SATURDAY READING: The Modern Prophetic Acts Of Rosa Parks And Martin Luther King, Jr. by Randall K. Bush

The Modern Prophetic Acts of Rosa Parks And Martin Luther King, Jr. by Randall K. Bush

From The Possibility of Contemporary Prophetic Acts


In an earlier chapter, a working definition was offered for identifying prophetic acts, calling them deliberate, specific, communicative, interactive acts performed by representatives of faith communities with the intent of interpreting and transforming human perceptions of reality and actions in light of the divine nature and will of God.  Yet, even when guided by this definition, it remains difficult to attribute this quality to contemporary events with any degree of authority.  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and others have been given canonical status as Hebrew prophets; no such authenticating and authoritative mechanism exists for naming contemporary prophets in today’s world.  At this point in the discussion, it is appropriate to move from the realm of theory into that of concrete praxis.  If the preliminary conclusion is that prophetic acts are possible today, it will be helpful to explore a few twentieth-century events that could reasonably be designated as such.  The two events to be examined now are the 1955 historic refusal of Rosa Parks to vacate her seat on a Montgomery city bus, and the 1963 arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his subsequent composition of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Both are recent enough to be applicable to the twenty-first-century context, while being distant enough to allow for a degree of historical perspective and editorial hindsight when describing them.

In examining these events, a fourfold process will be followed.  First, a brief description of how the incident is commonly remembered will be offered.  Second, the event will be compared and contrasted with an earlier (and at least implicitly related) historical incident, so that precedence can be explored.  Third, a full exposition of the event will be given, including correctives to the commonly-held versions of the incident and elaboration of the motives and influences involved in each case.  Fourth, an evaluation will be given concerning the appropriateness of considering these two events to be authentic prophetic acts.  It remains the hope that this entire discussion will assist in reclaiming the importance of prophetism as something with continued relevance for both contemporary Christian theology and life in postmodern society.

The Day Rosa Parks Refused to Move

The historic event associated with Rosa Parks has been characterized over the years in the following way: On 1 December 1955, a good-hearted, nonpolitical, middle-aged seamstress was simply so tired from working her shift at the Montgomery Fair Department Store that she refused to give up her seat on the bus home from work and accidentally set in motion the Civil Rights movement in America.  Versions of this flawed recounting shaped the earliest accounts of Rosa Parks’s story, especially when the authors were trying to present a sympathetic portrayal of their subject.  This faulty account succeeds in honoring various admirable qualities present in Parks’s story, such as her womanhood, her work ethic, and her physical tiredness after a hard day at her job.  Unfortunately, it downplays the fundamental issue of racial inequality in favor of focusing on the contrast between a tired woman and a belligerent bus driver.  Also, it ignores the mountain of evidence that insists that Rosa Parks should never be characterized simply as a “good-hearted seamstress.”  Any consideration of the prophetic quality of Rosa Parks’s actions must first challenge and correct the lingering cultural myths associated with her historic act that December day in Montgomery, Alabama.

Before launching into a detailed discussion of Parks’s 1955 act of civil disobedience, another act of civil disobedience that occurred on another continent twenty-five years prior will be considered first – the 1930 Salt March of Mahatma Gandhi.  The political activity of Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in establishing the category of civil disobedience as an effective means of social change.  His protests and nonviolent methods can be seen as setting the stage for much of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, in that Gandhi’s example provided a general philosophy, specific options for action, and a grounding in religious beliefs that strongly influenced the subsequent American movement for racial and economic justice led by Dr. King and others.

Gandhi’s Salt March can be described a few short sentences.  On 12 March 1930, Gandhi and 78 followers departed by foot from his ashram located outside Ahmedabad.  Their plan was to walk about 240 miles to the coastal city of Dandi, where Gandhi would lead the group in picking up natural sea salt from the coastal beaches.  This simple act intentionally defied the oppressive Salt Laws in India, which were a recurring source of contention and civil unrest because it meant the poor were unfairly taxed at the same rate as the wealthy and the laws protected an unfair government monopoly on a needed commodity.  Gandhi’s march would ultimately spark a national movement of mass civil disobedience that culminated in the transfer of power away from the colonial British government.

The Salt March was characterized by Gandhi as a satyagraha.  This is a Gujarati work meaning “truth-force” that he coined as a way to describe striving nonviolently to the point of sacrifice, as opposed to fighting to attain one’s vision of truth.  When the Indian National Congress met in Lahore in December 1929, Gandhi was given permission to organize some form of massive civil disobedience.  As he considered what course of action to pursue, Gandhi was encouraged by the 1928 success of a tax resistance satyagraha in the nearby district of Bardoli.  It had lasted about five months and forced a reduction in the proposed level of taxes assessed upon land in that region.  Yet when Gandhi first announced that the focus of his campaign would be to protest against the Salt Laws, even his closest supporters were surprised and skeptical.  It is true that Indians had fought for the removal of the Salt Tax for decades, but it was not seen to be as fundamentally oppressive as other laws enforced by the British regime.  Also, since the manufacture of salt predominantly occurred in the coastal region, it was questioned how this particular choice for civil disobedience could ever lead to a nationwide uprising.

