Charles Marsh: "By the end of February, a Montgomery grand jury began handing down indictments against MIA members under state boycott law."

Charles Marsh: By the end of February, a Montgomery grand jury began handing down indictments against MIA members under state boycott law.  "We are committed to segregation by custom and by law," read the report, and "we intend to maintain it."(1) King had left the state for a few days on speaking engagements, but hearing the news, promised to return to stand trial.  His father, not having been graced with a midnight visit from Jesus, demanded that his son not now or ever return to Montgomery.  But King was unmoved.  "I would rather go back and spend ten years in jail than not go back," he said.(2)

On the first day of the trial, Monday, March 19, 1956, King and his fellow organizers entered the courtroom in solemn procession as Negro spectators sat quietly with cloth crosses on their lapels that read, "Father Forgive Them."  After four days of deliberations, Judge Eugene Carter brought the trial to a close on March 22.  King was found guilt of conducting illegal activities against Montgomery City Lines, and he was given a choice between a $500 fine plus court costs or 386 days in jail.  Posting $1000 bail and released on appeal, King was greeted later that afternoon by several hundred supporters as he exited the courthouse.  He told the crowd that the “more than forty thousand Negro citizens of Montgomery” were more than ever determined to use the weapon of love, and that violence always proves self-defeating, for, as Jesus taught, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword." (3)

That evening, at another mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist, three thousand people overflowed the church onto the front steps and sidewalk.  With the court’s guilty verdict fresh in hand, and following the congregational singing of the hymns, "We Shall Not Be Moved", "Go, Send Me, Oh Lord", and "Walk Together, Children", King called the Montgomery protest a “spiritual movement", and a  “Christian movement."(4)  Beyond the season of the boycott and whatever strategic gains it would bring, the spiritual struggle must be fought with "moral and spiritual forces," for these are "the only weapon we have".  King acknowledged that he and his fellow church people "may not get to see the promised land"; but they could rest assured that God was true to his word.  "So don't worry about some of the things we have to go through," he said.  "They are just a necessary part of the great movement that we are making toward freedom." 

In naming the Montgomery struggle a spiritual and a Christian movement, King's intention was surely not to exclude non-Christians from participation (even though there were no inter-faith coalitions working in Montgomery); rather he was naming the protest in reference to its specific source, the church and its faith.  Everything the Montgomery movement seeks to accomplish comes "from what we have prayed over."(5)  In calling the protest a spiritual and a Christian movement, King was not laying claim to an ecclesial monopoly over racial progress in America.  Who is served by a monopoly on righteousness but the elites and institutions that would wave the yellow flag at black church people stirring into protest?  In fact, that specificity would make King more rather than less open to fellow travelers from other confessions in the work of justice; that specificity gave the church struggle a humility and generous reach.  At its best, the “civil rights movement” (as it would soon be called) embodied this generosity, and King would expand his circle of black church people to include Jews and humanists.(6)  "I feel that there will be a victory and it will be greater than any particular race," he said to Montgomery Advertiser reporter, Joe Azbel.  "It will be for the improvement of the whole of Montgomery, and I think that is so because this is a spiritual movement depending on moral and spiritual forces."(7) King understood that a public disciple has no need to say that only a Christian may suffer for the sake of a just cause.



(1)  Cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 64.

(2)  King cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 65.

(3)  Cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 74 King, The Papers, volume III, pp. 198-199.

(4)  King , The Papers, volume III, p. 200.

(5)  King, The Papers, volume III, p. 230.

(6)  King claimed that the theological drama in Montgomery illuminated the cosmic scope of the African-American struggle for freedom, an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.  [Harold DeWolf's "How the Kingdom Will Come," May 15, 1954, Boston University Dialectical Society:  the apocalyptic view and that the Kingdom is already present.  DeWolf proposed that a solution "may lie in a synthesis of both views."

(7)  King cited in The Papers, volume III, p. 202.

» Go to excerpt page