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Reviewed by:
  • Becoming King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Making of a National Leader
  • Michael Honey
Becoming King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Making of a National Leader. By Troy Jackson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2008.

Academic and other writers have produced a number of books about the Montgomery bus boycott and many more about the life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr. Troy Jackson provides a handy bibliography and a fine narrative of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. Once the capital of the southern Confederacy, Montgomery's Jim Crow system inflicted bodily harm and daily indignity on the city's black citizens, especially on city buses. Prevented from voting and subjected to police violence on a regular basis, African Americans revolted. Their boycott of segregated buses lasted from December 5, 1955, when African Americans stopped riding the buses and King gave his first electrifying speech to a mass audience, to December 20, 1956, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision reached Montgomery and affirmed a lower court ruling overturning the city's bus segregation law. In between those dates, for 381 days, the black community created a seminal moment that forever changed the life of King and many other people. King called the struggle in Montgomery the "daybreak of freedom and justice" (144) after generations had suffered through the desolate midnight of life under Jim Crow.

Jackson is not a professor, but a senior pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Kentucky and a Master's of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. With the help of his religious insights and the experience of editing volume four of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., at Stanford University under the direction of Senior Editor Clayborne Carson, Jackson has crafted a fine narrative showing how local activists, including E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, Joanne Gibson Robinson, and many others, prepared the way for change. Their organizing and the galvanizing movement of resistance touched off by seamstress Rosa Parks led to a remarkable cross-class alliance of workers, poor people, professionals and preachers, against Jim Crow. King never intended to be and never claimed to be the leader or the organizer of the Montgomery movement. He became the President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization set up to carry through the boycott, because he was new to town, the city leaders had not placed controls on him, and because he was, as it turned out, a formidable speaker. Through bombings, arrests, brutal treatment and assassination attempts, court trials and other attempts to defame him, King moved from an idealistic young preacher with a gift for words to an able tactician and moral leader capable of moving people to mass action. Jackson shows how King went step by step through the process of "becoming King" as the result of his experiences in Montgomery. He thereby also became America's most potent spokesperson for freedom and equality, [End Page 300] a national and international leader for transforming society into a place of peace, justice, and dignity for every person. Jackson shows how the local movement and his six years of leadership in Montgomery made King a "transformed person" (179).

This is a fine study for students and scholars in any discipline or field. It helps us to grasp the power of organizing, to better understand King, to see him not as a mythical "great man" of history but as someone who struggled and learned and deepened and changed due to his dialectical interaction with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. This is a book ripe with lessons for our own age that helps us to see that leaders are made, not born, and that we are all capable of changing our world.

Michael Honey
University of Washington, Tacoma


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pp. 300-301
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