A King Among Men: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

I don’t often talk in terms of heroes and role models, but if you forced me to name one, I would choose the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I’ve written here before, I believe that he represents about as well as anyone in history what it means to be a politically engaged American and a conscientious human being.

In no small part because of my frustration with this country’s current political mood, I decided to turn to my “hero” for advice and inspiration by reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s worth noting here that this is not an autobiography in the strictest sense of the word. Rather, it’s a narrative pieced together by a King scholar from King’s own words, in consultation with his family.

Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book that had approximately the inspirational and though-provoking effect that I hoped it would. This is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on some of the passages that were most eye-opening for me.

This first is really something that struck me a few years ago when I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, but it’s a point that King drives home as well. Although I learned about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in school, I didn’t fully appreciate what it entailed. Because taking the bus played approximatly no role in my suburban upbringing, I didn’t have the context to appreciate exactly what it meant for 40,000 people – most of them poor – to go more than a year without using the public bus system.

Organizing the boycott required, first, communicating, largely without the benefit of mass communication technology such as TV and radio, with tens of thousands of individuals, and secondly, finding ways for all of these people to get to work.┬áThe African-American community of Montgomery basically had to create its own mass communications and transit systems, from scratch, in just a few weeks, and they had to contend with active attempts by the city government to shut them down. The city, for instance, began enforcing a law requiring taxi drivers to charge a fare, complicating the boycotters ability to carpool. There were also attempts to spread false information about the boycott being cancelled. As King puts it, “The [Montgomery Improvement Association] had worked out in a few nights a transportation problem that the bus company had grappled with for many years.”

King goes on to relate an inspiring story:

[S]o profoundly had the spirit of the protest become a part of the people’s lives that sometimes they even preferred to walk when a ride was available. The act of walking, for many, had become of symbolic importance. Once a pool driver stopped beside an elderly woman who was trudging along with obvious difficulty.”

“Jump in, Grandmother,” he said. “You don’t need to walk.”

She waved him on. “I’m not walking for myself,” she explained. “I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.” And she continued toward home on foot.

4 thoughts on “A King Among Men: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

  1. I’m curious about your thoughts on how important leaders’ personal failings are. For example, the sexual harassment (and worse) accusations against Trump or Bill Clinton’s infidelity.

    • I don’t see much value in generalizing about “personal failings” as a category. What exactly is a “personal failing”, as distinguished from some other sort of failing? I’m assuming you mean something like “a thing the candidate does in his/her private life that doesn’t directly affect what s/he would do as a leader.” To the extent that we really can separate those things, I suppose “personal failings” aren’t relevant. However, I think the feminist critique of the public/private distinction (that women are often excluded from or marginalized in the “public” sphere, and that violence against women is condoned because it takes place in “private”) is potent. And I think that often, what a candidate does in “private” provides insight into how s/he will lead. Hence the concern about whether Trump’s behavior indicates a fundamental lack of respect for women that would reveal itself in how he handles issues like abortion and civil rights.

      It’s also not irrelevant that the president is a role model. Of everything Bill Clinton has admitted to, I find his bald-faced lie to the American people most appalling. Of course it’s common for politicians (people?) to be mealy-mouthed and squirrelly and whatnot, but to address the American people directly and say “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” is another level of shamelessness.

      I’m guessing you’re asking about this here because of King’s affairs? Michael Eric Dyson says some smart things about this, in “I May Not Get There With You.” According to him, many African-Americans think it’s best not discussed, because it tarnishes the hero’s image. Dyson says it humanizes King, who is too often mythologized, and so makes him in some ways more inspiring. Rather than seeing King as some great, almost Christ-like figure, we see that he was just another flawed human being trying but not always succeeding in doing what’s right. Of course this had the potential to become a liability for King as a leader, because the FBI tried to use this to blackmail him (again, the private becomes public).

  2. I’m looking forward to these posts because I count MLK as a hero too. I agree with Dyson that he’s been made a bit too mythical. Makes it seems as if us normal folk cant do some of the things he did.

    I think it must have been 10 years ago when I decided to delve deeper into his teachings. I learned a lot. They barely scratch the surface in school and in February. I’ve heard every speech and sermon multiple times each.

    I went to the same museum. The thing I remember most is the statue of the dogs and learning about under appreciated leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth and especially all the unnamed kids. They were probably the most inspiring for me personally.

    • Yeah those dogs were powerful, I forgot about that! It definitely gives you the sense of what a mass movement it was. For whatever reason, history tends to focus on the role of “great men” but there are so many individual acts of heroism in, say, the bus boycott or the sit-ins. I thought the oral histories, the testimony from regular people about the little role they played or what they remembered, was really powerful too.

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