Charles Marsh: That night, December 5, 1955, the newly-elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association gave his first public address at Holt Street Baptist Church. Sitting in his office in hurried preparation of his remarks, King cobbled together notes from a variety of sources which he hoped would offer some perspective on the moment at hand. The words of the Holt Street address are those of a minister who has less than an hour alone in his study to put together the evening sermon: throw in a little Amos, a little Lincoln, and a little Niebuhr, and it’s good to go. His address and the thunderous response from the congregation reveals a man awakening to a call. But it is not King’s spiritual genius or existential resolve that pulls him into the movement that changed America but the spirit of the people.
King: The Almighty God himself is...not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, "I love you, Israel." He's also the God that stands up before the nations and said: "Be still and know that I'm God.”
King: "That if you don't obey me I will break the backbone of your power."
King: "And slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships."
Congregation: That's right....
King: If we are wrong, God almighty is wrong.
Congregation: That's right. [Applause]
King: If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth.
Congregation: Yes. [Applause]
King: If we are wrong, justice is a lie.
King: Love has no meaning. [Applause]
King: And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water.
Congregation: Yes. [Applause]
King: And righteousness like a mighty stream.
Congregation: Keep talking. [Applause](1)
In the Holt Street address, a basic theological conviction is manifested, one which shapes King’s perspective on these awakening days of the struggle: "We are guiding and channeling our emotions to the extent that we feel that God shall give us the victory."(2) The beautiful chaos that America would see daily on the streets of Montgomery, the tens of thousands of African Americans walking in the gray winter light, the empty buses rolling through the capitol city, the mass meetings overflowing the black churches--bear evidence of God's presence and promise. In passages that evoke a host of powerful biblical images--the disinherited of the land, the long night of captivity, the glimmering promise of deliverance, each image as alive with meaning for the sufferings and hopes of African Americans as it had been for Israel in the long years of exile—King describes the momentous event as the beginning of a larger and complicated theological drama (3).
Certainly King made some nice points in his talk. "Standing up to the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world", the veritable "end of life". Jesus was not merely a utopian dreamer but the incarnate truth of God enabling the church and its people "to work and fight" and to "keep talking". "We, the disinherited of this land," King continued, "we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity." But it is the congregation that gave these words their power; the congregation that sang, "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before”; and "What a fellowship, what a joy divine; what a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms."; the sweet song of beloved fellowship, "Blest be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love, our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.” It is the congregation that amens the words of the thirty-fourth Psalm, read melodiously by Pastor Uriah Fields of the Bell Street Baptist Church: “The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles." The singing, worshipping, and amening church seems more eager to move into action than the young preacher with his unfinished dissertation and his ambitious plans for the church budget.(4)
King concluded his remarks with a gentle admonition, "Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end,” and he then stepped down from the pulpit and walked slowly through the sanctuary and out the front doors, many people reaching out their hands to touch him as he passed.(5) "It was like a revival meeting. The church was so full, there were so many people,” recalled one participant, “and King prayed so that night, I'm telling you the goddam truth, you had to hold people to keep them from gettin' to him."(6) No doubt, the Montgomery protest grew out of a particular tradition of activism and organizing. The seeds of dissent had been planted by many faithful laborers throughout the years of preparation. Yet the church people gathering strong at Holt Street got a glimpse of the moment coming as a divine gift.(7) The Holt Street address of December 5, 1955 marks but the beginning of a theological education at once chastened and empowered by the living church.
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 73.
(2) King, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 75.
(4) “From that night forward," wrote Richard Lischer in his book, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America, "King and the black church community forged an interpretative partnership in which they read the Bible, recited it, sang it, performed it, Amen-ed it, and otherwise celebrated the birth of Freedom by its sacred light." [Lischer, The Preacher King, p. 198] The power resides finally in the meeting, in the way the spiritual energies of the protest are conjured in the space between preacher and congregation.
(5) Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 142. "Blest Be the Tie," in Box 6, Folder 38, BU.
(6) Donie Jones in Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement From the 1950's Through the 1980's, edited by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), p. 24.
(7) In this manner, King's career stands in continuity with Pauline understanding of apocalyptic struggle. J. Louis Martyn's excellent commentary on Galatians illuminates the cosmic dimensions of St. Paul’s perception of Christian witness in the world in a manner familiar to King. "[God's] dispatch of the Spirit of Christ into the believers' hearts turns them all into soldiers active on the Spirit's field of battle. The martial, cosmic dimension of Paul's apocalyptic applies, then, to the church; and for that reason Paul can speak of the church itself both as God's new creation an as the apocalyptic community called to the front trenches in God's apocalyptic war again the powers of the present age. There, and only there, are the churches living in the real world, for it is there that the creation is being made what it now is by God's liberating invasion, an invasion that, in making things right, brings about a fatal separation from--a death to--the old cosmic." [Galatians (New York: The Anchor Bible, 1997), p. 102].