Commentary: For Martin Luther King Jr., It All Started With Reluctant Leadership

Celebrating the civil rights leader compels Americans to consider the conditions under which he first rose to prominence.

Posted: 01/15/2013 08:00 AM EST
For Martin Luther King, it All Started with Reluctant Leadership

It is often forgotten that Martin Luther King Jr. was reluctant to take up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott was first contemplated and local Black leaders were sought to spearhead the campaign to defy the Jim Crow laws of Alabama, King was far from an enthusiastic volunteer.

He was a young preacher who became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at age 25, just one year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus. King had been married just two short years when the bus boycott began. In the world of 1955, King was far from being a limelight-seeking activist.

And as the nation now commemorates King’s 84th birthday, it is easy to recast the slain civil rights leader with characteristics that never belonged to him. Moreover, leading any kind of effective movement for African-American empowerment in the 1950s was a highly dangerous business. And, as a son of the South, he knew its dangers well and was not eager to embrace them.

The campaign King led in Montgomery was not simply to support the civil disobedience of one woman who decided to remain in her seat on a bus. He led a campaign to effectively shut down the city’s major transportation business. It was, to say the least, a challenging, highly ambitious and terrifying undertaking. Furthermore, it was a world with no cellphones, no instantaneous methods of alerting people of decisions on strategy. Information was disseminated in church meetings, by word of mouth and by mimeographed leaflets. Leading such a movement made one a highly visible target.

In the midst of the 385-day boycott in Montgomery, the mood had become so tense that death threats were incessant and King’s home was bombed. He was arrested for civil disobedience. It’s a haunting experience for a young couple with a newborn daughter.

The extraordinary thing about King is that he took up this cause in the first place. In the world of 1950s Alabama, violence against Black citizens was commonplace. Intimidation against those perceived as agitators was virtually assured. In December 1955, when the bus boycott first began, King was neither a Nobel Prize winner nor a world-renowned speaker who inspired millions at the Lincoln Memorial. 

Somehow, there is a special significance to celebrating the King of 1955, the hesitant champion of highly orchestrated disobedience. There is a significance to celebrating the person who, despite clear danger, is guided by a moral imperative, by conscious and by faith to step into uncertainty and threat.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the commemoration of his birthday have evolved into a day off (for some) and even King holiday sales at stores. But it is crucial for those of us who celebrate his birthday and national holiday to remember what was at the core of his leadership. It might well inspire all of us to even greater heights.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Ed Jones/Birmingham News/Landov)

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