Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

By Martin Luther King Jr.

871 ratings - 4.51* vote

This book is an account of a few years that changed the life of a Southern community, told from the point of view of one of the participants. Although it attempts to interpret what happened it does not purport to be a detailed survey of the historical and sociological aspects of the Montgomery story. .This is not a drama with only one actor. More precisely it is the chroni This book is an account of a few years that changed the life of a Southern community, told from the point of view of one

... more

Book details

Paperback, 240 pages
January 1st 1987 by HarperCollins Publishers

(first published November 30th 1957)

Original Title
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
ISBN
0062504908 (ISBN13: 9780062504906)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Marc-Antoine

Lately many politicians have been preaching the politics of fear and hate. It may be time to have a look back and remember what history should have taught us. Hate begets hate, violence begets violence...

Roy Lotz

Martin Luther King, Jr. has made the improbable journey from periphery to national hero, embraced (at least verbally) by everyone from the left to the right. As a result, it has become difficult to understand King as he was: a radical and controversial figure. This transformation has required some omissions. While King is widely celebrated for his civil rights activism, his criticisms of economic inequality have attracted far less attention. In school it was not mentioned that King delivered his iconic speech at a protest that was for jobs as well as freedom.

Ironically, however, as the introduction by Clayborne Carson makes clear, King partially helped to create this more “acceptable” image of himself. For one, he is careful to distance himself from communism in this book. In the fascinating chapter on his intellectual development, King also takes care to emphasize his roots in Western philosophy, discussing Nietsche and Hegel, while downplaying the black tradition of activism that inspired him. In telling the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King even avoids any mention of the organizer Bayard Rustin, who was deemed too controversial for his homosexuality. (Rustin agreed to this omission.)

This book, then, should be seen as a work of advocacy as much as a straightforward narration of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At the time of the Red Scare and of trenchant homophobia, King presents a slightly “sanitized” version of himself and his milieu, in order to further the cause of civil rights. One also suspects that King presents an overly rosy picture of the boycott’s success, as in reality the Supreme Court victory took years to translate into real integration. In short, this book is meant to inspire action.

This is not to say that the book is inaccurate. King still presents us with the essentials: a dramatic narrative of the bus boycott, as well as his own philosophy of nonviolence. Considering both the importance of the man and the event, this book is a rewarding read. It is especially valuable because it takes us into the hardships and the danger faced by the protesters.

King (or at least the sanitized version) is sometimes held up as an example of an “acceptable” protester by those hoping to discredit current-day movements, as if King had always been considered a hero. But as this book makes clear, in his own day King was anything but a hero to the white community. The boycott was designed to be disruptive, and it was. The protesters faced inconvenience, harassment, arrest, death threats, and real violence. King often—and eerily—contemplates the possibility of his own murder. Genuine protest, in other words, is never “acceptable.” As King repeatedly makes clear, non-violence is a philosophy of radical change, not of polite respectability.

robin friedman

Martin Luther King's Stride Toward Freedom

April 4, 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With the annual January holiday dedicated to his memory together with the commemoration of his death, King is receiving a great deal of attention this year. Among new books examining King is an anthology "To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr" (2018), (edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry) in which philosophers concentrate on King's books and other writings to try to understand the nature of King's political thought. The book is far from exhaustive, and, even so, shows many different perspectives.

These considerations, particularly reading the new anthology, made me want to read or revisit King's books to try to look for myself more closely at King's thinking. I began with King's first book "Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story", originally published in 1958 and reissued in 2010 as part of a collection of King's writings called "The King Legacy". This book tells the story of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. A young King became the leader of this movement, and it catapulted him quickly to national and international attention and to a leadership role in the civil rights movement.

On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, under Montgomery's segregation ordinance. She was arrested and fined. Parks' arrest and conviction set the stage for the Montgomery bus boycott. King, a young minister who had been in Montgomery for about a year was chosen to lead the boycott. After a difficult boycott of over a year, the Montgomery buses were desegregated. There is still disagreement about whether the boycott or a decision of the Supreme Court invalidating segregation on the buses, was primarily responsible for the result. Undoubtedly both were important.

