"I have begun the struggle and I can't turn back. I have reached the point of no return." -- Martin Luther King Jr.
The white leadership had done everything possible to stem the boycott of their segregated bus system by the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama. Inevitably, the city leaders resorted to what had always worked in the past: the use of police power.
The date was January 26, 1956. It was in the afternoon, and the young minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was on his way home with two fellow church members. The acknowledged leader of the highly controversial boycott, he was put on notice to follow the traffic laws meticulously. There was no reason to make himself an easy target for arrest. But, as fate would have it, the police targeted the young minister, and he was arrested: "Get out King; you are under arrest for speeding 30 miles an hour in a 25-mile zone."
Thus begins Martin Luther King Jr.'s journey toward jail. The moment of truth had arrived for the young minister. Warned that he could be made to disappear by the authorities, fear began to grip King. As he writes in his book Stride Toward Freedom (1958):
As we drove off, presumably to the city jail, a feeling of panic began to come over me. I had always had the impression that the jail was in the downtown section of Montgomery. Yet after riding for a while I noticed that we were going in a different direction. The more we rode the farther we were from the center of town. In a few minutes we turned into a dark and dingy street that I had never seen and headed under a desolate old bridge. By this time I was convinced that these men were carrying me to some faraway spot to dump me off. "But this couldn't be," I said to myself. "These men are officers of the law." Then I began to wonder whether they were driving me out to some waiting mob, planning to use the excuse later on that they had been overpowered. I found myself trembling within and without. Silently, I asked God to give me the strength to endure whatever came.
This was at the height of segregation in the American system. It was a time when blacks, if they got out of line, at a minimum faced jail time. Only a month earlier, Rosa Parks, a seamstress, had refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. This violation of the segregation law brought a swift arrest.
But now it was King who was perceived as the troublemaker and, more importantly, the head of a burgeoning movement. Cut off the head and the movement dies. Understanding this, King began to panic as his ride with the police continued:
By this time we were passing under the bridge. I was sure now that I was going to meet my fateful hour on the other side. But as I looked up I noticed a glaring light in the distance, and soon I saw the words "Montgomery City Jail." I was so relieved that it was some time before I realized the irony of my position: going to jail at that moment seemed like going to some safe haven!
As the jail doors slammed shut behind King, he felt a strong inner peace: "For the moment strange gusts of emotion swept through me like cold winds on an open prairie. For the first time in my life I had been thrown behind bars."
Soon King's bail was posted and King was free to leave. But King's rendezvous with jail cells was just beginning. More importantly, the movement that began in Montgomery was moving beyond state borders. A nationwide movement with a capital M was underway. This made King even more of a target.
Several weeks later, King happened to be in Nashville giving a lecture when he learned that he and several others had been indicted by a grand jury for violating Montgomery's segregation laws. He immediately booked a flight home, stopping over to see his father in Atlanta. Martin Luther King Sr. recognized that a new threat was upon them. No longer was jail time the thing to fear. It was death. "My father, so unafraid for himself," writes King, "had fallen into a constant state of terror for me and my family."
Earlier, King's home in Montgomery had been bombed and the police were watching his every move. After the bombing, King's mother had taken to bed under doctor's orders. King's father brought some of Atlanta's leading citizens into his home to speak with his son about the dangers of returning to Montgomery. But King knew that courage in the face of tyranny is often all that the oppressed have at their disposal. It was time, as King said, to take a stand. As he told those assembled:
My friends and associates are being arrested. It would be the height of cowardice for me to stay away. I would rather be in jail ten years than desert my people now. I have begun the struggle, and I can't turn back. I have reached the point of no return.
Upon arrival in Montgomery, King headed for the jailhouse only to discover that the others indicted with him had the day before surrendered for arrest. "A once fear-ridden people had been transformed. Those who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom."
Against incredible odds and without a shot being fired by the blacks of Montgomery, they had won the right to be treated equally on the city's buses. Before long, the movement would grow to amazing proportions, compelling a government that had previously refused to hear their pleas to take notice and heed their demands. These brave people would eventually transform the face of America, led by a man who believed in nonviolent resistance to government oppression -- a man who believed that governments must listen to and heed our demands -- a man who would have turned 82 on January 15 had he not been gunned down in his prime by an assassin's bullet.
Yet while King was with us for only a short time, his legacy has been far-reaching. Indeed, one of the most important and timely lessons he imparted was that when government fails to listen, then it is within our power as a free people to press for change through peaceful, nonviolent resistance.