Charles Marsh: "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."

Charles Marsh: In the first week of December 1956, the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) held a weeklong Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at the Holt Street Baptist Church.  King's opening address, "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," was delivered nearly one year to the date of his first public speech and the beginning of the boycott.  The address revealed a broadened theological perspective on the year that had passed.  King paused on this evening of jubiliation and thanksgiving to reflect on the achievements of the preceding months.  The legal decision brought needed changes in public policy, and more difficult work lay ahead.  But as importantly the boycott year had renewed the mission of the church.  “Our church is becoming more militant,” he said.(1)  The boycott showed the world a church whose power stemmed from its deliberate discipline, whose moral authority was the hard-earned result of its suffering and willingness to love the enemy—religious passions, it should be noted that Niebuhr's thin ecclesiology could never embrace.  The struggle required, and in turn fostered, the kind of discipline needed both for the large tasks of defying unjust laws and institutions and for the mundane tasks as well:  mimeographing fliers, stapling papers, sitting in pews for hours in order to get a seat for the evening meetings, waiting and walking. 

King was not sanguine on the matter.  The “new order" in which all people will live together as sisters and brothers has not arrived in its promised fullness.  One only had to look around at the mass meetings to know this: aside from Robert Graetz, the white pastor of a black Lutheran Church who had always wanted to be a black man, not a single white minister in Montgomery had accepted King's invitation to attend the Holt Street service.  In the early months of the boycott, King had held out hope that white ministers, when approached by their Negro brethren, would reciprocate the hand of friendship.  He had even handwritten letters to white pastors inviting them to participate in the programs and events.  But on this evening King lays claim to an ecclesiology born of the hard lessons of the boycott year, affirming reconciliation with whites but with chastened hopes and expectations.(2)

Still, 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. (3) 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."(4) 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."(5)



(1)  Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers, III, p. 452.

(2)  King has discovered the church not only as "a center of difference," as Stephen L. Carter has written, the church as "a center of resistance.   [Stephen L. Carter, Christianity Today, June 12, 2000, p. 58]  The ecclesial zone of resistance and reconciliation was a church on the move: when local congregations supplied the boycott with their own vehicles to help facilitate the car pool, the "rolling churches" overflowed the geographical boundaries of the parish.   [Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., "From Harlem to Montgomery: The Bus Boycotts and Leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr.," in The Walking City, p. 311]  Most of the dispatch stations were located at the Negro churches, which cooperated by opening their doors early each morning so that the waiting passengers could be seated.  Many of these churches provided heat on cold mornings and coffee to start the day."   [Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 58]  Montgomery is also an exercise in Christian hospitality.  The church doors were open, invitations were sent, and generosity was extended.  African Americans were not only asserting their essential entitlement to equal equality under the law but the church's essential strangeness in this transitory world; "for strangers we are all."  As Ralph Abernathy said to a reporter who thought it odd that the black congregation applauded Scripture, "We are a peculiar people." The spiritual movement in Montgomery extended a gesture of reconciliation to white, and whites didn't know what to do with it.  The movement of Montgomery would become institutionalized, codified into national organization forms, and go about changing larger structures of injustice; but reconciliation as a gesture of Christian hospitality would develop no further in the civil rights movement.

(3)  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”. 

(4)  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]

(5)  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?

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