King's book is written crisply and passionately and tells the story of the boycott. He examines racial relations in Montgomery just before the boycott, Rosa Parks' action in refusing to give up her seat, the organization of the African American community, attempts at negotiation with the city, and the violence that erupted during the boycott and thereafter. The history has subsequently been told many times in greater detail than King provides. (Some critics find that King underplayed the role of women in the Montgomery bus boycott.) King's account remains invaluable as his own-first hand story.

The book includes much more than a history of the boycott. It gives a good deal of autobiographical information, including King's own understanding of his intellectual development and his commitment to civil rights and the philosophy of non-violence. King discusses books he read and authors he found important during his years in college and in the seminary. Among many other writers, he has important things to say about Thoreau, about the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and about the philosophy of personalism or personal idealism. Of the latter, King writes:

"I studied personalistic philosophy -- the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. This personal idealism remains today my basic philosophical position. Personalism's insistence that only personality -- finite and infinite -- is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality."

King further explains how relatively late in his studies he came in contact with the work of Gandhi and non-violence. King explains the importance he placed on non-violence and on peaceful resistance as opposed to violence and hatred. Much of King's history of the boycott revolves around his efforts to keep the protests and the boycott peaceful in the face of violence and threats. King's home, and the homes of other civil rights leaders, were bombed during the course of the boycott, and King and other leaders of the movement were arrested, briefly jailed, and tried and convicted of crimes.

Autobiographical, philosophical, and historical elements are combined in King's history of the Montgomery boycott. In the final lengthy chapter of the book, "Where do we go from here?" King puts the rising civil rights movement in a historical perspective. He talks about factors that gave the civil rights movement an impetus following WW II and of the resistance by segregationists. King adopts an exhortatory tone which tries to unite various groups, including northern liberals, well-meaning southerners, trade unions, people of faith, and African Americans themselves into a commitment to non-violent pursuit of a society based upon racial equality. In an age of secularism, King's own thinking was predominantly religious and Christian.

This book helped me in my understanding of King, his philosophical and religious thought, and the civil rights movement. It is worthwhile, fifty years after his death, with so much written and said, to approach King by reading his own words.

Robin Friedman

Deborah Pickstone

You know, I never read this before! The autobiographical account of the Montgomery bus boycott story. MLK's writing is really lovely so it is a literary treat and not just an account of a passive resistant movement that worked. Reading it - plus The Autobiography of Malcolm X - also led me into reading comparative thoughts about MLK and Malcolm X.

Kusaimamekirai


While this first of Martin Luther King’s books primarily deals with the details of the Montgomery bus boycott, which he helped lead and later thrust him into the national spotlight, it also has a variety of instantly recognizable themes that would be a feature of King’s public life. From economic inequality, systemic racism, love and compassion for your oppressor while never passively accepting oppression, this book is an early marker of the man King would become over the rest of his all too short life.
There were so many passages here that if you substituted the words “bus boycott” for “police brutality”, you would feel as if this book was written in 2020 instead of the 1950’s. It’s a sobering fact in that for as far as we have come as a nation (and we shouldn’t lose sight of that despite the progress that remains to be made) we seem to have so far to go. That I nod my head in acknowledgement when King in 1955 writes that Black Americans fo not feel safe in a society that seeks to deny their very humanity, or that organized religion remains by and large silent on matters of racial injustice, seems to me, infinitely sad. I relate to everything King writes here because it is still very much a part of the world I live in now.
The only quibble I have with this book, and it is a minor one, is that King is not entirely truthful about the origins of the bus boycott. He mentions the teenager who refused to relinquish her seat months before Rosa Parks did, but omits the fact that civil rights workers and the NCAAP at the time considered her unfit to be the test case for overturning segregated busing due to her being pregnant at the time.
King further denies that Rosa Parks was anything but a tired woman who simply didn’t want to stand up.
History unfortunately tells us that this isn’t exactly true. Parks was quite active in the NCAAP at the time and records seem to indicate that she was seen as a good person to put forward in a legal case going forward. There is nothing wrong with Parks being active in civil rights at the time, and it is quite likely that she was in fact tired when she got on the bus that day. One imagines most black Americans at that time were mentally and physically exhausted living in such a society.
At the risk of making excuses however, perhaps King was sensitive to the charges that he was an “agitator” and that his movement was not always completely organic, so he felt the need to obscure its origins.
I also was a little troubled by the role of women in the movement. While some women certainly seemed to have positions of influence, King frequently cites as the most important role women play, including his wife, as keeping a good home and raising children.
Yes it was the 1950s and King was a Baptist minister. These are two things that didn’t exactly lend themselves to the broadest views of gender equality. While I didn’t enjoy from the perspective of 2020 reading King describe women as he did, it doesn’t detract from the overall importance of the themes of this book and the remarkable accomplishment he achieved.

