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1 INTRODUCTION On the evening of December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King, twentysix years old and barely fifteen months into the first pastoral appointment of his career as minister for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, stood before a gathering of some four thousand crowded into the auditorium and basement and spilling out onto the lawn of the Holt Street Baptist Church. The mass meeting, called to determine whether there was sufficient support for continuing a oneday boycott of the city’s buses, opened with the singing of two hymns, followed by a prayer and a Bible reading. King then approached the podium and expressed his happiness at seeing the crowd of people who had come out that evening. He explained their purpose for assembling, to get the “bus situation in Montgomery” corrected, and he characterized Rosa Parks, arrested four days earlier for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, as someone whom “nobody can call a disturbing factor,” emphasizing that she was arrested “just because she refused to get up.”1 He complained that the buses had never set aside “a reserved section for Negroes,” noting that “the law has never been clarified at this point.” To this moment, King’s tone had been subdued, almost prosaic, and his audience had responded to him with only an occasional, audible “amen,” “yes,” or “all right.” Suddenly, however, King began to give voice to the pent-up frustration his hearers felt toward their experience of the nation’s legacy of racial oppression: “And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”2 The audience erupted into thundering applause. King immediately fell into an emotion-filled, poetic expression of that outrage built on the repetition of the phrases “there comes a time” and “we are tired.” His rhythmic chant, interrupted frequently by applause, ended with this rousing proclamation: “We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed for so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.” As he would repeatedly do throughout his career as the civil rights– movement spokesperson and icon, King called on the most salient story in the African American cultural tradition, the story of the Exodus, as he prophetically heralded a long-awaited moment: What had happened four thousand years earlier when God brought the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land of Canaan, was happening in their own day once again. Inspired by King’s vision, the audience wholeheartedly endorsed a resolution that included a decision to “refrain from riding buses owned and operated in the city of Montgomery” until the bus company came to an agreement with the black community.3 Against All Odds Although few in attendance that night could have realized it at the moment, that fateful meeting did more than mark the beginning of a boycott against the city’s buses. It began a progression of largescale , organized campaigns against segregation that would eventually become a movement of national and international significance, dramatically altering U.S. society even as it catapulted King into an iconic role as the symbol of resistance against racial oppression in the United States. Within one year, the boycott brought the bus company, the Montgomery City Lines, to the brink of financial collapse, demonstrating the economic and financial power that blacks could wield through collective action. Within a year and a half of that first mass meeting, King had become a national figure, appearing on nationally broadcast news programs as well as on the cover of Time magazine, and speaking to large audiences, many of them integrated, all over the nation. In less than seven years, in early 1963, the movement that emerged from the initial protest against Montgomery’s segregated seating policy would paralyze the entire economic and political structure of what was generally considered the country’s most racially oppressive city: Birmingham , Alabama. The dignified perseverance of the Birmingham 2 Introduction protesters, many of them children, juxtaposed against the incredible brutality of the police forces violently seeking to quell their campaign, would be captured by the international press, bringing the federal government into the struggle over racial injustice in the South in a way that had not happened since Reconstruction. One...


Subject Headings

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 -- Language.
  • Exodus, The -- Sermons.
  • Exodus, The.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • King, Martin Luther, -- Jr., 1929-1968 -- Oratory.
  • Rhetoric -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
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