The Montgomery Bus Boycott speech is one of the first major addresses of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King spoke to nearly 5,000 people at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery on December 5, 1955, just four days after Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus. That arrest led to the first major civil rights campaign in the Deep South in half a century.
The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed on December 5, 1955 by Black ministers and community leaders in Montgomery, Alabama.
The first mass meeting of the MIA attracted several thousand people to the spacious Holt Street Baptist Church, in a Black working-class section of Montgomery. Both the sanctuary and the basement auditorium were filled well before the proceedings began, and an audience outside listened via loudspeakers. In addition to reporters, photographers, and two television crews, Black leaders from other Alabama cities such as Birmingham, Mobile, and Tuscaloosa were among those in attendance. The meeting opened with two hymns, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,’ a prayer by Rev. W.F. Alford, and a scripture reading (Psalm 34) by Rev. U.J. Fields.
King then delivered an address that he had quickly composed before the meeting. He later recalled the questions in his mind as he considered what to say: “How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?”
In his speech, King described the mistreatment of Black bus passengers and the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks, and then justified the nonviolent protest by appealing to African American Christian faith in love and justice and the American democratic tradition of legal protest.
A quiet pause followed King’s address, then great applause. Rev. Edgar N. French of the Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church introduced Rosa Parks and Fred Daniel, a student at Alabama State College who had been arrested that morning on a disorderly conduct charge (later dismissed) for allegedly preventing a woman from getting on a bus. Rev. Abernathy read the resolutions that he, King, and others on the resolution committee had drafted. The assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor, resolving “to refrain from riding buses until some arrangement has been worked out” with the bus company. King appealed for funds, then left to speak at a YMCA fathers and sons banquet.
The following is an excerpt from King’s speech:
“We are here, we are here this evening because we’re tired now. And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.
“And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation we couldn’t do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right. My friends, don’t let anybody make us feel that we are to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or with the White Citizens Council. There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no White persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and lynched for not cooperating. There will be nobody amid, among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist. My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city.
“And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”