Gandhi, however, outlined the various levels of injustice manifest in the Salt Tax.  It was a tax that fell on perhaps “the greatest necessity of life” and the “only condiment of the poor.”  Also, since the law forbids the local manufacture of this natural resource and it costs money to dispose of what is naturally produced, the tax both cripples an important coastal region industry and wastes national capital.  And it was designed to foster an unnecessary dependence on the importation of British salt.  From Gandhi’s perspective, this tax allowed the government to steal the people’s salt and then makes them pay heavily to replace the stolen commodity.

When Gandhi set forth on 12 March 1930 from his ashram, he was 60 years old and the oldest participant in the trek.  The group’s goal was to march about ten miles a day, so the journey itself was not excessively strenuous.  However, it was disciplined in terms of maintaining as much as possible of the daily routine from the ashram, avoiding any hint of luxury or living above the means appropriate for a poor country.  The Salt March regularly attracted crowds numbering into the tens of thousands, not to mention extensive coverage by the global press network.  The British colonial government was indecisive about whether to arrest Gandhi as soon as he began his march.  By not taking this action, they soon discovered they were allowing him to proclaim to the multitudes his message of swaraj (self-rule) amid a public display of disciplined moral conviction that would earn him the title of mahatma (great soul).

The procession reached the sea on the evening of 5 April, but it was decided not to perform any acts of civil disobedience until the next day.  Early on the morning of 6 April, Gandhi and at least 2,000 followers waded into the saltwater to bathe and purify themselves according to Hindu customs.  Then at 6:30 a.m., Gandhi reached down on the shore and picked up some rough sea salt and reportedly said, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”  Almost immediately, large numbers of the Indian populace became involved in acts of civil disobedience.  By some reports, thousands swarmed to the beaches to collect the salt and then sell it in the markets in defiance of the law.  Pickets blocked the entrances to many shops selling British textiles and imported goods.  By the government’s own estimates, by the end of the year, over 60,000 people were imprisoned for acts as seemingly minor as what Gandhi had done that historic morning on the beaches of Dandi.

Although one could consider the Salt March simply a well-orchestrated act of political savvy and populist defiance, it was an event laden with too much symbolic import and religious significance to be considered a purely utilitarian affair.  Gandhi did benefit in the planning this “salt satyagraha” from an earlier march he had led in South Africa in 1913 – his “Great March” from Natal into the Transvaal.  He also had the foresight to plan his route so that it traveled through many of the same villages that had successfully taken part in the recent Bardoli satyagraha.  But what Gandhi accomplished at Dandi was a symbolic act that, in the words of one eyewitness, “fired the imagination of the Indian masses and set them on a course the Mahatma was confident would lead to independence before he died.”

Gandhi intentionally chose 6 April as the day of his civil disobedience because it was the first day of “National Week,” a commemorative period dating back to 1919 when Gandhi first led a national hartal (work stoppage) against the British government.  He also traveled the entire Salt March with the symbols of a tilak (colored decorative spot indicating membership in a religious caste) on his forehead, a garland of khadi (domestic hand-spun cloth) on his shoulders, and a walking tick in his hand.  Some scholars have associated these three items with the virtues of devotion, simplicity, and strength.  No small detail was overlooked for symbolic potential.  For example, when Gandhi wrote a letter to Lord Irwin shortly before starting out on the march, he had a British subject hand-deliver the note to Irwin.  In Gandhi’s own words, “I am having [this letter] specially delivered by a young English friend who believes in the Indian cause and is a full believer in nonviolence and whom Providence seems to have sent to me, as it were, for the very purpose.”

Along with the explicit symbols associated with the Salt March, there were religious and scriptural overtones linked with this entire event.  From the traditions of Hinduism, songs were chosen that called to mind the legends of Rama going forth to conquer Sri Lanka.  Other witnesses compared Gandhi’s journey to Buddha’s march of renunciation in search of enlightenment.  Intriguingly, the most common religious allusions made by Gandhi were to elements of the Christian religious tradition.  During one speech about halfway through the march, Ganchi identified India’s starving millions as the “salt of the earth,” immediately calling to mind Jesus’s use of the same phrase in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:13).  To some observers, the procession itself took on characteristics associated with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, including townspeople tossing leaves and flower petals on the roads where Gandhi marched.  Lastly, one eyewitness offered a mixed scriptural metaphor to describe the events of 12 May 1930, when Gandhi was finally arrested by the authorities: “At the dead of night, like thieves they came, to steal him away.  For, ‘when they sought to lay hold of him, they feared the multitudes, because they took him for a prophet.'”  The reference is primarily to the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but it has been coupled with the biblical language of “thieves in the night,” (1 Thessalonians 5:2; Matthew 24:43).  Ultimately one of the reasons why Lord Irwin hesitated to arrest Gandhi was because “the whole of Gandhi’s march had been enveloped in a religious atmosphere” and he perceived Gandhi to be a genuine man of God.

Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March was an act that can be interpreted from a wide range of perspectives.  But it had a fundamental religious quality to it, and Gandhi himself referred to it as a sacred pilgrimage.  The explicit choices Gandhi made in planning and implementing this march, and the impact his conceivably prophetic act had on both Indian and American history, provide excellent points of reference as we now turn our attention again to Rosa Parks’s 1955 act of civil disobedience.

A key question associated with Rosa Parks pointedly asks why she refused to surrender her bus seat that day.  The common explanation given is that she was tired.  But in responding to that suggestion, Parks adamantly insists her tiredness was not physical in nature.

People have said over the years that the reason I did not give up my seat was because I was tired.  I did not think of being physically tired.  My feet were not hurting.  I was tired in a different way.  I was tired of seeing so many men treated as boys and not called by their proper names of titles.  I was tired of seeing children and women mistreated and disrespected because of the color of their skin.  I was tired of Jim Crow laws, of legally enforced racial segregation. (Dear Mrs. Parks)

In contrast to any simplistic interpretation of Rosa Park’s refusal to move, at least eighteen different motivating factors can be given that possibly played a part in the events of that day.  They will not be briefly described under the categories of political, social, and personal influences.  Hopefully through this in-depth examination of Parks’s 1955 event, it will be easier to identify and confirm those qualities that reflect an authentic, contemporary prophetic act.

Historical-Political Influences

An initial historical influence on Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience was the impact Brown v. Board of Education had upon all people striving to remove the unfair laws of segregation.  This landmark Supreme Court ruling was handed down on 17 May 1954, rejecting the long-held belief that “separate but equal” educational programs were constitutional.  It prompted a strong, negative backlash among many white southerners; however, it gave hope and encouragement to those suffering under racist and prejudicial laws, such as the laws requiring segregated bus service.

A second historical influence occurred about fifteen months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, when an all-white jury acquitted two men accused of the brutal murder of Emmett Till.  On 13 August 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old youth from Chicago, was dared to say, “Bye, baby,” to a white shopkeeper in Moneys, Mississippi.  He was later reportedly murdered by the woman’s husband and a brother-in-law.  His mangled body was found with multiple injuries, including a crushed skull, an eye gouged out, a bullet in the brain, and a seventy-five pound weight tied with barbed wire to his neck.  Till’s mother demanded an open casket funeral in Chicago, which not only led to photographs of Till’s desecrated face being printed in the media but also it brought national and international criticism of Mississippi’s segregationist society.  Rosa Parks was well aware of the details of this brutal event.  Indeed, the name, “Emmett Till,” became a rallying cry for justice and change throughout the South.

Another influence involves the activity of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery.  At first glance, this seems to have been only an indirect influence since Rosa Parks was not a member of that group.  However the WPC had been in existence wince 1946 with its primary focus being the removal of laws of segregation, especially as it involved the bus system.  They had been entertaining the idea of a bus boycott for years and had begun shaping concrete plans a few months before the Parks’s incident.

Further exploration of the links between Rosa Parks and the WPC reveal other important connections.  For example, Jo Ann Robinson was the president of the WPC and a professor at Alabama State College in Montgomery.  She would take the initiative in the hours immediately after Parks’s arrest to prepare flyers for the entire community calling for an immediate bus boycott.  She also was a good friend with attorney Fred Gray and the local NAACP president, Mr. E. D. Nixon.  By coincidence, on that 1 December day, Rosa Parks had spent her morning coffee break speaking with the president of Alabama State University, H. Council Trenholm, trying to arrange an NAACP workshop on campus later that week, and then she had spent her lunch hour helping out in Attorney Fred Gray’s office.  Given such mutual interests of Rosa Parks and the WPC, with its membership of 300 women strongly committed to goals of integration, it would seem likely that Parks was aware of, and at least indirectly influenced by, some of the work of Jo Ann Robinson’s group.