Grace Mead

I cannot adequately summarize--let alone "review"--this book. But I highly recommend it.

Jessica

This was fascinating. The Civil Rights Movement generally gets only a few pages in one's history book, which means the Montgomery bus boycott is reduced to a sentence or two. Hearing a detailed account of the logistics and all of the challenges along the way made me better appreciate what an undertaking it was. It's amazing that MLK Jr. survived the entire year of the boycott — he received constant death threats, his house was bombed once (and there was a failed second attempt), and he genuinely had to decide whether he was foolishly putting himself and his family in danger by continuing to be involved. Every aspect of their planning was challenged legally, from the willingness of the black taxi drivers to take the same fare as the buses (they were required to take a higher minimum fare), to the "unauthorized" carpools organized in support of the boycott, to the legality of the boycott itself under an existing anti-boycott law.

What's maybe most interesting to me is that the boycott ended not because it was hurting the bus company financially to the point that they agreed to integrate the buses, but because the organizers of the boycott also filed a lawsuit that eventually led to bus segregation being ruled unconstitutional. This raises the question of whether the year-long boycott with all of its challenges was, in the long run, actually necessary. That is probably a question for another book, but I couldn't help but wonder that once I learned how things actually shook out in the end.

I also didn't know that the organizers of the boycott never asked for fully integrated buses; instead, they asked that whites fill available seats starting from the front and "Negros" from the back until all seats were taken. This would have been an improvement over the current system, where there were strictly delineated sections so that black passengers sometimes had to stand over empty seats in the "white" section. However, the bus company refused this seemingly minor change, with the end result that they were eventually forced to fully integrate the buses by the court decision.

Of course, this book is not just a history of the boycott, though those were the parts I found most interesting. It's also a treatise on non-violence, carefully folded into a message intended to make the author and his fellow organizers seem as sympathetic as possible to whites and others outside the region. King lays out why he thinks non-violence is the not only the most effective way to create change but also the only correct moral path for Christians. Most of his explanations are couched in Christian language, I think both because of his background as a minister and because he judged that appealing to his fellow Christians through their faith would be the most effective way to bring them to his side. Even if King was careful about which facts he included and which he excluded to cast himself and others in the most favorite light possible, I still found his arguments about non-violence to be compelling.

There are definitely times where the line between promoting non-violence and promoting respectability politics is very blurry, and I do not feel qualified as an outsider to the black community to determine what falls on which side. (There is a section at the end, though, that pretty clearly veers into respectability politics, asking black people to practice good hygiene and not be too loud and boisterous so as not to be viewed poorly by whites.) King's views on women are also very indicative of the times when he says that women's working to support their family "does violence against motherhood" or some such thing. That didn't necessarily take away from the book for me because, hey, it's 1957, but just be aware going in that there's a whole section at the end that stretches far beyond King's beliefs on non-violence in relation to civil rights.

