Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Gandhi’s influence on MLK Jr.

Santosh Bakaya

One cold day in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a much respected forty two year old African- American seamstress refused to vacate her seat for a White American, in a bus plied by Montgomery City Lines, thus violating the city’s racial segregation ordinances, and was arrested.
It was 1 December, 1955.

“Why do you push us around?” she asked the officer.
“I don’t know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest”.  Rejoined the officer.

 Yes, the law was the law, an unjust law, which said that the African- American passengers were expected to sit at the back of the bus and to give up their seats, if the white section became full. The whites sat in front.

 After Parks’ arrest the Montgomery Improvement Association was created, spearheaded by a twenty six year old pastor, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, and they started the Montgomery Bus Boycott on 5 December, 1955.

Planned for only a day, it lasted for 381 days, in which 40 thousand blacks participated. On 21 December, 1956, whites and Afro- Americans rode for the first time on previously segregated buses.
 “And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” MLK Jr. said in Montgomery, Alabama, and they held on steadfastly fighting with their nonviolent weapons, despite efforts to break their spirit and quash their spines.

 A quiescent conscience was yanked out of its slumber and a new sense of dignity was injected into the Afro- Americans.  In words so reminiscent of Gandhi, King said,
If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low, as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love.”  

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a great success and during the boycott, Gandhi’s name was mentioned many times. King had helped straighten the backs of his brethren, tried to revive a comatose nation, unfazed by high-powered hoses and Bull Connors’ dogs, the invisible shadow of Gandhi their beacon light. King wrote:  
While the Montgomery bus Boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

King was only a nineteen year old youth when Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, hence the two could never meet, yet Gandhi’s ideology of non- violence influenced him greatly.

But, his discovery of Gandhi did not take place during the Montgomery bus boycott; it had gripped him during his study of Divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania [1948-1951]. From the Seminary, one day he travelled to Philadelphia to listen to a sermon of Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University, who had just returned from India, highly impressed by the teachings of Gandhi. King found his sermon so ‘profound’ and ‘electrifying’ that he immediately bought half a dozen books on Gandhi.

On 10 July 1959, he was asked by Christian Century editor Harold Fey to write an essay on How my Mind has changed. He was one of the many significant thinkers who talked of their spiritual and intellectual evolution during the past ten years and in that article of April 13, 1960, he wrote that at the Crozer seminary in 1949, he studied various theories, liberalism, works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Kierkegaard and existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Tillich, Rauschenbusch, each of whom enriched him and stoked his intellectual curiosity, but he also came to know  “for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of non- violence is one of the most potent weapons available to a nation in their struggle for freedom.”

A revised version of his essay was later reprinted in a collected volume edited by Fey Pilgrimage to Non- Violence, and he talked of how he had been knocked out of his ‘dogmatic slumber’. [Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1961, pp 105- 115] 

During this period I had almost despaired of the power of love in solving social problems. The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and ‘love your enemies’ philosophy are only valid when individuals are in conflict with other individulas; when racial groups and nations are in conflict, a more realistic approach is necessary.  Then I came upon the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. As I read his works, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns for nonviolent resistance. The whole Gandhian concept of Satyagraha was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished …..”
At this juncture of his life , he had merely gained an intellectual insight into the Gandhian  philosophy, little realizing that one day he would himself be resorting to non- violent resistance.

No “longer lost in a fog of theological abstraction’, he realized that love was indeed a powerful force. Earlier he had been cynical about the redemptive and therapeutic power of love, believing that the ethics of Jesus could be relevant only in individual cases,  but a study of Gandhi,  Satyagraha and  Salt march removed the cobwebs of confusion and It was from a reading of his works, that he received an “intellectual and moral satisfaction.”  

During the Montgomery bus Boycott, “my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Gandhian method of non- violent resistance. The principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method”.  He said.  As the movement progressed, he became more and more convinced of the power of non- violence.  His brethren showed great patience, resiliently plodding forth even on rainy days, covering their heads with umbrellas and newspapers, but saying an adamant No to the segregated buses.   

On December 12, 1955, a letter by a white librarian, Juliette Morgan was published in Montgomery Advertiser saying, that the Boycott had been influenced by “Gandhi – and our own Thoreau, who influenced Gandhi…  Their own task is greater than Gandhi’s for they have greater prejudice to overcome.” Freedom without any bitterness was King’s mission too. But it was definitely not an easy task to tackle this centennial injustice, which had warped many mindsets.

Every Afro- American was the Invisible Man [1952] of Ralph Waldo Emerson, hibernating in his invisibility, trying to discover himself, trying to become visible, to the Whites who deigned never to see him. As the unnamed protagonist says in Invisible Man, “When I discover who I’m, I will be free.”

