Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

January 14, 2007

 “From the Cradle of Montgomery”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.

Countee Cullen wrapped his dreams in a silken cloth in the 1920’s, laying them away in a box of gold. Martin Luther King unwrapped that dream from its silken cloth, opening the lid of that box of gold, pulling the dream from the cold earth where it had lain buried. King and the dream he shared with every African American infused life into not only the black citizens of the south, but into the soul of this country and the world. Fifty years ago last month, the Montgomery Bus Boycott came to a successful end, allowing all citizens to sit in any seats they chose on their way to work or school.

There are some folks here today who remember the day of the boycott first-hand. For many of us, myself included, it is part of the history of the United States that we were born into. Like the Revolutionary War or World War II, the boycott and the whole civil rights era is a part of our collective history that we are taught to be proud of as our history, white or black. The actions of the black citizens of Montgomery are one of our history’s finest examples of outstanding leadership, collective commitment and a willingness on the part of the many to recognize and to follow good leadership. Undergirding the movement was a humility which allowed the participants to act out of what they knew was right, what they knew was eternal—that is, to act out of religious values.

Each year, we take this weekend to remember MLK and his prophetic work in our country. For me, and probably for many of you, there is no other individual whose life has so embodied what it means to live out the deepest values of what America can and should be.

We honor him as an individual, but he operated within a context where his leadership was desired and supported and needed. Yes, King rallied the troops—but they were asking to be rallied.

Each year, we hear stories of King’s life and work, much like we re-hear the stories of any holiday. On Christmas Eve, we listen again to the stories of the miraculous birth of a child. At Passover, we hear again the story of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery. And on Martin Luther King day, we hear again the story of the civil rights struggle. And it is right that it should be so. The struggle of the African Americans in Montgomery in 1956 counts as one of the greatest stories ever told, of a people oppressed, who looked beyond their circumstances and saw what some would call the Kingdom of God. And then, with faith and humility, they set out to cooperate in the bringing of that kingdom to earth.

And each time I hear the stories, each time I re-read the details of the epic struggle in which this people was engaged, I am reminded again that, as great as Dr. King was, he was great to the extent that a great people allowed and encouraged his greatness.

The danger in heroes, like King, or like Jesus, or like Buddha, or like the individual in your life who seems to have what you ought to have—the danger in heroes is that we believe that their greatness was their greatness. The greatness of the individual is never that of an individual, though. The greatness of the individual is always found in the people and the circumstances where their gifts are allowed and encouraged to shine.

King was not the person who organized the boycott. He had not been in Montgomery for very long; he was not the one who had fostered the network of ministers and civic leaders who would come together to rally their constituencies. A man named E. D. Nixon had wanted a boycott of the buses for years, and he recognized when the moment was right, when the time had come. At the very first meeting of Montgomery’s civic leadership, “virtually every organization of the Negro community was represented.” This was due not to King’s getting them there; this was due to the passion and the determination of the community, out of which King’s leadership would emerge.

The goal of the boycott was very modest, and intentionally so. Every black leader in Montgomery understood that all of segregation was wrong and needed to be dismantled. The end of segregation was the goal that was fervently desired by every black citizen in Montgomery and throughout the South. Equality, freedom, and dignified treatment were the dreams that so many had wrapped in silken cloths, put in golden boxes, and buried in the earth. And yet, the leaders of the boycott knew that their best strategy was to be modest in their demands. The goal of the boycott was threefold:

1- a guarrantee of courteous treatment by the bus operators

2- that passengers be seated on a first-come, first-served basis—Negroes seating from the back of the the bus toward the front while whites seated from the front toward the back.

3- that Negro bus operators be employed on predominantly Negro routes.At the very beginning of the boycott, the local paper got wind of what the Negroes were planning. Their articles saw the boycott as the Negro equivalent to the White Citizens Councils, which had sprung up all over the South to resist the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. The White Citizens Councils had boycotted white businesses that seemed to them to be cooperating with desegregation. The boycotts of the White Citizens Councils were intended “not merely to impress their victims but to destroy them if possible.”

