[For this year’s MLK Day series, starting as always with my annual post on remembering the full King, I wanted to return to that source, focusing on a few under-remembered moments from King’s tragically brief but strikingly full activist life. Leading up to a special weekend post on a few of King’s 21st century heirs!]
On a more specific and a more overarching significance to King’s first book.
I’ve written a couple different pieces for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, and my central goal in both has been to push beyond some of the most familiar collective memories of that moment and early Civil Rights Movement activism. Certainly there’s more to the story of Rosa Parks than the familiar narratives generally capture; but similarly, the boycott is often framed as an early example of King’s leadership, while in truth his role was entirely that of a supporting figure, arriving to bolster the already underway and impressive efforts of local leaders like Parks and her colleagues (many of them women, as I also highlighted in those pieces). King did give an early December speech at the city’s Holt Street Baptist Church that powerfully expressed the boycott’s origins and goals, but (to reiterate one of my main points from Monday’s post and really for this whole week’s series) to focus too much of our attention on that speech is to miss quite a bit of the more multi-layered histories of this crucial event.
Interestingly, one of the texts that can most effectively help us push beyond those more narrow and partial histories of the boycott was also authored by King: his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Because King had become so closely associated with the boycott, publishers began approaching him to write a book about it, and in October 1957 he signed a contract with Harper & Brothers for the manuscript that would become Stride. Although by 1957-8 King was already hugely prominent as an individual voice and leader of the evolving movement, he saw this first book of his as far more of a collective history than a personal memoir, calling it in its Preface “the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.” As such, Stride is a text that help us understand not just the details and stages of the boycott, but also some of the ways in which those who organized and took part in it perceived their efforts, making it a striking and significant combination of a primary and a secondary source.
That specific historical and analytical lens makes King’s book well worth a read, but it’s not the only significant layer to Stride Toward Freedom. Roughly halfway through, in the book’s sixth chapter “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King takes a step back to consider his own arc and influences when it comes to that philosophy of nonviolent activism and civil disobedience, writing publicly for one of the first times about such what he had learned from figures as Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and others. As with every other aspect of King’s life and legacy, his ideas about those topics have been at best simplified and often misrepresented over the years since, especially by conservatives who seek to claim that they are the true descendants of King and his movement. Fortunately, King left a rich archive through which we can engage his own perspective and ideas, about specific histories like the bus boycotts, overarching concepts like nonviolence and civil disobedience, and most every other aspect of his work and the movement, and this chapter in Stride represents an early and important piece within that collection.
Next MLK history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other MLK histories or contexts you’d highlight?