As the President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, in the periodic meetings, King  talked about the efficacy of non- violence, not naively optimistic about its success, considering the hostility among the majority of the whites. Working on a planned out strategy, on 5 December, 1955,   the Afro- Americans  refused to ride the unjustly segregated buses, some rode mules to work, some walked twelve hours to their jobs, some travelled in horse drawn buggies, students hitchhiked, raising slogans, ‘No riders today’  as empty buses passed by, and they continued the boycott for one whole year.

On 30 January 1956, the King house was attacked as the continuing success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott had raised the heckles of the segregationists. That night, at 9. 15 pm, while he was speaking at Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, in the vicinity,  before an assembly of  two thousand people,  a bomb was hurled in the porch of his house.  It tore a hole in the porch, splintered floor boards, and ripped through one of the pillars in the porch, but his wife Coretta, and their infant daughter, Yolanda were not harmed.

 It was this attack that was the testing time of his unflinching commitment to non- violence.
To the angry mob that had gathered outside his house, raising slogans that resounded in the neighborhood, the twenty seven year old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, delivered an impromptu speech from his damaged front porch:

 “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword, will perish by the sword. We are not advocating violence.   We want to love our enemies.  Be good to them, love them, and let them know you love them.”  His words fell onto the ears of the protesters, with an impassioned intensity- words exemplifying his robust conviction in the power of nonviolence as a tool in the civil rights movement. The mob slowly dispersed, merging into the night. A blood bath was avoided by a mere raising of hand, and powerful oratory laced with love and forgiveness.

The entire night, the hostility of human beings towards one another, hammered away at his mind and his body quivered with hate and vengeance, even making him entertain the idea of getting a gun permit, but he checked himself in time, forgiving the white segregationists, reasoning that they were merely the children of their culture, doing what they had been taught for ages- namely the inferiority of the blacks.
Nonetheless, he allowed sentries in his house to carry guns and pistols, for self-defense.
This created a moral dilemma and he eventually ordered the guns out of the house reasoning that “I’ve got to be totally non- violent because the guns here are going to attract guns.”  

During the entire period of the Montgomery bus Boycott, every effort was made to break the boycott by widespread intimidation, circulation of racist handbills and eighty nine leaders were indicted of violating a law that prohibited boycotts.
On March 22, 1956,   King was found guilty, but proclaimed that he was proud to be a criminal and proud of his crime of leading a non-violent protest against injustice.

Rangnath Diwakar, one of Gandhi’s chief lieutenants in the Quit India Movement paid the Kings a visit in mid- August 1958, and it was during this three day visit that Coretta King, said:
We began to think more deeply about the whole philosophy of nonviolence. We talked about how superficial and shallow our whole knowledge of nonviolence was.”  An invitation from Pt. Nehru inviting them to India, lay unheeded on his table.  Visiting the land of Gandhi had always been his earnest dream, so this dream, triggered by Rangnath Diwakar’s visit was finally realized in 1959.   

When they reached Delhi on 10 February, 1959, for a one month visit, a grand reception awaited them.
To the reporters at the airport, King said, “to other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim”.
Regarding the gains of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he said, “Our real victory is not so much the desegregation of buses, as it is a new sense of dignity and destiny.” 
As a result of his India visit, he was able to develop a greater understanding of nonviolent warfare, his commitment to achieve freedom for his people through non-violent means becoming stronger.

It was the Montgomery Bus Boycott that had catapulted King to the center stage of the Civil Rights Movement, his powerful voice rising above the ominous rhythm of demonic violence, fusillade of threats, blizzards of racist slurs, billy clubs and gun butts, telling his brethren, in a voice reminiscent of Gandhi, that they could overcome and stand up to brutality without compromise, which they did with weapons of love and nonviolence.  

Writing in New York Times, the eminent Indian writer Ved Mehta said that at the end of the twentieth century, Gandhi and King would be called the influential men of our times, because “they were imaginative artists who knew how to use world politics as their stage.”   [Mehta, Ved. Gandhism is not Easily Copied, New York Times, 9 July, 1961]  

In the introductory chapter of his book, James A Colaiaco says, “King and Gandhi were successful because they realized that nonviolent protest is basically an art – and they were quintessential artists”.  He further says that they “orchestrated dramatic moral confrontations with their adversaries, compelling them to make reforms in the interest of justice.” [Martin Luther King Jr. Apostle of Militant Non- violence, Palgrave, Macmillan, UK, 1988, P 2]

So, King, the Dreamer, strongly influenced by Gandhi, and honing the art of nonviolent warfare at every step, stood up to oppression with “truth-force, ” partially succeeding in the realization of his dream, of freedom and equality for his people, yanking off of the shackles of segregation, and breaking out into a  ‘joyous daybreak.’


  1. Excellent article. Very interesting, informative and relevant in today's context. A must read 👍


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