The Bus Boycott Sparks a Movement

Although he considered pursuing an academic career, King decided in 1954 to accept an offer to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In December 1955, when Montgomery’s black leaders, including Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, and Ralph Abernathy formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to protest the arrest of NAACP official Rosa Park for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, they selected King to head the new group.

In his role as the primary spokesman of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, King utilized the leadership abilities he had gained from his religious background and academic training to forge a distinctive protest strategy that involved the mobilization of black churches and skillful appeals for white support. With the encouragement of Bayard Rustin, Glenn Smiley, William Stuart Nelson and other veteran pacifists, King also became a firm advocate of Mohandas Gandhi’s precepts of nonviolence, which he combined with Christian social gospel ideas.

After the United States Supreme Court outlawed Alabama bus segregation laws in Browder v. Gayle in late 1956, King sought to expand the nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South. In 1957 he joined with C. K. Steele, Fred Shuttlesworth and T .J. Jemison in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with King as president, to coordinate civil rights activities throughout the region. The publication of his first book, "Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story" further contributed to King’s rapid emergence as a national civil rights leader.

King’s rise to fame was not without personal consequences. In 1958 King was the victim of his first assassination attempt. Although his house had been bombed several times during the Montgomery bus boycott, it was while signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom that Izola Ware Curry stabbed him with a letter opener.