By Gaverne Bennett
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Stride Toward Freedom

This article is over 10 years, 10 months old
Martin Luther King, Jr
Issue 356

Published for the first time in Britain, Martin Luther King’s Stride Toward Freedom details the first mortal blow to segregation in the South: the 11-month Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6.

King first shows you pre-boycott Alabama – how as the “cradle of the confederacy” it fought tenaciously in the Civil War for the freedom to enslave anyone with black skin. Even as late as 1954 only 2,000 out of 30,000 eligible African Americans could vote.

The denial of elementary rights for African Americans extended to all areas of social life. Black passengers paid at the front of the bus but had to board at the back. Any attempt to sit in “whites only” seats led to arrest or worse.

Upon arriving in Alabama as a minister, King describes the main barriers to opposition to segregation as “factionalism among leaders, indifference in the educated group, and passivity in the uneducated”.

Rosa Parks’s arrest gave the initial cut to this oppressive knot. King says Parks refused to move for a white passenger because she was “anchored to her seat by accumulated indignities of days gone by and…boundless aspirations of the yet unborn”.

From here this book begins to shine. A packed meeting follows Parks’s arrest where the idea of boycotts against segregated transport firmly seizes those present and beyond. King describes the determination to be “saved from the patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom”.

The boycott saw 50,000 African Americans, many uneducated, make the history that still shapes our present. They organised car pools to ferry people to and from work. These were often as complicated as the bus routes, replete with pick-up points, timetables, mass ring-rounds and the simple defiance of long distance walks to work.

The growing movement drew the support of some whites who helped with ferrying duties and sent financial support from as far away as Tokyo. Its greatest success was not just the fact that it smashed segregated transport but that, in the words of a black janitor, afterwards the oppressed “got our heads up” and would “never bow again”. The Civil Rights Movement was born.

There are three things that will strike you about this book. First is its immediacy and poetic prose. Written by King just after the success of the boycott it shows a leader and a movement finding their feet in order to fly. Second is King’s deep familiarity with Marxism. He writes, “Both Negro and white workers are equally oppressed.”

There is much that is debatable in this book – such as the role of violence in history. However, this book bears reading repeatedly by anyone interested in serious change and who agrees with King’s proposition that faced with oppression “it is better to fight”.

Stride Toward Freedom is published by Souvenir Press, £12

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