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Crusader Without Violence 60 Years Later

The first biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is reissued

Lawrence D. Reddick was a history professor at Alabama State College — the state school for blacks — when the Montgomery Bus Boycott brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence in 1955-56. They had known each other casually in Atlanta; both had moved to Montgomery to accept jobs only recently.

On Dec. 5, 1955, Reddick went to the rally that changed the one-day bus boycott into a mass movement that lasted over a year. Intending to write a book about that movement, Reddick spoke with the main movement players and observed events closely. It was while interviewing King in depth in 1957 that he shifted to writing a biography of this new national leader. Only 25 when he assumed the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and not yet a Ph.D., King had quickly attracted worldwide attention during the Montgomery Movement. The book became a collective effort, in which friends and family members helped Reddick find material. Dr. and Mrs. King read the manuscript.

This is a very personal story, written by someone who got to know Dr. King very well. Reddick begins by describing the scars on his body, his favorite sports, food and clothes. He tells us many personal details, such as his enjoyment of doing imitations of other preachers and public figures, that he couldn’t “spell a lick,” and got a little nervous before speeches.

These details don’t obscure the main themes. Reddick says that King’s “main thesis is the power of brotherly love to redeem a world that will otherwise destroy itself.” There is no surprise in learning that Dr. King’s heroes were Jesus, Gandhi and Thoreau, but a little that “Socrates is his hero above all men of ancient times” and that he had mixed feelings about his namesake, Martin Luther.

In a long chapter on Family, we learn why the name on his birth certificate is Michael Luther, and why he was called ‘Little Mike’ in his early years. In fact, Martin Luther King wasn’t named for Martin Luther, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

Nonviolence came to him easily. Even as a boy he didn’t want to fight, or hit those who hit him. In 1950, while studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, he went to a lecture on Gandhi by a well-known black preacher. He was so intrigued that he read everything that he could find on the Mahatma and his philosophy.
The future leader didn’t leave home until he graduated from Morehouse College. However, he was ordained at 18 and made associate pastor of his father’s church when he was 21. His theological training was not necessary for a career as a Baptist minister; he was going into the family business.

But the future Dr. King liked going to school, and wanted more. His Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer came with a fellowship for graduate education so he enrolled at Boston University. He met Coretta Scott in Boston, where she was studying voice in anticipation of a career as a singer, and married her in 1953 at her parents’ home in Alabama.

They returned to Alabama in 1954 when the-not-yet-Dr. King accepted the pastorate at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, a few blocks from the Capitol building in Montgomery. The Kings were still getting settled when the Montgomery bus boycott began in December 1955. Reddick doesn’t re-tell that story, but he does describe some of the personalities involved, not all of whom have made into the history books. Dr. King was chosen to head theMontgomery Improvement Association, which ran the boycott, in part because he was a newbie and not a creature of any of the factions in the black community.

Reddick does give us some intriguing details about the Montgomery movement, such as that Juliette Hampton Morgan (right), a white librarian, wrote a letter to the major morning newspaper comparing the bus boycott to Gandhi’s marches. (He doesn’t mention that she was ostracized by her white colleagues and family for her racial views, harassed and threatened. She committed suicide after a cross was burned on her lawn in 1957).

Although King was traveling the path to Gandhian non-violence when this letter was written, he wasn’t there yet, which is why he could apply for a permit to carry a pistol. Reddick tells us he was turned down, despite many threats on his life and family.

Reddick gives King high marks for his oratorical skills, which made him a draw at mass meetings, and for his interpersonal skills, which made him a good chair at MIA meetings, but lesser ones as a negotiator with the city over the busses. Given that he was still a very young man who had spent most of his life going to school, King expected give-and-take to lead to compromise. He found obduracy. Each side expected the other to back down — completely. Neither happened.

Even though King was the official President of the MIA, it was others who were quoted as the boycott leaders, especially local attorney Fred Gray, who challenged the segregation law in federal court. Only when King’s house was bombed two months after the boycott began did his face begin to appear in the national press. His oratorical skills made him an attractive speaker at venues all over the country. By the time a Supreme Court decision ended the boycott, King was a major public figure.

Reddick (right) continues the story of King, Montgomery and the MIA until 1959, when this book was first published. His story contains some fascinating tidbits that I did not know, and I know quite a bit about Dr. King. People do look different close-up and near-term from what they will look like later or after they are dead. The Montgomery story didn’t end with the boycott, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) went on to do a lot more in Alabama and elsewhere. Most of what it did in the late 1950s has been obscured by the sit-ins that started in 1960.

That year Dr. King moved to Atlanta, to rejoin his father’s church as associate pastor while pursuing his real career as President of SCLC and a civil rights leader. Reddick was fired by Alabama State at the order of the Governor. He went on to teach at several other colleges and publish two more books. He was one of many supporters and activists in the Montgomery movement who had to leave town and/or had their lives and careers derailed.

Changing the “Southern Way of Life” was not easy, and, 60 years after this book was first published, is still a work-in-progress.

Jo Freeman has published 11 books, including three books and many articles on women and politics. This article was originally published by This post was originally published by Senior Women Web. Crusader Without Violence, 60th-anniversary edition L. D. Reddick, Introduction by Derryn E. Moton Published by Montgomery: New South Books, 2018.

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Jo Freeman

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