A chance to revisit the real Dr. King!


We recommend Stride Toward Freedom: A few years ago, we got real lucky.

We decided to read (or reread) Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King’s first book, his memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott.

The book appeared in 1958; Dr. King was just 29. In the book, he described history-changing events—events which occurred when he was even younger.

We had always owned the book. Presumably, we had read it decades earlier. But right from its opening paragraph, we found that Stride Toward Freedom let us revisit the real Dr. King, the real person who really existed before he became an iconic figure known for a few very famous statements.

We were surprised by the book, right from its very first paragraph. This is the way Stride Toward Freedom starts:
DR. KING (1958): On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama. It was a clear wintry day. The Metropolitan Opera was on the radio with a performance of one of my favorite operas—Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. So with the beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti’s inimitable music, and the splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive—especially when one is alone—was dispelled in pleasant diversions.
At the tender age of 25, Dr. King was driving to Montgomery to preach a guest sermon—in effect, to interview for his first full-time job as a minister.

We were surprised by that opening paragraph. Dr. King had a favorite opera? He had several favorite operas? In 1954, the Metropolitan Opera was on the radio between Atlanta and Montgomery?

We’d never thought of Dr. King as someone who had favorite operas; very few people do. But right from that opening paragraph, Stride Toward Freedom reintroduced us to the actual person of the real Dr. King, a person who has largely been swallowed by the process through which he’s become an icon.

For us, Stride Toward Freedom was full of surprises. If you read the book, your results may differ; there is more than one to understand Dr. King.

But we were most struck by Dr. King’s account of his thoughts after his home was bombed, for the first time, with his wife and infant daughter inside. (He was 27.)

Dr. King describes himself thinking about the viciousness of the people who would conduct such a bombing. Then, he thinks about Montgomery’s city commissioners—about the statements they had made about him and about African-Americans generally.

“I was once more on the verge of corroding anger,” Dr. King writes. “And once more I caught myself and said: ‘You must not allow yourself to become bitter.’ ”

In that passage, Dr. King reminds himself of his beliefs about “corroding anger.” (Throughout the book, he discusses his view of what he calls “the Jesus love ethic.”) Then came the part of this book we found most striking—the part of the book which helped us recall one part of the real Dr. King:
DR. KING (page 138): I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectful and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that... So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.
Even their ministers taught them these things, Dr. King recalled himself thinking, almost in shock. He was putting himself in the commissioners’ place—telling himself that these are not bad men.

Truly, those are astonishing words. Your results may differ, but those are the words we remember most from this remarkable book. In his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln voiced the same sort of radical refusal to judge, imagining that the scourge of the Civil War had been a judgment brought down by God on the people of North and South.

For the record, this same refusal to hate, and separate from, the other is the trait which has made Mandela a light to the world. Where do these people come from?

This is a day for recalling Dr. King—and it’s a day for second inaugurals. As we did a few years ago, we’ll recommend Stride Toward Freedom to those who want a chance to recall the real living Dr. King.

Who in the world was the real Dr. King? Where does such leadership come from?

From Lincoln’s famous second address: We were with a group of fifth graders, on a field trip, when we first read Lincoln’s famous second Inaugural Address.

We recall how shocked when we read these radical words on a large marble wall:
LINCOLN (3/4/65): The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
The scourge had been given “to both North and South!” We’ll ask our question one last time:

Where do these people come from?


  1. Dr. King was only human, we should not forget. The "Dream" speech contained a direct slap at George Wallace, made in understandable revulsion. The happy, loving warrior must also fight.

  2. Democrats and/or Liberals should learn from King's words. It does no good to assume someone is stupid because they hold certain beliefs. There are plenty of people whose family, peer groups, religious leaders, and political representatives have warped their understanding. That's not to say people don't have a responsibilty to educate themeselves. But in the real world, where most are focused on their own lives exclusively, its all too common to see those who are misguided rather than evil. And it does them, or us, no good to criticize their beliefs without understanding the factors that produce them.

  3. People exist everywhere around the world with the emotional strength and moral courage of Lincoln and of MLK. All of us have that same potential. To realize that potential, we need only listen to our conscience and do what is right. This is much, much easier to say than to do.

    It is simpler and easier to ignore our conscience and do what is easy and convenient, not what is right. I am a very fat man in my late 50's and have spent the day at home watching the inaugural and cooking. Now the sun's set and I have not even been out my apartment door to throw the trash down the chute, never mind going out the front door of the building to walk in the light of the day. Instead, I baked the frozen mince pie that I bought on sale after Thanksgiving, I ate that pie while I wrote these words of everyday faith, albeit a faith all too weak before temptation.

  4. Quaker in a BasementJanuary 21, 2013 at 9:50 PM

    In 1954, the Metropolitan Opera was on the radio between Atlanta and Montgomery?

    Well heck. Rush was only 3 at the time.

  5. The extraordinary thing about Lincoln and King was the way they each combined, in different ways, this broad generosity of spirit & sympathetic feeling for the position of their adversaries, with the most unyielding determination to do what they understood to be right.

    Lincoln was a pragmatist by instict. His 'beau ideal' of a politician was the Great Compromiser himself (Henry Clay), and had the Missouri Compromise not been undone by Steven Douglass's Kansas-Nebraska Act, it is highly doubtful that Lincoln would have reentered politics at all.

    But, once moved to action by that event, which he regarded as catastrophic for the union & a clear betrayal of its founding principles, he was utterly relentless in insisting that the undermined check on the expansion of slavery north of the compromise line be restored.

    This fixation on restoring a shattered compromise may have seemed like too little too late to the typical ablitionist, but for Lincoln it was his "here I stand" and he never wavered from it. And in the event it proved more than enough to propel the South into succession.

    So too, in a very different role, with King: He was willing and able to summon the strength to turn the other cheek before every conceivable provocation (arrests, threats, beatings, bombings).

    But no power on earth could make him yield on the principle that segregation was a monstrous evil, or relax the 'fierce urgency' with which he sought its destruction. He unapologetically called himself a 'militant' in that struggle, and urged the moral obligation of a like militancy upon all who would listen.

    It is easy to compromise when there is no cause to which you have pledged your life, fortune and sacred honor. And it is easy, in a different way, to be relentlessly uncompromising and aggressive in political combat, when you regard your adversaries as categorically different from yourself, as irredeemable agents of evil, with views shaped in pure malice.

    What is unspeakably hard is to be an unwavering warrior for the cause of justice as you understand it, while allowing yourself to see precisely in your most bitter opponents a version of what you yourself might have been, had your circumstances been reversed.

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