A fourth historical influence is connected with the stories of the two other African American women who, in the months prior to Rosa Parks’s incident, were arrested for failing ot move from their seats when challenged to do so by white bus drivers.  People had been fined or arrested for challenging the Montgomery bus segregation laws as far back as the years immediately following World War II, including the 1952 incident involving a man named Brooks, who was reportedly shot and killed by police as he got off a bus after exchanging heated words with the driver.  On 2 March 1955, a fifteen-year-old high school student named Claudette Colvin was told to move from her seat in the non-reserved section of the bus, simply to accommodate white passengers with no seat.  Colvin refused, so the driver tracked down a policeman and had her arrested on the spot.  When Colvin refused to leave the bus quietly, she was forcibly handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car to be charged on several counts.  In the end, because she was a minor, Colvin was found guilty of violating state laws, made to pay a fine, and remanded to her parents’ care.

The second incident involved an eighteen-year-old girl named Louise Smith, who was arrested for failing to vacate her bus seat.  She was sitting in the appropriate, non-reserved section, but was fined for not obeying the bus driver’s request that she move farther back in the bus.  NAACP was aware of her case but, for reasons of their own, did not pursue it as a test case for challenging the segregation laws.   These incidents proved to be “trial runs” for envisioning how a single event might precipitate an organized community response aimed at removing the unjust laws of segregations.

A fifth historical influence comes from the convergence of Parks’s involvement with the Montgomery NAACP and the Circuit Court of Appeals ruling of July 1955 that declared segregated bus seating to be unconstitutional.  Some have wondered whether Rosa Parks was prompted by the NAACP local leadership to initiate action against the bus company.  However, it is clear from Parks’s own comments that such was not the case.  “People have asked me if it occurred to me then that I could be the test case the NAACP had been looking for.  I did not think about that at all.  In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus.  But I chose to remain.”

It must be conceded, though, that Parks’s position as the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and her friendship with chapter president E. D. Nixon significantly affected her.  When she became a full member at a NAACP meeting in December 1943, the local leadership quickly elected her as secretary of the chapter, potentially because she was the only woman present.  One of her principal duties was cataloging the cases of discrimination and racial violence in their community.  This included many instances of lynching, rape, flogging, and unsolved murders.  As Parks herself put it, “the more I learned about these incidents, the more I felt I could no longer passively sit by and accept the Jim Crow laws.  A better day had to come.”  Also, when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July 1955 that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional, considering ways to desegregate the Montgomery buses became an important topic discussed at NAACP meetings at which Parks took all the minutes.

A final political-historical influence that can be mentioned here is the crucial impact of Parks’s attendance at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.  Founded by Myles Horton, the Highlander Folk School strove to gather together integrated groups of people committed to social activism and educational reform.  In the summer of 1955, a two-week workshop was held on “Radical Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.”  Horton called Virginia Foster Durr, about whom more will be said later, to see if she knew of a black Montgomery citizen that might be interested in attending this program.  She quickly recommended Rosa Parks and even arranged to find a sponsor to cover her transportation costs.

Parks agreed to attend this workshop, even over the objections of her husband and despite the fact that it required her to take a leave of absence from her employer.  She later wrote that it was one of the few experiences of her life when skin color no longer mattered and she did not feel hostility from white people.  The sense of genuine community and social activism that Parks experienced at Highlander left a strong impression upon her, which she keenly felt once she had to leave that setting and return back home to her job and daily life in segregated Montgomery.

One additional detail deserves to be noted.  Parks’s biographer, Douglas Brinkley, read through the notes that Parks took while attending the Highlander workshops.  There was one particular seminar related to school desegregation that included both informational material and an action guide on how to disseminate the message of integration.  At one point, Parks asked herself the following question: “To whom would action be taken toward in [a] first step to integrate?”  Her response was the churches.  As will be later demonstrated, amid the various influences and factors shaping Rosa Parks’s decision not to vacate her bus seat in December 1955, a foundational component undergirding every aspect of her choice was her church-based, Christian faith.

Social and Family Influences

Every person is influenced by the people in her or his life.  These influences may be subtle or unconscious, but the priorities modeled by the people we respect (or fear) guide the life choices we make.  Rosa Parks often spoke about the women and men she admired and whose example she sought to emulate.  All of these people played a supporting role in the 1955 drama on the Montgomery city bus.

An initial social influence was Rosa Parks’s friendship with Virginia and Clifford Durr.  Both the Durrs were important white citizens of Montgomery.  Clifford was a bookish legal expert and his wife, Virginia, was a vocal activist for civil rights.  Through a mutual friend, Virginia Durr was introduced to Parks, who soon discovered that she was an excellent seamstress and so she hired her to do alterations on family dresses.  Before long the two women spent lots of time together, talking on the Durr’s front porch and even joining together in an integrated prayer group.  According to Parks’s biography, Virginia Durr was a mentor to Rosa Parks and one of the closest female friends she had in Montgomery.

A second social influence on Rosa Parks was her inspirational encounter in 1955 with Septima Clark.  A former pupil of W. E. B. DuBois, Clark worked with Myles Horton as director of the workshops at the Highlander Folk School.  She was a born activist and strong proponent of integration across American society.  The Highlander experience of interracial camaraderie, coupled with studying with a woman of such conviction as Septima Clark, had a definite impact on Parks’s worldview and commitment to social justice.

