By Jannell McGrew
His voice unmistakable.
And his words challenged a system that not only relegated blacks to the back of the bus, but to the back of society, denying them the right to vote, rights to due process and equal opportunity.
One December day 50 years ago, a young, charismatic preacher from Georgia became the voice of black Montgomery, the face and sound of a movement that spread from this city across the country and around the world.
He was one of the greatest orators I had ever heard, but he spoke in a language that everybody could understand.
He spoke from his heart, said the Rev. Mary Jo Smiley, a member of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King served as pastor during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
King had not set out to be the leader of the boycott. He came to this city in 1954 to pastor then-Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He and his wife, Coretta, whom he had married the year before, were busying their lives with ministerial work in Montgomery.
But the Dec. 1, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks set the 26-year-old ministers life on a path that made history. Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger.
The incident touched off a massive protest, a year-long boycott of the citys transit system. Boycott organizers were looking for an energetic leader with a presence, someone who could peacefully rally leaders and residents together for one cause.
During boycott planning, Jo Ann Robinson of the Womens Political Council suggested King, her pastor at the time, to be the boycott spokesman. King was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that launched the boycott.
The 381-day protest catapulted King to national prominence. Because of his leadership role, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the success that it was.
He was able to galvanize the black community and articulate the goals of the people of Montgomery,” said local historian Richard Bailey. According to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King was arrested 30 times for his participation in civil rights activities.
A founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he led the organization from 1957 to 1968. King promoted nonviolent resistance that inspired blacks and whites to ban together for equality.
“My father pointed out that nonviolence means more than the absence of physical violence,” Dexter Scott King, one of King’s sons, said in describing his father and the center’s mission on its Web site. “Nonviolence is not passive, but a courageous, active resistance to injustice. It is a way of life reflected in thought and deed, a method of conducting yourself in all of your affairs.”
King won the Nobel Peace in 1964 at age 35. Four years later, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
King had gone to help lead a protest on behalf of the city’s black sanitation workers. His speeches stirred people’s conscience and challenged the nation to face the wrongs of segregationist law.
The King Center points to King’s concept of “somebodiness,” which the center notes, “symbolized the celebration of human worth and the conquest of subjugation.” “His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, and his strategies for rational and non-destructive social change, galvanized the conscience of this nation and reordered its priorities.”