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Authors: Troy Jackson

Becoming King

BOOK: Becoming King
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Martin Luther King Jr.
and the Making of
a National Leader



Copyright © 2008 by The University Press of Kentucky

Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth, serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University. All rights reserved.

Editorial and Sales Offices:
The University Press of Kentucky 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008

12 11 10 09 08 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Jackson, Troy, 1968–

Becoming King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the making of a national leader / Troy Jackson.

    p. cm. — (Civil rights and the struggle for Black equality in the twentieth century)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8131-2520-6 (hardcover: alk. paper)

ISBN 978-0-8131-7317-7 (ebook)

1. King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929–1968. 2. African American civil rights workers—Biography. 3. Baptists—United States—Clergy—Biography. 4. African Americans—Civil rights—Alabama—Montgomery—History—20th century. 5. Montgomery (Ala.)—Race relations. 6. Segregation in transportation—Alabama—Montgomery—History—20th century. I. Title.

E185.97.K5J343 2008


[B]        2008025041

This book is printed on acid-free recycled paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.

Manufactured in the United States of America.



Steven F. Lawson, Rutgers University
Cynthia Griggs Fleming, University of Tennessee


Anthony Badger, Sidney Sussex College
S. Jonathan Bass, Samford University
Clayborne Carson, Stanford University
Dan T. Carter, University of South Carolina
William Chafe, Duke University
John D’Emilio, University of Illinois, Chicago
Jack E. Davis, University of Florida
Dennis Dickerson, Vanderbilt University
John Dittmer, DePauw University
Adam Fairclough, University of East Anglia
Catherine Fosl, University of Louisville
Ray Gavins, Duke University
Paula J. Giddings, Smith College
Wanda Hendricks, University of South Carolina
Darlene Clark Hine, Michigan State University
Chana Kai Lee, University of Georgia
Kathryn Nasstrom, University of San Francisco
Charles Payne, Duke University
Merline Pitre, Texas Southern University
Robert Pratt, University of Georgia
John Salmond, La Trobe University
Cleve Sellers, University of South Carolina
Harvard Sitkoff, University of New Hampshire
J. Mills Thornton, University of Michigan
Timothy Tyson, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Brian Ward, University of Florida

For Amanda, Jacob, Emma, and Ellie


This book reflects the valuable suggestions and recommendations of many scholars and readers. Dr. Gerald Smith’s knowledge of the field helped me clearly define the scope of the work. Dr. Smith also provided detailed feedback on the entire manuscript at several points during the writing process. Many other professors from the University of Kentucky provided helpful reflections and raised important questions that helped enhance this work, including Dr. Kathi Kern, Dr. Ronald Eller, Dr. Philip Harling, Dr. Eric Christiansen, and Dr. Armando J. Prats. Lexington Theological Seminary’s Dr. Jimmy L. Kirby also provided useful feedback.

Other scholars also contributed to this work, including Dr. Clayborne Carson, senior editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, who inspired me to take on a project that incorporated the work I had done as an editor with the King Papers Project. Dr. Carson and his wife, Susan Carson, also provided wonderful hospitality during research trips to Stanford University. Other editors with the project, including Dr. Kieran Taylor and Dr. Sue Englander, provided helpful suggestions. I am honored that the King scholar Dr. Keith Miller read the entire manuscript and offered helpful suggestions and encouragement. Theologian Dr. Curtis DeYoung of Bethel University also provided helpful feedback. Others who read and commented on the work include Brandie Atkins, Aaron Cowan, Rob Gioelli, Emily Gioelli, Les Stoneham, and Jeff Suess. Thanks to Susan Brady for her very diligent editorial work on this manuscript, and for her many helpful suggestions.

I am thankful for the support of University Christian Church, where I serve as pastor. The congregation has encouraged my academic pursuits and provided a sabbatical that allowed me to complete the bulk of my research.