A further social influence on Rosa Parks was her friendship with and admiration for E. D. Nixon, the leader of the local branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the founders of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.  Nixon, though largely uneducated, was an outspoken proponent of civil rights.  His work as a railroad porter allowed him regularly to visit the integrated northern cities, which only toughened his resolve to end segregation in the southern cities.  Parks had known Nixon since 1943, working closely with him as secretary of the local NAACP chapter and as an adviser for the NAACP Youth Council.  She even followed him as his executive secretary when he was elected president of the Progressive Democratic Association of Montgomery; and, as always, she worked for Nixon without compensation.  Although Parks would use her one telephone call from jail to speak with her husband and mother at home, it would be Nixon who would arrange for her bail and who, along with Clifford and Virginia Durr, would be the first ones to meet her when she was later released.

In suggesting a fourth influence on Rosa Parks’s life and her historic act of civil disobedience, the focus now will shift from friends and colleagues to members of her immediate family, beginning with her brother Sylvester.  One book for young readers focuses on Parks’s early years and mentions how protective she was of her younger brother, Sylvester.   But it was when Sylvester returned from military service in World War II that the hypocrisy and prejudice prevalent in their home community became hard for both siblings to bear.  It was not uncommon for black soldiers, who had fought bravely in defense of the United States, to return home to a nation that considered them “uppity” and “troublemakers” if they wore their uniforms in public.  As Rosa Parks recalled, “Whites felt that things should remain as they had always been and that the black veterans were getting too sassy.  My brother was one who could not take that kind of treatment anymore.”  Shortly after returning to America in late 1945, Sylvester packed up his wife and two children and moved to Detroit, where he took a job at Chrysler factory.  The yoke of segregation thus caused some of Parks’s closest relatives to flee her home town.

An additional influence of Parks was the courage she witnessed in her mother, Leona McCauley, and her maternal grandparents.  In her book, Quiet Strength, she said emphatically that her family, and the values they taught her, gave her a strong sense of who she was.  Parks spoke proudly of her mother’s strong moral determination, commitment to education, and emphasis on believing in oneself even while living under oppressive, racist conditions.  She then went on to mention how her grandmother, Grandma Rose, was an example of care and love while also being strong-willed and a strict disciplinarian.

But then Parks moves on to the figure of her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, who was someone that she names as a critically influential figure in her life.  Born a slave, Sylvester Edwards was light-skinned and dared to break social taboos like shaking hands with whites and calling them by their first names.  But the cruelty he had personally endured in his life made him quite hostile to whites.  He was adamant that his children or grandchildren never work as domestic servants in white households.  Parks especially remembers how her grandfather used to guard his home with a loaded, double-barreled shotgun, in case members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan chose to attack his family.  At one point, Parks even made these telling remarks: “His memory will always be with me.  While I do not think I inherited his hostility, my mother and I both learned not to let anyone mistreat us.  It was passed down almost in our genes.”

One final family influence to be mentioned here was that of Rosa Parks’s husband, Raymond.  Almost exactly ten years older than Rosa, Raymond was a barber by trade and a charter member of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.  When they were first introduced, Raymond was fixated on bringing about justice for the recently imprisoned Scottsboro boys.  The Scottsboro case occurred in March 1931 and involved the conviction of eight boys by an all-white jury on charges of raping two white prostitutes on a freight train.  The case was in and out of court for six years.  Raymond attended regular meetings of the National Committee to Defend the Scottsboro Boys, even though to do so was to risk being beaten or killed.  It is true that Raymond would later be very hesitant to have his wife’s defiant act become the spark igniting the Montgomery bus boycott, mostly because he feared for her safety.  But in the years prior to December 1955, Raymond’s commitment to civil rights and active involvement in the NAACP was probably the biggest shaping force in Rosa Parks’s evolving spirit of civil disobedience.  To quote her directly, she said, “He was the first man of our race, aside from my grandfather, with whom I actually discussed anything about the racial conditions.  He was the first real activist I ever met.”

Personal Experiences and Character Traits

One difficulty in describing prophetic activity from the biblical era (as opposed to the modern era) is that in the former case, the dynamic of psychological motivation is left largely unexplored.  It is one thing to describe an event in impersonal, historical terms; it can be quite another thing to attempt to characterize the emotional and internal influences active in any specific act of volition.  Yet, in the case of Rosa Parks, one of the most common questions she was asked in the intervening years is, “Why did you do it?”  Her responses, plus comments made by her friends and associates, provide the source material for proposing a number of personal or psychological factors that arguably can be saide to have influenced Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience.