As he read the newspapers, King asked himself whether it was true: whether the black citizens were acting just as badly as the white citizens of the councils. “Up to this time,” he wrote, “I had uncritically accepted this method as our best course of action. Now certain doubts began to bother me. Were we following an ethical course of action? Is the boycott method basically unchristian? Isn’t it a negative approach to the solution of a problem?”

As he wrestled with these questions, he concluded that the difference was that “we would use this method to give birth to justice and freedom, and also to urge men to comply with the law of the land; the White Citizens Councils used it to perpetuate the reign of injustice and human servitude, and urged men to defy the law of the land…

Our concern would not be to put the bus company out of business, but to put justice in business.”

The boycott was not King’s idea. He had been asked to support it and did so enthusiastically. And, because the community of leaders recognized his gifts for speaking, they asked him to speak at the rally to give voice to what the community was doing. What King brought to the task was his mind and his heart. He reflected on the meaning of the boycott. He wrestled with the accusation of the white newspaper that the boycott was immoral, like the boycotts that the White Citizens Councils had engaged in. And he shared his thoughts with the community in a compelling way.

In the same way, our individual greatness requires of us only that we offer to the community the gifts that we have to offer. King didn’t have to do it all.

And the organizers of the boycott never tried to do it all.

Half way through the boycott, on June 4, 1956, a case that the group had taken to federal court was decided in favor of King and his co-workers. The court declared that city bus segregation laws in Alabama were unconstitutional. But the city attorneys appealed the case to the US Supreme Court.

In October, 1956, almost a year into the boycott, the Mayor of Montgomery stopped car pools from operating, and a different court upheld his right to do so. King and his co-workers challenged this in another court.

On November 13, 1956, two historic decisions were rendered—one upheld the right of the mayor to eliminate the car pools; the other was the Supreme Court decision that the segregation of bus lines was illegal.

It took a few weeks before the buses of Montgomery were forced to abide by the Supreme Court ruling and allow blacks and whites to sit together. During those few weeks, the car pools had been discontinued, and many people had to walk to and from work every day.

When the buses were integrated, there was a list of suggestions distributed widely throughout the city, including in the high schools. The suggestions included:

Not all white people are opposed to integrated buses. Accept good will on the part of many.

Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete non-violence in word and action as you enter the bus.

Demonstrate the calm dignity of our Montgomery people in your actions.

Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag!

Be quiet but friendly; proud but not arrogant; joyous but not boisterous.

Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.

Assume that the bus driver will cooperate.

Do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.

If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.

In case of an incident, talk as little as possible, and always in a quiet tone.

For the first few days try to get on the bus with a friend in whose non-violence you have confidence. You can uphold one another by a glance or a prayer.

If another person is being molested, do not arise to go to his defense, but pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.

According to your own ability and personality, do not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change.

If you feel you cannot take it, walk for another week or two. We have confidence in our people. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

Montgomery Alabama had served as the first capital of the Confederate States of America; Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol. The White South had tried to uphold their system of injustice from Montgomery, by seceding from the Union to maintain slavery. They had tried with all their might to stop justice from rolling down like great waters. The down-trodden Negroes of that same Montgomery took a very simple action. They simply chose not to sit in a bus until they would be treated with courtesy. They did not try to force justice into an unjust system. Instead, they took a modest step that they knew would act in concert with that mighty water that could not be held back forever. They did what they could to act in concert with justice—a justice they knew was much bigger and much mightier than they were.

In the words of Dr. King, “It is one of the splendid ironies of our day that Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy, is being transformed into Montgomery, the cradle of freedom and justice.”

In our own cradles, where we find them, may we nurture justice in the many small ways that present themselves to us day after day. If you care about a big thing, do a little thing. There are lots of little things to do.