Charles Marsh recounts Martin Luther King, Jr.'s first ride on an integrated bus in Montgomery, Alabama with Glenn Smiley and Ralph Abernathy.

Montgomery had been an encouraging experiment in love, an exemplification of untested power of the Sermon on the Mount. Then, King said astonishingly:"It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times.  But we remember that as we boycott that the boycott is not an end within itself....[The] end is reconciliation the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends…It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men."

He implored the militant church in Montgomery to commit itself to the mission of reconciliation with a passion at least equal to its commitment to legal reform.

Mayor Gayle promised to appeal the case to the U. S. Supreme Court and he did, but the signs of the end were everywhere evident.  White officials survived a few more rounds of missed chances and legal jabs; but on December 17, 1956 the knockout punch came.  To a city trying its best to get into the spirit of the Christmas season, despite the unseasonably warm temperature, the news arrived that the Supreme Court had rejected the Montgomery city commissioner’s final appeal.  Three days later, on December 20, the U. S. Supreme Court's decision took effect.

In the last mass two meetings before returning to the buses—held concurrently at Holt Street Baptist and First Baptist Church—the black Montgomerians declared an end to the 382-day boycott.  King reminded the congregations to follow the 'Integrated Bus Suggestions' distributed earlier in the evening. (1) King encouraged a civil and forgiving transition to the new arrangements and a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.  "Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete non-violence in word and action as you enter the bus”, he said.  "In sitting down by a person, white or colored, say, 'May I' or 'Pardon me' as you sit.  This is a common courtesy."(2) Sensing a popular sentiment of vindication, King cautioned against smugness.  The black church's victory in Montgomery dare not be used as an occasion for "wild" emotions or aggressive celebration.  Negroes in Montgomery should rather board the buses as if they were proceeding into their church sanctuaries on Sunday morning, with respect for the moment.  King then fortified the “Suggestions” practical advice with a final theological hope:  “We must now move from protest to reconciliation."(3)

The next morning, the young Baptist pastor was the first Negro to board the bus at the corner of South Jackson and Key Street, a few blocks from his home.  "Is this the reverend?", asked the white driver politely.  "That's right," answered King, visibly nervous as reporters and photographers looked on.  "We are glad to have you this morning," the driver said.  "Thank you," said King, who then stepped on the bus and took a seat on the third row.  Smiley sat alongside King, and Ralph Abernathy sat in the next row in front of them.  "I rode the first integrated bus in Montgomery with a white minister and a native Southerner as my seatmate," King said. (4)

 


(1) Drafted by the Quaker activist Glenn Smiley, the “Suggestions” admonished those who planned to ride the buses the next morning to maintain "a calm and loving dignity” and recommended that they not “deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no seat”. 

(2)  Cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 82.  Cited in Burns, Daybreak of Freedom, p. 327.  Although the Montgomery movement's rhetoric had a "seductive gentleness", as James Farmer said, their action was "sinewy and tough."  [James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart (New York: Signet, 1885), p. 185]  It was a demonstration, too, that the beloved community did not stand or fall on some future act of God "to which human beings can contribute little or nothing except an attitude of prayerful expectancy."  [R. S. Barbour, The Kingdom of God and Human Society, edited by R. S. Barbour (Edinburgh: &T Clark 1993), p. xii]  "The bus protest is not merely in protest of the arrest of Rosa Parks," King and numerous other black ministers declared in their manifesto, "To the Montgomery Public".  The boycott "is the culmination of a series of humiliating incidents over a period of many years.  “It is an upsurging of a ground swell that has been going on for a long time.  Our cup of tolerance has run over."  ["To the Montgomery Public," cited in The Papers, volume III, 91]

(3) King, "Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott," p. 487. Most often protest and reconciliation appear as dialectical twins who reunite as rivals rather than as friends, different goals that sometimes intersect and cross-pollinate but usually diverge and clamor for attention.  But in Montgomery, protest and reconciliation were part of the same process, the working out of the "concept of love" in social existence.  Civil rights successes would be easier to come by than reconciliation; reconciliation was slow and difficult to gauge and did not promise the satisfactions of political organizing. Reconciliation could not be measured by standards of political achievement.  The two trajectories of protest and reconciliation are not mutually exclusive, as the Montgomery story shows; yet as they extend from Montgomery into the next decades of congregational activism, they forge different visions and hopes for the beloved community.   Thus the question:  is it possible to move from protest to reconciliation?

(4) King cited in Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, p. 482.

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