Receiving the Call

Beset by doubt about his path, young Martin Luther King, Jr. heard Jesus' voice.

BY: Charles Marsh

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, 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, 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.

Continued on page 2: King was overcome with fear... »

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