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Becoming King

Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader

Troy Jackson
Introduction by Clayborne Carson
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  • Book Info
    Becoming King
    Book Description:

    "The history books may write it Reverend King was born in Atlanta, and then came to Montgomery, but we feel that he was born in Montgomery in the struggle here, and now he is moving to Atlanta for bigger responsibilities." -- Member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 1959 Preacher -- this simple term describes the twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. in theology who arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. His name was Martin Luther King Jr., but where did this young minister come from? What did he believe, and what role would he play in the growing activism of the civil rights movement of the 1950s? In Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader, author Troy Jackson chronicles King's emergence and effectiveness as a civil rights leader by examining his relationship with the people of Montgomery, Alabama. Using the sharp lens of Montgomery's struggle for racial equality to investigate King's burgeoning leadership, Jackson explores King's ability to connect with the educated and the unlettered, professionals and the working class. In particular, Jackson highlights King's alliances with Jo Ann Robinson, a young English professor at Alabama State University; E. D. Nixon, a middle-aged Pullman porter and head of the local NAACP chapter; and Virginia Durr, a courageous white woman who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. Jackson offers nuanced portrayals of King's relationships with these and other civil rights leaders in the community to illustrate King's development within the community. Drawing on countless interviews and archival sources, Jackson compares King's sermons and religious writings before, during, and after the Montgomery bus boycott. Jackson demonstrates how King's voice and message evolved during his time in Montgomery, reflecting the shared struggles, challenges, experiences, and hopes of the people with whom he worked. Many studies of the civil rights movement end analyses of Montgomery's struggle with the conclusion of the bus boycott and the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jackson surveys King's uneasy post-boycott relations with E. D. Nixon and Rosa Parks, shedding new light on Parks's plight in Montgomery after the boycott and revealing the internal discord that threatened the movement's hard-won momentum. The controversies within the Montgomery Improvement Association compelled King to position himself as a national figure who could rise above the quarrels within the movement and focus on attaining its greater goals. Though the Montgomery struggle thrust King into the national spotlight, the local impact on the lives of blacks from all socioeconomic classes was minimal at the time. As the citizens of Montgomery awaited permanent change, King left the city, taking the lessons he learned there onto the national stage. In the crucible of Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. was transformed from an inexperienced Baptist preacher into a civil rights leader of profound national importance.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7317-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xx)
    Clayborne Carson

    What if Martin Luther King Jr. had never accepted the call to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery? Would he have become a famed civil rights leader? Would the bus boycott movement have succeeded? How was the subsequent course of American history altered by the contingencies that brought together King and the Montgomery movement?

    Although it may be difficult for those who see King as a Great Man and national icon to imagine contemporary America without taking into account his historical impact, Troy Jackson allows us to understand the evolution of King’s leadership within a sustained protest movement...

  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    Every year in elementary school classrooms throughout the United States, teachers share heroic stories that took place in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s. Young children learn about the arrest of Rosa Parks, the boycott of Montgomery city buses, and the emergence of a young Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. One doesn’t have to be a historian to know the significant role the Montgomery movement played in the emergence of a broader civil rights struggle during the 1950s and 1960s. Although historians have written countless books covering the life and career of Martin Luther King, while others have contributed...

  6. 1 “The Stirring of the Water”
    (pp. 9-34)

    Racially integrated events rarely occurred in Montgomery, but for several years both whites and blacks gathered together at the city’s spacious Cramton Bowl for an Easter sunrise celebration. Segregated seating applied at the municipal arena, but the all-white planning committee worked to include African American preachers in the program as they developed the service. Typically a black minister delivered a prayer and an African American choral group from a local school led the audience in a few traditional spirituals while whites presented the balance of the program, including the sermon. The 1952 gathering proved to be the last, however. Despite...

  7. 2 “The Gospel I Will Preach”
    (pp. 35-52)

    Before Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday, he had already devoted several years to preparing for the pastorate. Although he was the son and grandson of black Baptist preachers, he was not interested in simply following in their footsteps. King was unwilling to pastor in a tradition that, as he saw it, had all too often valued the heart above the head, the future above the present, and the spiritual above the physical. He was determined to chart a new course by creatively appropriating the thoughts, methods, and language of the leading preachers and theologians of the day....

  8. 3 “Making a Contribution”
    (pp. 53-84)

    As 1954 dawned, Martin Luther King Jr. was aggressively pursuing various job opportunities. He had just completed his coursework and examination requirements for his doctorate at Boston University and hoped to find a teaching or pastoral position to support both himself and his wife while finishing his dissertation. Although tempted by academic opportunities, he preferred to begin his career as a pastor. Through Dexter Avenue Baptist Church deacon Robert Nesbitt, King received an invitation to preach a sermon at the historic Montgomery church, which was without a pastor following the departure of Vernon Johns. The day before he was scheduled...

  9. 4 “They Are Willing to Walk”
    (pp. 85-114)

    Rosa Parks would not be moved. It was Thursday afternoon, and she had just completed a long day’s work as a seamstress in a downtown department store. When she boarded the bus, Parks located a seat in the first row of the African American section, only to be ordered to move a few minutes later to accommodate a boarding white passenger. As Parks continued to sit, the bus driver got the police involved, who placed her under arrest. Word soon spread around town, and a few were ready to act. They had waited for the day when the city’s bus...

  10. 5 “Living under the Tension”
    (pp. 115-146)

    Just a few short days after the bombing of his home, King delivered a sermon at Dexter with a title he could easily embrace: “It’s Hard to Be a Christian.” The past two months of King’s life had been extremely challenging. As the most visible face of the bus boycott, he had become a lightning rod for criticism, threats, and even violence. Despite his sufferings, King reminded the people of Dexter that the Christian faith is by definition costly. This was not time to substitute “a cushion for a cross” or to have “a high blood pressure of creeds and...

  11. 6 “Bigger Than Montgomery”
    (pp. 147-180)

    In February 1957, King appeared on the cover ofTimemagazine in a story chronicling the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott. This honor reflected an unintended outcome of the local protest: King became the face for the national struggle for civil rights. He was now one of the most sought-after African American preachers in the nation, having delivered keynote addresses at the annual gatherings of both the NAACP and the National Baptist Convention the previous summer. Speaking opportunities flooded his desk. He accepted an invitation from Kwame Nkrumah to attend Ghana’s independence celebration and was in serious discussions...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 181-186)

    On February 1, 1960, hours before King delivered his final address as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, four young African American college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Over the following weeks, hundreds of college students staged similar protests in cities throughout the South, including Montgomery. Alabama State University (ASU) students began their protest on February 25 by requesting service at the cafeteria of the Montgomery County Courthouse. Although no arrests were made, Alabama governor John Patterson demanded that ASU president H. Councill Trenholm expel the students who participated in this direct...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 187-228)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 229-240)
  15. Index
    (pp. 241-248)