Charles Marsh: The neon sign that appeared on a building in full view of the car indicating their arrival at the Montgomery City Jail must have seemed an unlikely answer to prayer but appreciated in its own way. Inside King was fingerprinted and locked into a crowded holding cell. "Strange gusts of emotion swept through me like cold winds on an open prairie,” he recalled.(1) As he slowly adjusted to the shock of the new surroundings, he found himself the center of attention. A crowd of black inmates gathered excitedly around him, and King was surprised to find two acquaintances locked up with the rest of them, who offered their hearty greetings. King spent the evening listening to stories of thieves and drunks and drifters, and in exchange he gave the men a vivid account of his afternoon. Several asked if King could help get them out of jail. "Fellows, before I can assist in getting any of you out," he said, "I've got to get my own self out," and the cell was filled with laughter.(2)
King had crossed the first threshold of fear and discovered that presence of mind could still be summoned on the other side. With the spirited company of these unlikely allies--movement people, "vagrants" and "serious criminals"--he realized that even jail could be endured for the sake of doing the right thing. "From that night on, my commitment to the struggle for freedom was stronger than ever before,” he said. “Yes, the night of injustice was dark; the 'get-tough' policy was taking its toll. But in the darkness I could see a radiant star of unity."(3)
King’s release later the same night no doubt made the radiant star easier to behold. Dozens of church members and movement friends from other churches had steadily gathered in the parking lot throughout the evening and waited for their pastor. But whatever momentarily relief King felt was gone the next evening when he returned to his parsonage, exhausted after another long day of organizational meetings. Coretta and their two-month old daughter, Yolanda, were already asleep, and King was eager to join them. He would not be so lucky. The phone rang out in the midnight silence, and when King lifted the receiver, a drawl released a torrent of obscene words and then the death threat: "Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you; before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery."(4) King hung up without comment, as had become his custom. Threatening phone calls had become a daily routine in the weeks of the protests, and King had tried to brush them off at first. In recent days, however, the threatening phone calls had started to take a toll, increasing in number to thirty or forty a day and growing in their menacing intent.(5)
Unwelcome thoughts prey on the mind in the late hours, and King felt himself overcome with fear. "I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me.(6) Stirred into wakefulness, King made a pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. "I felt myself faltering," he said.(7) He felt his emotional balance—maintained throughout the preceding weeks of the boycott by a kind of willful unreflectiveness--slide abruptly out of balance. "I was ready to give up."(8) It was as though the violent undercurrents of the protest rushed in upon him with heightened force, and he surveyed the turbulent waters for a way of escape, searching for an exit point between courage and convenience--"a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward”--and he found none.(9)
King thought of baby Yoki sleeping in her crib, of her "little gentle smile", and of Coretta, who had sacrificed her music career, according to the milieu of the Baptist pastor's wife, to follow her husband South. For the first time, he grasped the utter seriousness of his situation and with it the inescapable fact that his family could be taken away from him any minute, or more likely he from them.(10) He felt himself reeling within, as the Psalmist had said, his soul "melted because of trouble, at wit's end". "I couldn't take it any longer,” King said. “I was weak."
As he sat at his kitchen table sipping the coffee, his ruminations were interrupted by a sudden notion that at once intensified his desperation and clarified his options. "Something said to me, 'You can't call on Daddy now, you can't call on Mama. You've got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.'"(11) With his head now buried in his hands, King bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. He said:
"Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I still think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
As his prayer folded the silent room and house, King heard a voice saying, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world."(12) Then King heard the voice of Jesus. “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone." And as the voice washed over the stains of the wretched caller, King reached a spiritual shore beyond fear and apprehension. "I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before," he said. "Almost at once my fears began to go," King said of the midnight flash of illumination and resolve. "My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."(13)
(1) King, Autobiography, p. 74.
(2) King cited in Branch, Parting the Waters, pp. 160-161.
(3) King, Autobiography, p. 76.
(4) King, The Autobiography, p. 77.
(5) King, The Autobiography, p. 76.
(6) King, Autobiography, p. 77.
(7) King cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 56.
(8) King, The Autobiography, p. 77.
(9) King, The Autobiography, p. 77.
(10) King cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 59.
(11) King, The Autobiography, p. 77.
(12) King, The Autobiography, p. 78.
(13) King, The Autobiography, p. 78.