As a boy, Martin Luther King Jr. suffered those cumulative experiences in discrimination that demoralize and outrage human dignity. He still recalls the curtains that were used on the dining cars of trains to separate white from black. "I was very young when I had my first experience in sitting behind the curtain," he says. "I felt just as if a curtain had come down across my whole life. The insult of it I will never forget." On another occasion, he and his schoolteacher were riding a bus from Macon to Atlanta when the driver ordered them to give up their seats to white passengers. "When we didn't move right away, the driver started cursing us out and calling us black sons of bitches. I decided not to move at all, but my teacher pointed out that we must obey the law. So we got up and stood in the aisle the whole 90 miles to Atlanta. It was a night I'll never forget. I don't think I have ever been so deeply angry in my life."
Ideals & Technique. Raised in the warmth of a tightly knit family, King developed from his earliest years a raw-nerved sensitivity that bordered on self-destruction. Twice, before he was 13, he tried to commit suicide. Once his brother, "A.D.," accidentally knocked his grandmother unconscious when he slid down a banister. Martin thought she was dead, and in despair ran to a second-floor window and jumped out -- only to land unhurt. He did the same thing, with the same result, on the day his grandmother died.
A bright student, he skipped through high school and at 15 entered Atlanta's Negro Morehouse College. His father wanted him to study for the ministry. King himself thought he wanted medicine or the law. "I had doubts that religion was intellectually respectable. I revolted against the emotionalism of Negro religion, the shouting and the stamping. I didn't understand it and it embarrassed me." At Morehouse, King searched for "some intellectual basis for a social philosophy." He read and reread Thoreau's essay, "Civil Disobedience," concluded that the ministry was the only framework in which he could properly position his growing ideas on social protest.
At Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., King built the underpinnings of his philosophy. Hegel and Kant impressed him, but a lecture on Gandhi transported him, sent him foraging insatiably into Gandhi's books. "From my background," he says, "I gained my regulating Christian ideals. From Gandhi I learned my operational technique."
Montgomery. The first big test of King's philosophy -- or of his operating technique -- came in 1955, after he had married a talented young soprano named Coretta Scott and accepted the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
On Dec. 1 of that year, a seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded a Montgomery bus and took a seat. As the bus continued along its route, picking up more passengers, the Negroes aboard rose on the driver's orders to give their seats to white people. When the driver told Mrs. Parks to get up, she refused. "I don't really know why I wouldn't move," she said later. "There was no plot or plan at all. I was just tired from shopping. My feet hurt." She was arrested and fined $10.
For some reason, that small incident triggered the frustrations of Montgomery's Negroes, who for years had bent subserviently beneath the prejudices of the white community. Within hours, the Negroes were embarked upon a bus boycott that was more than 99 percent effective, almost ruined Montgomery's bus line. The boycott committee soon became the Montgomery Improvement Association, with Martin Luther King Jr. as president. His leadership was more inspirational than administrative; he is, as an observer says, "more at home with a conception than he is with the details of its application." King's home was bombed, and when his enraged people seemed ready to take to the streets in a riot of protest, he controlled them with is calm preaching of nonviolence. King became world famous and in less than a year the Supreme Court upheld an earlier order forbidding Jim Crow seating in Alabama buses.
Albany. Montgomery was one of the first great battles won by the Negro in the South, and for a while after it was won everything seemed anticlimactic to King. When the sit-ins and freedom-ride movements gained momentum, King's S.C.L.C. helped organize and support them. But King somehow did not seem very efficient, and his apparent luck of imagination was to bring him to his lowest ebb in the Negro movement.
In December 1961, King joined a mass protest demonstration in Albany, Ga., was arrested, and dramatically declared that he would stay in jail until Albany consented to desegregate its public facilities. But just two days after his arrest, King came out on bail. The Albany movement collapsed, and King was bitterly criticized for helping to kill it. Today he admits mistakes in Albany.
"Looking back over it," he says, "I'm sorry I was bailed out. I didn't understand at the time what was happening. We though that the victory had been won. When we got out, we discovered it was all a hoax. We had lost a real opportunity to redo Albany, and we lost an initiative that we never regained."
But King also learned a lesson in Albany. "We attacked the political power structure instead of the economic power structure," he says. "You don't win against a political power structure where you don't have the votes. But you can win against an economic power structure when you have the economic power to make the difference between a merchant's profit and loss."
