Charles Marsh: King received the news of the parsonage bombing like a man inwardly prepared for battle, surprising many in the congregation when they later learned the details from Ralph Abernathy. "My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it," King said.(1) By the time he arrived home, a crowd had already begun forming in the street and front yard. Memories of the size of crowd vary greatly; some say hundreds, others thousands. But everyone recalls the anger and insult incited by police officers who pushed and threatened bystanders in an effort to clear the streets. As King made his way through the crowd to the house, he overheard one man saying, "I ain't gonna move nowhere. 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."(2)
King felt the undercurrents of rage that had run strong for years in the black community swelling into the immediate threat of violence. He felt the drifting of sentiment away from peaceful protest to militant conflict. The weeks of successful non-violent protest seemed on the verge of turning suddenly violent.
Inside the house, with the front window shattered and a hole blasted into the porch, King was relieved to find Coretta and Yoki safe and in good spirits. Mayor Gayle, along with police commissioner Sellers, the fire chief, and newspaper reporters, had assembled in the dining room and were making official declarations of regret to anyone who would listen. Gayle offered promises to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Meanwhile, the crowd outside, still collecting newcomers from all corners of the neighborhood, continued to press forward against the police barricade. King knew he needed to address the people, and he walked onto the porch and called for order. He offered the reassurances that Coretta and Yoki were unharmed. Then he told the crowd from the damaged front porch, “Let’s not become panicky. If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: 'He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.' Remember that is what God said."(3)
"We must love our white brothers," King continued, "no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.' This is what must live by. We must meet hate with love.
"Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance. Go home and sleep calm. Go home and don't worry. Be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.”
Jo Ann Robinson recalled that as King spoke a "respectful hush" settled over the crowd. Even the police grew still and listened to the pastor's words.(4) A scattering of gentle "Amen's", “God bless you’s", and "We are with you all the way, Reverend's" created a new momentum. Tears rolled down the faces of many people in the crowd, as some hummed church songs. King’s words and the congregation’s response drew together the parsonage and the street and wrapped the expanse of the Montgomery night into a unifying evocation of peace.
Police Commissioner Sellers then took the porch and stated his regrets and good intentions. When some "bless you's" and "Amen's" slurred into "boos” and hisses, King finally interrupted Sellers and held up his hand for silence. "Remember what I just said. Let us hear the commissioner".
King knew all too well that the gathering could have turned into the "darkest night in Montgomery's history", with hundreds—some say thousands--of angry men and women surrounding the middle-aged mayor and his three sidekicks. But "something happened" to avert the disaster, King said. "The spirit of God was in our hearts, and a night that seemed destined to end in unleashed chaos came to a close in a majestic group demonstration of nonviolence."(5) Church happened, and the reluctant man who had been called to "stand up" for God's righteousness, justice and truth, saw the evidence of their rarely tested power.
African Americans around the South saw the evidence too. "Be assured", wrote Mrs. Pinkie Franklin from Birmingham in a letter the next day, "that day and night without ceasing I shall be praying for your safety and that of your family's. The Arm of God is everlastingly strong and Sufficient to keep you…There shall no harm come to you, and the Comforting Spirit of God shall guide you."(6) Pastor Wood from Baltimore addressed his young colleague as the "Lion King” and told him to keep on "preaching like mad", for God is sending his angels to camp around him.(7) Letters, cards and telegrams with prayers and spiritual admonitions poured in from around the country.
(1) King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, p. 79.
(2) King, Autobiography, p. 79.
(3) Cited in The Papers, volume III, p. 115.
(4) Jo Ann Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), p. 132.
(5) King, Stride Toward Freedom, p. 138.
(6) Mrs. Pinkie S. Franklin cited in The Papers, volume III, p. 116.
(7) Marcus Garvey Wood cited in The Papers, volume III, p. 129.