going to fail too, because a man’s language is courage when his back is against the wall.” The assembly erupted in thunderclaps.

“When we are right, we don’t mind going to jail!” More ear-splitting applause. “If all I have to pay is going to jail a few times and getting about twenty threatening phone calls a day, I think that is a very small price to pay for what we are fighting for. We are a chain. We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be.” More thunderous clapping as he sat down.

Following him at the pulpit was Solomon S. Seay, former head of the national African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.

“You know,” Reverend Seay started out, “if a man doesn’t want to sit besides me because I’m dirty, that’s my fault. If he doesn’t want to sit besides me because I’m loud, that’s my fault too, but if he doesn’t want to sit besides me because I’m black, that’s not my fault because God made me black and my white brother is discriminating against God and His will. But even though they are, we must love them. We must love Mr. Sellers and Mr. Gayle for God said that we must love our enemies as ourselves. Let’s not hate them, for with love in our hearts and God on our side, there are no forces in hell or on earth that can mow us down.

“I had a book which was so interesting,” he continued, “that I gave it to the city officials to read. It’s a book on great powers, the stories of men who ruled and conquered by force only to lose. Men like Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler were discussed, men who lived by the sword. Their empires are no longer, but have perished.

“But there was a man who taught that love and faith could move mountains and more mountains. And unto this day that empire which was built by a man who said while dying on the cross, ‘Forgive them O Lord, for they know not what they do.’ That is the empire of Jesus Christ! He was asking forgiveness for the men who crucified him, drove nails through his hands and put thorns on his head. So we forgive Sellers and Gayle, but we do not give up.”

Back at the King parsonage on South Jackson Street, a small one-story clapboard house, Coretta Scott King was watching television, still a novelty, in the front parlor with a church friend keeping her company. She heard the thud of something landing on the concrete porch and footsteps scurrying away. Alert to what it might be, she grabbed her friend and they dashed to the back of the house, where tiny, two month-old Yolanda was sleeping in her crib. Then came the explosion, the loudest noise she had ever heard. She held her screaming friend. The baby cried. The dynamite sticks had blown a small hole in the concrete floor, wrecked porch columns and the front wall, and smashed several windows. It would have injured anyone sitting in the parlor. It would likely have killed Coretta King had she looked out the window to investigate the thud.

Over at First Baptist on the other side of the statehouse, Reverend King was supervising the collection. A member of his church walked briskly down the aisle and whispered to Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend, whose church this was. Out of the corner of his eye King saw ministers conferring urgently. Agitated, he turned to Abernathy and asked what the hell was going on.

“Your house has been bombed.”
He asked about his wife and baby.
“We are checking on that now.”

He returned to the pulpit, told the people what happened. Several shouted out in shock and alarm. A few women screamed. King urged calm, which he somehow embodied, advising them to go home directly and hold to nonviolent principles.

“Let us keep moving,” he said firmly but wearily, “with the faith that what we are doing is right, and with the even greater faith that God is with us in the struggle.”

Staring straight ahead, he marched out of the church and drove home. The parsonage was surrounded by a furious sea of several hundred black people, who “came to do battle,” Coretta King recalled. New waves were arriving every minute. Densely packed, they closed in around the house. Making his way through the strangely silent crowd, King saw many handguns in belts and pockets, a few hunting rifles, scores of knives and baseball bats. He heard a black man defy a white cop.

“Move back, boy. What’s the matter, you can’t understand plain English?”

“I ain’t gonna move nowhere,” the black fellow burst out. “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.”

Stunned by the sight of the bombed-out porch, lit by police searchlights, King strode into the house past police, reporters, cameras, Mayor W. A. Gayle, and Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers. He found his wife and baby unhurt. Gayle and Sellers tried to reassure him that such behavior would not be tolerated. King did not reply, but C. T. Smiley, head of the Dexter church trustees and principal of segregated Booker T. Washington High School, where Claudette Colvin had gone, could not hold back:

“Regrets are all very well,” he said sternly, “but you are responsible. It is you who created the climate for this.”

The phone rang nonstop, mostly supporters. A white woman said she was sorry, but the Negroes were responsible; the boycott had made the white people lose all respect for them. Another white woman claimed that she had thrown the bomb, that she was sorry she did such a poor job, but she wanted to teach Rev. King a lesson. She hung up before a detective grabbed the extension. The Kings made statements for the TV cameras aimed at calming the furor.

Hapless police efforts to disperse the still growing crowd had the opposite effect, provoking them into belligerent defiance. They jeered the beat-red mayor and police boss when the arch-segregationists tried to pacify them. The officials retreated into the house, where they beseeched King to stop a full-scale race riot. The pastor walked grimly out on the mangled porch and the huge throng cheered lustfully. He raised one hand and silence broke out.

“Everything is all right,” he reassured the crowd. “It is best for all of you to go home.

“We believe in law and order,” he continued. “Don’t get panicky. Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said.

“We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.

“I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that 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. With love in our hearts, with faith and with God in front we cannot lose.”

Many of the people were crying. Coretta King “could see the shine of tears on their faces, in the strong lights. They were moved, as by a holy exaltation.” Some shouted “Amen” and “God bless you, Reverend.”

The multitude of over a thousand started to drift away but then swayed ominously back toward the parsonage. Standing in the dark night like solid granite, they solemnly sang, “My country ‘tis of Thee, sweet land of liberty.” Then “Amazing Grace,” composed as an act of repentance by John Newton, an English slave ship captain. Softly hymning, “I once was blind but now I see,” the black mass, moving as one body, disappeared into the darkness.

A relieved policeman had the final word: “If it hadn’t been for that nigger preacher,” he said to a fellow cop, “we’d all be dead.”

“This could well have been the darkest night in Montgomery’s history,” King wrote in his memoir. “But something happened to avert it: The spirit of God was in our hearts.”

Forty years later Coretta King reflected that this moment was “a turning point in the movement, in terms of injecting the nonviolent philosophy into the struggle. It could have been a riot, a very bloody riot. If that had happened the whole cause could have been lost.”

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