In Honor of Dr. King
During the 1960s, as a white college student, I married a black man who had marched and stayed with Martin Luther King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As he recalled his experience with King, it was obvious he had great respect and even reverence for him.
Here’s excerpt from the book we wrote together, Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from Liberia to America. In his words:
An Authentic Leader
During the Civil Rights Movement, black leaders were the epitome of conformity. The movement was very American because it was based on white morality. King worked within the system, holding whites to their ideals. The purpose of civil rights was not to destroy America but to allow blacks to participate in it.
Whites took King seriously. He was not only from the black upper class he was an authentic leader with a just cause. He used methods approved by whites.
Blacks admired King. The said, “He’s educated. He’s Dr. King. If you ever wanna find a real Christian, it’s Martin. Many of us have been to jail for stealin’ or whatever. Martin didn’t even mind goin’ to jail. If he was any ordinary nigger, he would’ve been strung up on atree long ago. He’s a poisonous snake to whites. He ays things quietly in such good English, even those cracers can’t understand him. He talk calmly but he doies what he wants to do. Ain’t nobody gonna make him change his stand. Man, they’re afraid of him. They’re tremblin’ in their boots. White people better leave him alone. He’s more dangerous than any black person alive because he’s not afraid to die.”
Marching with Martin in the Montgomery Bus Boycott
During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we left the church holding hands and looking straight ahead. In my peripheral vision, I saw white policemen with clubs walking back and forth between us and the white mob on the sidewalk. Women holding babies screamed profanities. Men brandished sticks and clubs. A toothless old man waved an ax. I got scared. When I looked ahead at Martin, marching calmly and resolutely, it gave me courage.
I had already met Dr. King in St. Louis when he spoke at Kiel Auditorium. The following year, while doing graduate work at Cornell University, I transferred to Fisk as one of the sociology graduate students assigned to study a new social phenomenon in the South called the “Montgomery Bus Boycott”. When I arrived in Atlanta during the summer of 1956, King told the project director, “He can stay with me,” so I was assigned to him.
King introduced me to his group, “Have you ever heard of Liberia? It’s an independent country founded by Negroes from here.”
“Martin, We’re Gonna Do This Together”
Black disunity in the Civil Rights Movement stemmed primarily from a generational difference. Black children were willing to fight for civil rights, while their parents hesitated or were opposed to it. Many black pastors didn’t speak out for civil rights. In the beginning, there were not many with King. In time, his effective leadership garnered support. People said, “Martin, we’re gonna do this together.”
The rightness of the cause gave the movement its dignity and power. Both in Atlanta and in Montgomery, King’s group had morning and evening devotions. King began by praying, “Lord, guide and forgive the white community. Guide us and make us humble.” In the evening, he said, “Thank you, Lord for protecting all of us – whites and blacks. Several times, he asked me to pray, saying, “Brother Ben, please talk to our Lord before we go out.”
When we marched in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King spoke to our group before we left the church. He said, “Racism is a divisive scheme. It divides whites and Negroes against each other. It divides whites and it divides Negroes. Not all white people are racists. Not all Negroes want non-violence. They’re against us too.”
Martin’s Insistence on Non-Violence
A man in the group said, “We’ve had to take all these things from whites all these years. This is playin’ the old role. You die just once. But before I die, I’m gonna take some of ‘em down with me.”
King said, “We’re not going to do that. If Hindu’s can use the principles of Christ to gain their freedom from Britain, how much more those of us who are His followers? I know in whom I believe.”
The man said, “But Christians were warriors. They fought many wars.”
Martin was firm. He said, “We have to do it with non-violence. Otherwise I can’t lead. The whole country, and indeed the whole world, is watching us. Our success depends on our holding together. Some of us will be killed, but they won’t kill all of us. Some of us will live to carry on the torch of truth. And at the end, we’ll win.
“Just keep marching. Don’t look at them. If they block our way, stand. Don’t run into them. Be firm. Just watch me.”
We started singing as we marched. Up ahead, whites blocked our path. We linked arms and turned onto a side street just before we reached them. Eventually we returned to the church.
Three weeks later, when I left to return to Fisk, Martin shook my hand warmly and said, “Benjamin, we’re going to miss you. But I know what takes you back to Fisk. You have a country. You’ll make a good leader. Go and prepare yourself.”
My husband taught me so much about the black community and the struggles they faced. After he died, I wrote our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief, to honor him.