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The Role of Black Churches and Community During the Montgomery Bus Boycott

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Montgomery, Alabama was the old capital of the Confederacy within the Deep South during the pre-Civil Wartime, and for numerous decades following the Union’s victory of the war, resulting in the abolishment of slavery, Montgomery was still considered to be the heart of the old confederacy maintaining their strict views of white superiority. Montgomery, although considered to be one of the most segregated cities in the country, had a growing black community united from their mutual anguish over their unjust treatment, for they were still considered to be second-class citizens. Although Montgomery was just one city in segregated America, its importance to what we now consider the “Second Civil War” (initially defined by Howard University Professor Arnold Taylor) was insurmountable. 

In 1955, after NAACP activist Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white man on a Montgomery public bus, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) finally had enough momentum to establish what is now the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott and is considered to be the turning point in the Civil Rights movement. Although this wasn’t the first boycott to occur within the movement, it was the first visible and profounding success that undoubtedly propelled the movement to follow its lead. Although many tactics were utilized by the MIA to obtain this essential victory, the most impactful strategy for its success was the utilization of the Black Church, and the encouragement it provided to the black community to sustain the continuance of their non-violent method of direct action protest. 

Black culture has been developing since the beginning of slavery and continues through this day. Starting at the beginning of slavery, the emergence of black culture, and subsequently black unity, provided hope to a brighter future and focused on not losing the constant dream of freedom. A community developed focused on religion, art, and music, depicted not just by the hardships of being a black person in captivity but the togetherness they felt towards their fellow people. Decades later, past the abolishment of slavery, the development of restrictive segregation laws, and the continuance of inhumane practices and violence forced upon black people just for the color of their skin, the black culture remained significantly important to African Americans for they retained solidarity and hope in the presence of a society where hate towards their people was not only expected but delegated by the very government meant to protect their rights as a “free” American citizen. For this reason, Black Churches were a critical “free space” that was utilized to escape to the oppression of white people. These churches not only provided an outlet for their culture through song, prayer, and dance but became the perfect time to assemble in hopes of establishing an open space where all ideas were welcome when considering what to do to continue the Civil Rights movement. Most importantly, however, because the church was designated “black” and white Christianity thought of black religion as an abomination, there was no surveillance from white people giving the black churchgoers absolute freedom of speech. 

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was centered around the Christian religion not only for the safe space the church provided for black people, but the empowerment the religion offered to the movement through song, prayer and the reassurance of the movement’s virtuous goal defined within the meaning of the religion itself. The MIA leaders naturally then were typically those deeply connected with the religion themselves so they could, therefore, connect to the crowd in an individual way (pastors, reverends, etc.). Some of these leaders included: Martin Luther King Jr. (appointed President of the MIA during Boycott) was originally a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Reverend L. Roy Bennett who was President of Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy who was secretary of Baptist Ministers Alliance. 

While there were many leaders within the movement who were not specifically pastors or reverends, it appeared the ones who visibly interacted with the audience and uplifted the crowd as a whole were the leaders, specifically King, who had a history of preaching the religion and recognized the importance of it within the black community and the potential influence it would have over the movement as a whole. “This network of church, civic, and union leaders provided the MIA with a broad base of support, and clear, established lines of communication.” The MIA utilized the churches’ free space to hold nightly mass meetings to collectively discuss the boycott and maintain enthusiasm towards their end goal, which developed into full desegregation of the public bus system in Montgomery after their original request of partial desegregation was denied. Martin Luther King, as the elected President of the movement, led these mass meetings at the Holt Street Baptist Church. On his way to the first mass meeting, King describes what he saw in his first book, Stride Towards Freedom: “Within five blocks of the church I noticed a traffic jam… All of these cars were headed for the mass meeting… The three or four thousand people who could not get into the church were to stand cheerfully throughout the evening listening to the proceedings..”.

The excitement of the uniform front that was being provided through the church gathered a huge crowd all in support of continuing the boycott and maintaining the upper-hand against the Montgomery local government. To bring the meeting to a start, the crowd was led in conjoined song and prayer, to unify the crowd under the blanket of religion. “The opening hymn was the old familiar ‘Onward Christain Soldiers,’ and when that mammoth audience stood to sing, the voices outside swelling the chorus in the church there was a mighty ring like the glad echo of heaven itself.” As president of the MIA, Martin Luther King adopted a philosophy, first introduced by Gandhi, to fight discrimination and segregation that he felt would best align it with the Christian roots of the movement, and what would potentially bring it the most success: the practice of non-violence.

One could argue the utilization of non-violence was separate from the importance of the church in the boycott, however, without the underlying community the church provided, the continuance of this method would be far more difficult. For every night, during the mass meetings, the black community in Montgomery submerged themselves in the company of those who encouraged them to remain concentrated on the end goal of the movement and not get caught up in the petty violence white people used to try and stop them. Maintaining a non-violent approach was very difficult, especially when the white people immediately resorted to violence, it was the church’s support that warranted such great success for this movement. King’s relation of the non-violent method to the movement’s core set of Christian values was clearly stated in his speech at the first mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church: “We are here this evening because we’re tired now. Now let us say that we are not here advocating violence. We have overcome that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christain people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon we have this evening is the weapon of protest.” 

The Montgomery Bus Boycott famously received its victory almost a year after the boycott started. The black community maintained an almost total boycott of the bus system which significantly affected Montogomery’s economy for black riders made up over two-thirds of the total riders. Montgomery’s influential win sparked a new-found motivation at a time that was desperate for change. It also then became a “blueprint” for other local movements around the South to follow. This blueprint was greatly focused on the importance of the Black Church and the non-violence method that was preached for without either of these. In the words of the great Martin Luther King, “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’” These words, spoken at a mass-meeting in the middle of the boycott, emanated throughout the Montgomery black community and echoed throughout the United States as a whole. 

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