From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

By Thomas F. Jackson | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
The Least of These

“Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?” King asked himself on Monday, December 5, 1955, preparing to address Montgomery’s Holt Street Baptist Church as the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Fifty thousand Negroes refused to ride city buses that morning. Twenty-four hours earlier, King had no inkling he would be thrust into leadership, but his hastily composed speech pulled in social and ideological crosswinds central to his whole career. Could he be “militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action,” yet “moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds”? It was hardly a formal philosophical dilemma. Black Montgomery was lifted up with gales of exhilaration and uncertainty. Could Montgomery’s contentious black leaders unite behind King’s leadership in a movement comprising college professors, ministers, maids, cooks, and day laborers? Abusive white bus drivers and unfair seating rules brought them to Holt Street. But the buses were lightning rods for grievances against the entire system of segregation codified at the turn of the century to control aspiring, politically restive blacks and to suppress populist alliances at society’s bottom. Would white leaders negotiate or repress the movement? That morning, police cars tailed buses, looking in vain for “goon squads” that were presumably intimidating black riders. Could blacks sustain militancy and absorb white retaliation without resorting to violence, which would divide the movement and provide whites a rationale for bare-fisted repression? Thousands listening in and around the church had discovered an “unplumbed passion for justice,” King recalled. Reporters were there “to record my words and send them across the nation.”1

King gathered and focused black grievances at Holt Street, describing collective memories of a people “tired” and “trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” He struck chords of global and historical theme and variation, playing to antinomies of love and justice, persuasion and coercion, black unity and class solidarity. Negroes themselves must transform democracy “from thin paper to thick action.” The “right to protest for right” was foundational,

-51-

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From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Politics and Culture in Modern America ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - Pilgrimage to Christian Socialism 25
  • Chapter 2 - The Least of These 51
  • Chapter 3 - Seed Time in the Winter of Reaction 75
  • Chapter 4 - The American Gandhi and Direct Action 98
  • Chapter 5 - The Dreams of the Masses 123
  • Chapter 6 - Jobs and Freedom 155
  • Chapter 7 - Malignant Kinship 188
  • Chapter 8 - The Secret Heart of America 218
  • Chapter 9 - The War on Poverty and the Democratic Socialist Dream 245
  • Chapter 10 - Egyptland 276
  • Chapter 11 - The World House 308
  • Chapter 12 - Power to Poor People 329
  • Epilogue 359
  • Notes 371
  • Bibliography 425
  • Index 439
  • Acknowledgments 457
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