Martin Luther King came to Montgomery, Alabama in September 1954 to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He had accepted his first pulpit while completing his doctorate in philosophical theology at Boston University, a decision that marked a fork in the road for a young man who had planned to become a college president someday.
Although the young pastor arrived in Montgomery with no intention of becoming involved in social protest, events prepared the ground for his emergence as leader of the now-famous Montgomery bus boycott that began with Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man. At the urging of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, then pastor of the First Baptist Church, King reluctantly accepted the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the pastors’ group leading the boycott, on the assumption that the controversy would be resolved quickly. Instead, the boycott stretched into 1956, spawning escalating tensions between black leaders and white officials. King, conflicted over his new role, was in crisis.
The pressures of the recent arrests, city crackdowns, and mounting fears had started taking their toll. In an organizational meeting on January 23, 1956 a despondent King offered his resignation as MIA president. None of the other MIA board members seriously considered accepting the resignation, but King’s self-doubts had been registered loud and clear. He even planned to publish an advertisement in the Montgomery Advertiser reminding townspeople that the boycott was not seeking to challenge segregation laws. The protest was approaching its third month with no end in sight.
The season of police harassments reached a dramatic climax on Thursday, January 26, 1956, when King was stopped by two police officers on motorcycles after having chauffeured several Negro workers to their drop-off spot. In a confusing roadside arrest, King was charged with driving thirty miles an hour in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone and placed into a police cruiser, which had presently arrived on the scene. As King sat alone in the back seat, he quickly realized that the police car was moving in the opposite direction of downtown. The car then turned into an unfamiliar street, and through a wooded area and over an unfamiliar bridge, and King’s hands began to shake. “These men were carrying me to some faraway spot to dump me off,” he thought. “Silently, I asked God to give me the strength to endure whatever came.”
The neon sign that appeared on a building in full view of the car indicating their arrival at the Montgomery City jail must have seemed an unlikely answer to prayer, though appreciated in its own way. Inside, King was fingerprinted and locked into a crowded holding cell. “Strange gusts of emotion swept through me like cold winds on an open prairie,” he recalled.
As he slowly adjusted to the shock of the new surroundings, he found himself the center of attention. A crowd of black inmates gathered excitedly around him, and King was surprised to find two acquaintances, who offered their hearty greetings, locked up with the rest of them. King spent the evening listening to stories of thieves and drunks and drifters, and in exchange he gave the men a vivid account of his afternoon. Several asked if King could help get them out of jail. “Fellows, before I can assist in getting any of you out,” he said, “I’ve got to get my own self out,” and the cell was filled with laughter.
King had crossed the first threshold of fear and there discovered that presence of mind could still be summoned. In the spirited company of these unlikely allies-movement people, “vagrants,” and “serious criminals”-he realized that even jail could be endured for the sake of doing the right thing. “From that night on, my commitment to the struggle for freedom was stronger than ever before,” he said. “Yes, the night of injustice was dark; the ‘get-tough’ policy was taking its toll. But in the darkness I could see a radiant star of unity.”
King’s release later the same night no doubt made the radiant star even easier to behold. Dozens of church members and friends in the protest had steadily gathered in the parking lot throughout the evening and waited for their pastor.
But whatever momentary relief King felt was gone the next evening when he returned to his parsonage, exhausted after another long day of organizational meetings. Coretta and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, were already asleep, and King was eager to join them. He would not be so lucky. The phone rang out in the midnight silence, and when King lifted the receiver, a drawl released a torrent of obscene words and then the death threat: “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
King hung up without comment, as had become his custom. Threatening phone calls had become a daily routine in the weeks of the protests, and King had tried to brush them off at first. In recent days, however, the threatening phone calls had started to take a toll, increasing in number to thirty or forty a day and growing in their menacing intent.
Unwelcome thoughts prey on the mind in the late hours, and King was overcome with fear. “I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me.
Stirred into wakefulness, King made a pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. “I felt myself faltering,” he said. It was as though the violent undercurrents of the protest rushed in upon him with heightened force, and he surveyed the turbulent waters for a way of escape, searching for an exit point between courage and convenience-“a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward”-and he found none. “I was ready to give up,” he said.
King thought of baby Yoki sleeping in her crib, of her “little gentle smile,” and of Coretta, who had sacrificed her music career, according to the milieu of the Baptist pastor’s wife, to follow her husband south. For the first time, he grasped the seriousness of his situation and with it the inescapable fact that his family could be taken away from him any minute, or more likely he from them. He felt himself reeling within, as the Psalmist had said, his soul “melted because of trouble, at wit’s end.” “I felt myself . . . growing in fear,” said King.
Sitting at his kitchen table sipping the coffee, King’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden notion that at once intensified his desperation and clarified his options. “Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.'” With his head now buried in his hands, King bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. He said:
Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
As he prayed alone in the silent kitchen, King heard a voice saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” Then King heard the voice of Jesus. “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
And as the voice washed over the stains of the wretched caller, King reached a spiritual shore beyond fear and apprehension. “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before,” he said. “Almost at once my fears began to go,” King said of the midnight flash of illumination and resolve. “My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”