An initial personal influence, and the one that is most commonly mentioned by others, is that she was physically tired after a busy day of work.  This perception has been a part of how people retold Rosa Parks’s story since at least a few years after the incident occurred.  It is mentioned in prominent essays that Parks’s feet were tired from a long day’s work, or that she had decided as an exception to ride the bus home.  In her own writings, Parks has consistently challenged this persistent characterization.  If physical fatigue was a factor in her decision not to surrender her seat, it was at best a remote one.  As she herself wrote, “It is funny to me how people came to believe that the reason that I did not move from my seat was that my feet were tired.  I did not hear this until I moved to Detroit in 1957.  My feet were not tired, but I was tired – tired of unfair treatment.”  It is true that she had worked all day, including a “working lunch” in the office of attorney Fred Gray, and she was anxious to get home to rest for a brief period before leading the regular Thursday evening NAACP Youth Council meeting.  But on that particular day, it was clear that she was burdened by something much weightier than physical weariness.

Another personal influence was the disparity Parks experienced between two different bus systems in her own community.  In 1941, Parks got a job at Maxwell Field, a nearby Army Air Corps base.  On the U.S. military base, she rode on an integrated trolley, often sitting side-by-side with white colleagues and enjoying conversation together.  Once she left the base, however, she was forced to ride on segregated city buses.  Parks considered this discrepancy to be a personal “humiliation” and insists that the Army base experience opened her eyes by showing her an alternative reality to the pervasive, racist policies of Jim Crow laws.

A third personal influence is actually a quality of Rosa Parks that is frequently mentioned by those who knew her well, that is, her steely inner strength.  Gregory Reed, the coauthor of Rosa Parks’s book, Quiet Strength, summarizes her character as being one of “quiet courage, dignity, and determination.”  Virginia Durr commented that what impressed her the most, when she witnessed Parks being released from jail, was how tranquil she remained, “the epitome of grace under pressure.”  And her long-time associate, Elaine Steele, remarked that Parks was a person who was very peaceful but with great power.  “She can very quietly say ‘no’ or “I prefer not’ and you know instinctively that that is the bottom line.  I think that’s the way the bus driver must have felt on that particular day when he asked, ‘Are you going to move?’ and she said, ‘No, I am not.’ He didn’t have to debate the point any further.”

Rosa Parks herself acknowledges the truth behind these perceptions, as shared by others.  She has said, “Perhaps my only ‘secret’ is my attitude toward life.  Because I have such high ideals, I feel strongly when they are violated in the world around me.  I do not like to see people treated in a way I would not want to be treated.  Whenever I see this happening, I do everything in my power to help the cause.”

Along with Parks’s inner strength, a fourth personal influence was her strong sense of pride.  One minor incident points this out.  When Parks accepted the scholarship to attend the Highlander Folk School, she supposedly accepted luggage and a swimsuit from Virginia Durr; however, she disputes this detail in her autobiography.  Durr then responded in her own book, saying, “Rosa Parks is one of the proudest people I’ve ever known in my life.  She hated to admit that she didn’t have a suitcase or bathing suit or money.  It was painful for her.  She was a very proud woman, so all of this had to be accomplished with a great deal of tact, which I am not noted for.”  While learning about self-pride from her mother and grandparents, Parks also gives credit to Miss Alice Winter, one of her schoolteachers at the Montgomery Industrial School.  Parks comments that she learned at Miss White’s school that she was a person with dignity and self-respect, and that she should  not set her sights lower than anybody else just because of her race.

As an offshoot of this strong sense of pride, an additional personal influence was the fact that Rosa Parks had a lingering resentment toward James F. Blake, the bus driver who confronted her on 1 December 1955.  She did not know him personally; she did not even learn his name until her subsequent trial.  But they had already had an unfortunate encounter twelve years prior.  To understand this earlier incident, some of the arcane rules of bus segregation need to be summarized.  Most Montgomery city buses had thirty-six seats in them, with the first ten reserved for whites, the rear ten allocated under the jurisdiction of a pistol-carrying bus driver.  One sad feature of segregation was the habit of many bus drivers to require black passengers to pay for their ticket at the front of the bus, before disembarking and re-boarding at the rear of the bus.  James Blake had a reputation for being especially abusive toward African American women, as well as taking malicious pleasure in  having African American passengers buy their tickets up front, but then pulling away and leaving them stranded before they could re-board at the rear.