Birmingham. It was while he was in his post-Albany eclipse that King began planning for his most massive assault on the barricades of segregation. The target: Birmingham, citadel of blind, die-hard segregation. King's lieutenant, Wyatt Tee Walker, has explained the theory that governs King's planning: "We've got to have a crisis to bargain with. To take a moderate approach, hoping to get white help, doesn't work. They nail you to the cross, and it saps the enthusiasm of the followers. You've got to have a crisis."
The Negroes made their crisis, but it was no spur-of-the- moment matter. King himself went to Birmingham to conduct workshops in nonviolent techniques. he recruited 200 people who were willing to go to jail for the cause, carefully planned his strategy in ten meetings with local Negro leaders. Then, declaring that Birmingham is the "most thoroughly segregated big city in the U.S.," he announced early in 1963 that he would lead demonstrations there until "Pharaoh lets God's People go."
Awaiting King in Birmingham was Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus Eugene ("Bull") Connor, a man who was to become a symbol of police brutality yet who, in fact, merely reflected the seething hatreds in a city where acts of violence were as common as chitlins and ham hocks. As it happened, Bull Connor was running for mayor against a relative moderate, Albert Boutwell. To avoid giving campaign fuel to Connor, King waited until after the April 2 election. Between Jan. 16 and March 29, he launched himself into a whirlwind speaking tour, made 28 speeches in 16 cities across the nation.
Moving into Birmingham in the first week of April, King and his group began putting their plans to work. Bull Connor, who had lost the election but refused to relinquish power, sent his spies into the Negro community to seek information. Fearing that their phones were tapped, King and his friends worked up a code. he became "J.F.K.," Ralph Abernathy "Dean Rusk," Birmingham Preacher Fred Shuttlesworth "Bull," and Negro Businessman John Drew "Pope John." Demonstrators were called "baptismal candidates," and the whole operation was labeled "Project C" -- for "Confrontation."
The protest began. Day after day, Negro men, women and children in their Sunday best paraded cheerfully downtown to be hauled off to jail for demonstrating. The sight and sound of so many people filling his jail so triumphantly made Bull Connor nearly apoplectic. he arrested them at lunch counters and in the streets, wherever they gathered. Still they cam, rank on rank. At length, on Tuesday, May 7, 2,500 Negroes poured out of church, surged through the police lines and swarmed downtown. Connor furiously ordered the fire hoses turned on. Armed with clubs, cops beat their way into the crowds. An armored car menacingly bulldozed the milling throngs. Fire hoses swept them down the streets. In all, the Birmingham demonstrations resulted in the jailing of more than 3,300 Negroes, including King himself.
The Response. The Negroes had created their crisis -- and Connor had made it a success. "The civil rights movement," said President Kennedy in a meeting later with King, "owes Bull Connor as much as it owes Abraham Lincoln." that was a best an oversimplification; nevertheless, because of Connor, the riots seared the front pages of the world press, outraged millions of people. Everywhere, King's presence, in the pulpit or at rallies, was demanded. But while he preached nonviolence, violence spread. "Freedom Walker" William Moore was shot and killed in Alabama. Mississippi's N.A.A.C.P. Leader Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his home. There was violence in Jackson, Miss., in Cambridge, Md., in Danville, Va. In Birmingham, later in the year, a church bombing killed four Negro Sunday-school children, while two other youngsters were shot and killed the same day.
Those events awakened long-slumbering Negro resentments, from which a fresh Negro urgency drew strength. For the first time, a unanimity of purpose slammed into the Negro consciousness with the force of a fire hose. Class lines began to shatter. Middle-class Negroes, who were aspiring for acceptance by the white community, suddenly found a point of identity with Negroes at the bottom of the economic heap. Many wealthy Negroes, once reluctant to join the fight, pitched in.
Now sit-in campaigns and demonstrations erupted like machine-gun fire in every major city in the North, as well as in hundreds of new places in the South. Negroes demanded better job opportunities, an end to the de facto school segregation that ghetto life had forced upon them. The N.A.A.C.P.'s Roy Wilkins, a calm, cool civil rights leader, lost some of his calmness and coolness. Said he: "My objectivity went out the window when I saw the picture of those cops sitting on that woman and holding her down by the throat." Wilkins promptly joined a street demonstration, got himself arrested.
"Free at Last." Many whites also began to participate, particularly the white clergy, which cast off its lethargy as ministers, priests and rabbis tucked the Scriptures under their arms and marched to jails with Negroes whom they had never seen before. The Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, executive head of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., declared: "Some time or other, we are all going to have to stand and be on the receiving end of a fire hose." Blake thereupon joined two dozen other clergymen in a protest march -- and was arrested.