Many of King's most famous quotations are in this book. (Perhaps they show up elsewhere too, but there were a lot of them here.) It's not a terribly long read, and it provides valuable context for a part of history that is just a blip in our education for most of us, so I definitely recommend the read. I particularly liked the audiobook narrator, who did his best to emulate King's voice so that you feel like he is speaking to you himself, which was very powerful.

Marissa Morrison

The excellence of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s writing--his vocabulary, the cadence, the way he exposes injustice after injustice without ever ranting angrily--makes this book a delight to read.

Rosa Parks was not sitting at the front of the bus at the time of her arrest. She was in the black section but was expected to get up and stand when a white man stepped onto the bus and found the white section full. At that time, black people had to step onto the bus through the front door to pay their dimes, and then walk around outside to the back door. It was not unheard of for the bus driver to forget about the person walking to the back door and take off before he or she made it into the bus.

On the first day of the boycott, MLK and his wife excitedly looked out their window to the bus stop and were overjoyed to see no blacks on the first three buses of the day. Throughout Montgomery, black people congregated at bus stops to cheer whenever they saw empty buses go by.

The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was the organization of black community leaders that was hastily established to manage the boycott, had three demands: (1) courteous treatment by bus operators, (2) both blacks and whites to be served on a first-come, first-served basis, with whites filling seats starting at the front and blacks filling seats starting at the back (!!!), and (3) that black bus drivers be assigned to bus routes in black neighborhoods.

Bus riders were 75 percent black.

City officials put together their own committee to work out a solution to the boycott and invited MIA representatives to take part. The committee was mostly made up of staunch segregationists who felt the boycott was illegal and unjustified, and just wanted the blacks to back down. After MLK became (justifiably) angry during a committee meeting, he called a white representative to apologize.

There were a few black-owned taxi services in Montgomery. At the start of the boycott, the black taxi companies agreed to lower their fares and charge just 10 cents per ride (matching the bus fare). The police commissioner put a stop to that, telling the taxi companies that lowering the fares was illegal. Then the MIA put together a network of volunteer drivers. The pickups for domestic workers in white residential neighborhoods were initially hard to plan, since no one was familiar with driving through those neighborhoods.

Negro drivers in the car pool were stopped by police to verify their licences, insurance and place of work. Some were ticketed for imaginary traffic violations. Insurance carriers canceled the black drivers' coverage (but they got new policies through Lloyd's of London).

MLK was tailed by a cop on a motorcycle while driving a car full of boycotters. As soon as his passengers exited, he was arrested on the charge of driving 5 miles over the limit and spent the night in jail.

In spite of his arrests, having his house bombed twice, and being disappointed time after time by unfair actions from city representatives and the judicial system, MLK always urged people to remain peaceful. He didn't advocate passivity, but demonstrating through love that their cause was just in order to change opponents' minds and hearts. That loving nonviolence is expressed in the MIA's document "Integrated Bus Suggestions," which advised blacks on how to behave on newly-integrated buses. An equally astonishing historical document is the city commissioner's statement following the court-ordered end of bus segregation: "The City Commission, and we know our people are with us in this determination, will not yield one inch, but will do all in its power to oppose the integration of the Negro race with the white race in Montgomery, and will forever stand like a rock against social equality, inter-marriage, and mixing of the races under God's creation and plan."

Barry

A powerful and eloquent witness showing how self-sacrificing love can change hearts filled with hate. It’s worth buying the book just to read the chapter, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” (which is also reprinted in “Radical King”) explaining how MLK came to believe in the theory of nonviolent resistance. The list of books that should be required reading for students keeps getting longer...

Ariadne Oliver

This book gave me a good overview of the Montgomery bus boycott and a solid introduction to the basic concepts of nonviolent resistance. I especially enjoyed the bits where King talked about his philosophical and theological influences. It was clearly written and very accessible.

Topics