MLK: Why he was in Memphis

colist at colist at
Sun Jan 21 12:38:17 CST 2007

[ed: thanks to Steve for continuing the discussion.]

From: Steve Chase <steve_chase at>

(This short piece on MLK was written by Steve Chase, the Director of 
Antioch University New England’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing 
Program. His contact information is at the bottom of this email. The 
piece is adapted from a posting on "The Well-Trained Activist" blog 
( Please feel free to forward this on to 
anyone you think might be interested.)


For the last two years, I’ve broadcast a Martin Luther King Holiday 
special on WKNH, the Keene State College radio station. The segment that 
always gets the most listener comment is the little-known story about 
how King actually became an activist during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 
It gets a laugh and an "aha."

In 1955, King was fresh from seminary, only 26 years old, and new to 
town. His church was one of the smallest, wealthiest, and most 
conservative of the two-dozen African-American churches in Montgomery. 
His personal ambitions at the time were to run a solid church program, 
be well paid for it, have a nice house for his growing family, write 
theology pieces for his denomination’s magazine, and do a bit of adjunct 
teaching at a nearby college. He was not dreaming of becoming a leader 
in the struggle for civil rights, economic justice, and a peaceful US 
foreign policy.

Indeed, if it had been left up to King, the Montgomery Bus Boycott would 
never have happened. The real organizer of this effort was E.D. Nixon, 
an experienced civil rights and labor activist who created the 
Montgomery Improvement Association and launched the Montgomery Bus 
Boycott within the first four days after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing 
to move to the back of the bus. It was Nixon who recruited King to the 
civil rights movement. After bailing Rosa Parks out of jail, Nixon went 
home and started calling local ministers to line up their support for 
his boycott idea. As Nixon later explained: “I recorded quite a few 
names. The first man I called was Reverend Ralph Abernathy. He said, 
‘Yes, Brother Nixon, I’ll go along. I think it’s a good thing.’ The 
second person I called was the late Reverend H.H. Hubbard. He said, 
‘Yes, I’ll go along with you.’ And then I called Rev. King, who was 
number three on my list, and he said, ‘Brother Nixon, let me think about 
it awhile, and call you back.’”

When King finally agreed to come to a meeting, Nixon chuckled and told 
King, “I’m glad you agreed, because I already set up the first meeting 
at your church.” At this first ministers’ meeting, King was very nervous 
about Nixon’s idea of conducting an illegal boycott campaign. Several 
other ministers soon began to side with King against the campaign. In 
his own memoir on the Bus Boycott, King recalls how Nixon exploded 
towards the end of the meeting and shouted that the ministers would have 
to decide if they were going to be like scared little boys, or if they 
were going to stand up like grown men and take a strong public stand 
against segregation. King’s pride was so hurt by Nixon’s comment, he 
shouted back that nobody could call him a coward. Then, to prove his 
courage, King immediately agreed to Nixon’s plan for an aggressive, 
community organizing campaign to build up the boycott. Everyone in the 
room quickly agreed with King and the matter was settled.

With that decision made, the group began to discuss who should lead the 
effort. Everyone present had expected Nixon to become the president of 
the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. But when he was 
asked about serving, Nixon answered, “Naw, not unless’n you all don’t 
accept my man.” When asked whom he was nominating, Nixon said, “Martin 
Luther King.” Having just loudly declared his courage to the whole 
group, King felt that he had to agree to take on this responsibility. 
Then, Nixon told King he would have to give the main address at the mass 
rally scheduled that very night to announce the boycott plan to the 
black community.

King rose to Nixon's challenge. Serving as the leader of the Montgomery 
Bus Boycott for the next twelve months changed King. Watching 42,000 
poor and working-class black people stay organized and do without public 
transportation for a year, he discovered things about the courage and 
capacity of ordinary people to resist oppression and move toward 
freedom. Watching the conservative, rightwing city government finally 
cave in to the boycott, he discovered the power of mass nonviolent 
direct action campaigns to win real victories--even when they are 
opposed by powerful interests. By seeing his own power to inspire people 
to become active citizens for a noble cause, King discovered just what 
kind of person he wanted to be in this life. He now fully embraced his 
new mission as an activist leader for building what he called the 
“Beloved Community.”

There is an important lesson here for all of us. We don’t have to be 
born leaders. We don’t have to know everything before we get started. We 
just have to get started.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Steve Chase, Ph.D.
Director, Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program
Department of Environmental Studies @ Antioch University New England
40 Avon Street, Keene, NH 03431
Steven_Chase at; 603-283-2336 (office); 603-357-0718 (fax)

* EAOP's Main Website:
* EAOP's "Well-Trained Activist" Blog:
* EAOP's Online Activist Bookstore:
(7.5% of the purchase price is donated to the EAOP Scholarship Fund at 
no extra cost to you)

colist at wrote:
> --------
> This is a COMM-ORG 'colist' message.
> All replies to this message come to COMM-ORG only.
> --------
> [ed: thanks to Peter for encouraging us to reflect on one of the most 
> important sources of U.S. community organizing.]
> From: "Peter Dreier" <dreier at>
> Friends -
> A belated Happy MLK Day.
> Most Americans today know that Dr. King was killed in 1968 in Memphis, 
> Tennessee, but fewer know (or remember) why he was there -- to support 
> African American garbage workers, who were on strike to protest unsafe 
> conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages -- and to gain 
> recognition for their union. My article in yesterday's American 
> Prospect, "Why He Was in Memphis," recounts King's growing ties with 
> the labor movement, his understanding about the importance of forging 
> close links between the civil rights and labor movements, and his role 
> in the Memphis struggle. If he were alive today, he'd surely be on the 
> front lines of many labor struggles, the fight for a living wage, 
> universal health care, and withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
> William Jones has a piece on a similar theme in The Nation this week 
> (
> Also, new book about the news media's coverage of the civil rights 
> movement offers great insights into both the movement and the media. 
> It is called The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and 
> the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, and it 
> recounts both the strengths and weaknesses of press coverage of the 
> freedom struggle. Here are Eric Alterman's review of the book in The 
> Nation and Jon Wiener's 
> review in the Los Angeles Times 
> My article last year in Dissent, "Rose Parks: Angry, Not Tired," 
> examines some of the myths about the Montgomery bus boycott, when Dr. 
> King first came to national prominence, and the lessons of that battle 
> for organizing.
> Keep your eyes on the prize.
> Peter Dreier
> _________________________
> Peter Dreier
> E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics
> Director, Urban & Environmental Policy Program
> Occidental College
> 1600 Campus Road
> Los Angeles, CA 90041
> Phone: (323) 259-2913
> FAX: (323) 259-2734 ; ;
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