One November day in 1943, Rosa Parks boarded a bus through the front door and moved to stand in the aisle in the appropriate section in the rear.  She had done this because there was no way to enter the bus from the rear, since every seat and place in the stairwell and aisle was already full in the back of the bus.  James Blake was the driver that day and demanded that she exit immediately.  When she refused, he told her to get off of “his” bus.  Parks refused to move.  Blake stood up and began pulling on her coat sleeve.  She warned him not to strike her and said that she would leave.  However, she further infuriated Blake by intentionally dropping her purse near the front of the bus and briefly sitting in a “whites only” seat before finally exiting the bus.  For the next dozen years, Parks consciously avoided riding in any bus driven by Blake.  The fact that Blake was the precipitator of the famous incident of 1955 was only possible because Parks neglected to notice who was driving the bus when it stopped to pick up passengers near her place of work.  And her act of civil disobedience was surely influenced by a long-remembered sense of moral outrage felt toward James Blake.

A sixth and, in my opinion, the most important personal influence affecting Rosa Parks’s decision not to move from her bus seat was her deeply rooted, sincere Christian faith.  Invariably when Parks is asked about the events of that day, she uses language that is faith-based and confessional in nature.  A schoolgirl from Detroit later wrote to Parks, asking what gave her the courage to say, “No,” and not move to the back of the bus.  She replied with these two paragraphs:

God has always given me the strength to say what is right.  I did not get on the bus to get arrested; I got on the bus to go home.  Getting arrested was one of the worst days in my life.  It was not a happy experience.  Since I have always been a strong believer in God, I knew that he was with me, and only he could get me through the next step.

I had no idea that history was being made.  I was just tired of giving in.  Somehow, I felt that what I did was right by standing up to that bus driver.  I did not think about the consequences.  I knew that I could have been lynched, manhandled, or beaten when the police came.  I chose not to move, because I was right.  When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of God and my ancestors with me.

According to one biographer, “faith in God was never the question for Rosa Parks; it was the answer.”

By all accounts, Parks was a devoted and faithful member of her church, Saint Paul A.M.E. Church.  She belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal denomination all her life and was proud of the A.M.E. tradition of abolitionism.  Parks insists that she always enjoyed going to worship services and found much comfort and peace while studying the Bible.  In her own words: “My strength has always come from the church.  I have always gained strength from thinking about the bible and from the faith of my family.  Church has always been a place where we can turn to God for rest and encouragement.  It lifts the spirit and helps us to go on.”  This quality of Christian faith expressed in worship, service, and activism was arguably one of the strongest personal influences shaping Rosa Parks’s 1955 act of civil disobedience.

Evaluating the Prophetic Quality of Rosa Parks’s Act

It is now possible to attempt a provisional evaluation of whether Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience should be considered a modern prophetic act.  This question will be approached from three perspectives.  First, her prophetic act will be compared with the fourfold rhetorical paradigm put forth by Kevin Friebel.  Second, it will be asked whether her act has a particular kairos quality to it.  Third, we will examine Parks’s act in light of the paradigmatic examples of ancient Hebrew prophetic activity and the working definition of prophetic activity already presented in this book.

Friebel’s list of traits associated with rhetorical prophetic acts, as presented earlier, insisted that such communicaiton must (1) capture an audience’s attention, (2) be readily comprehended, (3) be able to be remembered and retold, and (4) provide an incentive for an alteration in behaviors or attitudes.  The historical and anecdotal evidence associated with Rosa Parks’s act suggests that it can be evaluate positively in regards to all four of these cagtegories.  The act of refusing to move from her bus seat definitely caught the attention of the bus driver and all the other passengers, both in terms of the nature and quality of Parks’s civil disobedience.  For example, when James Blake threatened Parks with being arrested, her measured response was, “You may do that.”  This identified her not as a passive victim but as an active protester of the bus segregation laws.  That the severity of the act was readily apparent and easily comprehended is seen in how Blake immediately called for two policemen to come and arrest Parks.  According to testimony gathered later, the witnesses to Parks’s self-possessed act sat in stunned, silence recognition that this time the authorities had picked the wrong woman to mess with.  These same witnesses were able to provide accurate descriptions of what transpired that day, enabling a broad retention of the details and facts associated with this event.  Lastly, the widespread reaction to Parks’s arrest, especially among those who personally knew her, was one of anger, frustration, and a renewed commitment to work for change, so that such painful incidents would not happen again in their community.

Is it possible to speak about what Tillich calls a kairos moment occurring on that December day?  In remembering Parks’s historic act, one recurrent question is whether or not it was planned or premeditated.  Douglas Brinkley, Parks’s biographer, answers with a clear, “No.”  As he puts it, a “lifetime’s education in injustice – from her grandfather’s nightly vigils to the murder of Emmett Till – had strengthened her resolve to act when the time came.”  Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed these sentiments in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, when he said that Rosa Parks “was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and the boundless aspirations of generations yet born.  SHe was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny.  She had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist – the spirit of the time.”

Although she never uses the specific term kairos, this sense of the “fullness of time” is present in Parks’s own summary of her action: “God provided me with the strength I needed at the precise time when conditions were ripe for change.”  Knowing that other women had reacted to bus segregation in the same way as she had, but without their actions leading to an effective, enduring bus boycott, Parks came to recognize a kairotic quality to the events associated with her prophetic act that day.

