This is the second entry of our Montgomery Bus Boycott Turns 60 Series. About two months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, times start to become dangerous for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family. Death threats over the phone are coming in daily to King’s home, most of which Coretta Scott King answers. Aware of his role as a leader, Dr. King turns to his faith for strength and resolve in the face of danger. Sixty years ago today, the danger arrives on his porch in the form of a bomb. This excerpt from Stride Toward Freedom brings us close to the reality of fear Dr. King lived with, and the resilience of the King family.
One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
Three nights later, on January 30, I left home a little before seven to attend our Monday evening mass meeting at the First Baptist Church. A member of my congregation, Mrs. Mary Lucy Williams, had come to the parsonage to keep my wife company in my absence. After putting the baby to bed, Coretta and Mrs. Williams went to the living room to look at television. About nine-thirty they heard a noise in front that sounded as though someone had thrown a brick. In a matter of seconds an explosion rocked the house. A bomb had gone off on the porch.
The sound was heard many blocks away, and word of the bombing reached the mass meeting almost instantly. Toward the close of the meeting, as I stood on the platform helping to take the collection, I noticed an usher rushing to give Ralph Abernathy a message. Abernathy turned and ran downstairs, soon to reappear with a worried look on his face. Several others rushed in and out of the church. People looked at me and then away; one or two seemed about to approach me and then changed their minds. An usher called me to the side of the platform, presumably to give me a message, but before I could get there S. S. Seay had sent him away. By now I was convinced that whatever had happened affected me. I called Ralph Abernathy, S. S. Seay, and E. N. French and asked them to tell me what was wrong. Ralph looked at Seay and French and then turned to me and said hesitantly:
“Your house has been bombed.”
I asked if my wife and baby were all right.
They said, “We are checking on that now.”
Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it. I interrupted the collection and asked all present to give me their undivided attention. After telling them why I had to leave, I urged each person to go straight home after the meeting and adhere strictly to our philosophy of nonviolence. I admonished them not to become panicky and lose their heads. “Let us keep moving,” I urged them, “with the faith that what we are doing is right, and worth the even greater faith that God is with us in the struggle.”
I was immediately driven home. As we neared the scene I noticed hundreds of people with angry faces in front of the house. The policemen were trying, in their usual rough manner, to clear the streets, but they were ignored by the crowd. One Negro was saying to a policeman, who was attempting to push him aside: “I ain’t gonna move nowhere. That’s the trouble now; you white folks is always pushin’ us around. Now you got your .38 and I got mine; so let’s battle it out.” As I walked toward the front porch I realized that many people were armed. Nonviolent resistance was on the verge of being transformed into violence.
I rushed into the house to see if Coretta and “Yoki” were safe. When I walked into the bedroom and saw my wife and daughter uninjured, I drew my first full breath in many minutes. I learned that fortunately when Coretta and Mrs. Williams had heard the sound of something falling on the front porch, they had jumped up and run to the back of the house. If instead they had gone to the porch to investigate, the outcome might have been fatal. Coretta was neither bitter nor panicky. She had accepted the whole thing with unbelievable composure. As I noticed her calmness I became even more calm myself.
Excerpted from Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, published by Beacon Press, 2010. Copyright © 1958 by Martin Luther King, Jr. Copyright © renewed 1986 by Coretta Scott King, Dexter King, Martin Luther King III, Yolanda King, Bernice King. All rights reserved.
This period is also a precarious time for Rosa Parks and her loved ones. Shortly after her arrest, Parks loses her job. Raymond, her husband, loses his job as well. And when the phone starts ringing off the hook at the Parks home, death threats are on the other line. Similar to Dr. King, Parks finds peace in her faith. In spite of all the hardship, as this excerpt from Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks shows, Parks and her family refuse to back down from the cause.
The phone rang constantly with death threats and coarse insults. “There were people who called to say that I should be beaten or be killed,” Parks recalled, “because I was causing so much trouble. And then there were some who called to inquire whether I had lost the job and…finally when I was dismissed from the job, I remember one person calling and saying she was sorry and then laughing at the end of the conversation before hanging up.” Most of the time she didn’t talk with these people. “When I discovered that they were this type, divisive or abusive, I would just hang up immediately.” Her mother and husband ended up answering most of the calls since they were home more than she was. Parks particularly hated it when her mother answered these calls.
According to Detroit friend Mary Hays Carter, Rosa reached a point of relative peace around her own possible targeting. She quoted Parks as saying, “Well you have to die sometime. I never set out to plan to hurt anyone and if this boycott happened to be attributed to me and my activity, then if they could kill me, I would just be dead,” and laughed it off. Partly, Parks was able to get to this place of inner peace because of her faith. In late January, praying at St. Paul’s, Parks experienced a wash of religious conviction and a sense that all of what was happening—her arrest, the boycott—was God’s plan. All she needed to do was to “keep the faith.” An intense calm swept over her.
Raymond, however, found this a difficult time and began drinking a lot. “He was very shaken and very upset...because we had lived under this tension for so long.” This period may have been harder on Raymond Parks and Leona McCauley [Rosa Parks’s mother] than on Rosa Parks because it was they who were home answering more of the incessant hate calls and death threats. Rosa was away from home making appearances for the MIA around the country, so she escaped some of the daily vitriol that her husband and mother endured. For Rosa, the period of the boycott was also easier than her previous activism because “the public knew about it,” as opposed to the previous decades, when she was “without any mass cooperation or any support from either black or whites.”
But the suffering of her husband took its toll on Rosa, too; as he grew more depressed, she worried. Yet, while scholars have begun to foreground the crucial support that wives of civil rights leaders made, in a troubling gender omission, there has been almost no discussion of the role of husbands. Raymond’s support in helping Rosa achieve what she did that year and beyond and the impact their fearsome situation had on him rarely figure into the story. Too often, when Raymond does make a brief cameo in the popular narrative, he is viewed as not sufficiently admirable because he stayed behind the scenes. Rosa considered Raymond a partner and felt he facilitated her activism during the boycott and in the following decades when she continued her public role. The respect he had for her and her work sustained her. While worrying about her safety, he was willing to prioritize her political work—a shift from the early years of their marriage when he was the more prominent activist…Raymond’s love and support was foundational. In many ways, what Raymond did behind the scenes for her over the next decades—backing her up, helping her make travel arrangements, keeping their household functioning, sharing her political outrage—kept her going and enabled her political activities.
Stay tuned for the next installment in our Montgomery Bus Boycott Turns 60 Series. Click here to read the first entry.
About the Authors
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement, was among the twentieth century’s most influential figures. One of the greatest orators in US history, King also authored several books, including Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and Why We Can’t Wait. His speeches, sermons, and writings are inspirational and timeless. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She received an A.B. in Afro-American studies from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and author or coauthor of six books an numerous articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States. Follow her on Twitter at @.