My family has been supportive throughout. My wife, Amanda, has encouraged my educational pursuits throughout our marriage. This manuscript
would not have been completed without Amanda’s patience and perseverance. My children, Jacob, Emma, and Ellie, helped me keep my priorities in order during the writing process. My parents, Robert and Mary Jackson, encouraged my academic pursuits from an early age. Thank you to my entire family for your love and support through the years.


What if Martin Luther King Jr. had never accepted the call to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery? Would he have become a famed civil rights leader? Would the bus boycott movement have succeeded? How was the subsequent course of American history altered by the contingencies that brought together King and the Montgomery movement?

Although it may be difficult for those who see King as a Great Man and national icon to imagine contemporary America without taking into account his historical impact, Troy Jackson allows us to understand the evolution of King’s leadership within a sustained protest movement initiated by others. Rather than diminishing King’s historical significance, Jackson’s revealing, insightful account of the Montgomery bus boycott invites a deeper understanding of the many unexpected and profound ways that movement transformed King as well as other participants. Jackson points out that King himself was aware of his limitations and the accidental nature of his sudden fame. Even as he rose to international prominence as spokesperson for the boycott, King often cautioned against the tendency of others to inflate his importance. “Help me, O God, to see that I’m just a symbol of a movement,” he pleaded in a sermon delivered after the successful end of the boycott. “Help me to realize that I’m where I am because of the forces of history and because of the fifty thousand Negroes of Alabama who will never get their names in the papers and in the headline. O God, help me to see that where I stand today, I stand because others helped me to stand there and because the forces of history projected me there. And this moment would have come in history even if M. L. King had never been born.” He added, “Because if I don’t see that, I will become the biggest fool in America.”

Troy Jackson was a colleague of mine in the long-term effort to publish a definitive edition of
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
and his
Becoming King
builds on vast documentation that the King Papers Project has assembled since 1985, when Coretta Scott King named me to direct the project. The hundreds of thousands of documents that the project’s staff examined in hundreds of archives and personal collections have illuminated not only King’s life but also the lives of thousands of individuals who affected King’s life and were affected by him. The third volume of
The Papers
focused on the Montgomery bus boycott, but Jackson also makes effective use of the original research he contributed to volume 6,
Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1958–March 1963,
which traces the development of King’s religious ideas. The latter volume brought together many of King’s student papers from Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University with a treasure trove of materials from the files that King used to prepare the sermons he delivered at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and other places. These sermonic materials, which remained in the basement of King’s Atlanta home for three decades after his death, provided a new window into the experiences that shaped King before his arrival in Montgomery. They also gave Jackson a sensitive understanding of how King’s experiences during the boycott reshaped his identity as a social gospel minister. Jackson’s years of immersion in King’s papers, his background as a clergyman, and his years of in-depth research regarding the Montgomery boycott movement allow readers of
Becoming King
to comprehend the complexity and imaginative possibilities of religious biography converging with social history.

Although Jackson’s study provides ample evidence to support the conviction of many of Montgomery’s black residents that their movement “made” King into the leader capable of all he would later accomplish, the interaction of the man and the movement was by no means one-sided. King arrived in Montgomery with a wealth of experiences and intellectual exposure that served him well once Rosa Parks suddenly changed the course of his life. After Parks’s arrest on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, King was at first reluctant to assume a leading role in the boycott movement, having rejected previous entreaties to seek the presidency of the local NAACP branch. Yet Jackson shows that he was singularly well prepared to offer a kind of leadership that helped transform a local movement with limited goals—such as more polite enforcement of segregation rules—into a movement
with far-reaching implications for race relations in the United States and throughout the world. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) had numerous other leaders capable of mobilizing and sustaining a mass movement, and King was not being overly modest in asserting that the boycott would have happened even if he had never lived. But King’s presence made a major difference in determining how the boycott would be seen by those who supported or opposed it and by those who would later contemplate its significance.

BOOK: Becoming King
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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