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. The 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.