Finally, can comparisons be drawn between Parks’s act of civil disobedience and the biblical examples of prophetism?  Recalling the prophetic acts of Jeremiah surveyed earlier, the first two acts involved specific objects (waistcloth, ceramic flask) that were manipulated in unusual ways to make theological points.  The last two acts involved deeds done in secret (stones of Tahpanhes, scroll thrown into the Euphrates) that gave warnings about possible future consequences that would befall the leadership of foreign powers (Egypt and Babylon).  The middle two incidents, recorded in Jeremiah 27-28 and Jeremiah 32, bear the closest analogy to Rosa Parks’s prophetic act.

On the surface, there appears to be little commonality between Jeremiah’s insistence on continued submission to the yoke of Babylon and Parks’s refusal to submit to continued oppression under the segregation laws of Montgomery.  However, the similarity between them has less to do with the actual act than it does with the concomitant isolation endured by both Jeremiah and Parks.  Jeremiah’s public act stood in stark contrast to the dominant mindset that the Babylonian hegemony should be challenged and, if possible, overthrown.  The king, the ambassadors from other nations, the priests and people of Judah, and the prophet Hananiah himself were all supporters of this political position.  Jeremiah alone came forward, wearing an ox-yoke as a symbol of how God ordained continued submission to Babylonian authority.

Whenever Rosa Parks related the details of her act of defiance, it is clear that she acted contrary to the wishes of the presiding authority (i.e., bus driver, policemen), the empowered audience (i.e., white passengers), and even her own community (i.e., African American passengers).  Parks was one of four passengers in her row on the bus; the other three vacated their seats when told to do so by James Blake.  This effectively isolated Parks as the center of the conflict.  Once she refused to move, many of her peers left the bus or asked for transfers, out of a desire to avoid a confrontation.

Parks’s act was an inconvenience to her entire “audience”: to the bus driver, whose route was disrupted; to the white passengers, whose trip home was delayed; to the policemen, who would have to fill out extensive paperwork over a seemingly insignificant incident; and to the black passengers, of whom some felt they were put at unnecessary risk by one woman’s stubbornness.  Parks has commented how alone she felt on the bus and when later arrested by the police.

There were other people on the bus whom I knew.  But when I was arrested, not one of them came to my defense.  I felt very much alone.  One man who knew me did not even go by my house to tell my husband I had been arrested.  Everyone just went on their way.  In jail I felt even more alone.  For a moment, as I sat in that little room with bars, before I was moved to a cell with two other women, I felt that I had been deserted.

This description could be interpreted as mirroring the isolation felt by the prophet Jeremiah, both in his act of prophetism before King Zedekiah and his time of rebuke following the breaking of his wooden yoke by the prophet Hananiah.

A better analogy between Parks and Jeremiah can be seen by comparing her prophetic act and Jeremiah’s decision to purchase the field in Anathoth.  As has been mentioned, making this land purchase during a time of enemy siege was dangerous and foolhardy.  It created the appearance that Jeremiah was in league with the Babylonians, hoping to retain possession of the land once the invading army conquered Jerusalem.  As such, Jeremiah’s prophetic act was done at great personal risk.  The same could be said of Parks’s prophetic act.  By refusing to move, her widely known reputation as an upright citizen of Montgomery was now at risk of being forever redefined as that of a questionable troublemaker.  In the aftermath of her act, Parks received a barrage of death threats.  She even went against her husband’s wishes by her willingness to become a public figure, enduring his repeated warning, “Rosa, the white folks will kill you.”  Her act led directly to her losing her job and her husband’s resignation from his barber’s job.  Parks also knew that she was endangering her entire family, including her frail mother.  Yet she agreed to make her legal case a means to challenge the status quo with its unjust laws of segregation.

Parks’s act and Jeremiah’s purchase of the Anathoth field are similar in being prophetic acts of hope in times of crisis.  Both involved ordinary activities (buying and selling of land, riding home from work on public transportation) whose “ordinariness” belied the crisis settings at hand (siege of Jerusalem, Montgomery’s laws of segregation).  Buying a field became a means to embody a promise that one day “houses and field and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” (Jeremiah 32:15b).  Similarly, refusing to be coerced to vacate a bus seat became a means to embody a social vision that no longer allowed rules about a person’s skin color to dictate whether a wide range of social services or common courtesies will be offered.  Both acts used a present event to show forth a possible future reality.  And both acts took place out of a foundation of communal faith and religious conviction, including the belief that God would have it be so.

In conclusion, Rosa Parks’s civil disobedience fits the working definition of prophetic acts already outlined.  It was a deliberate and specific nonverbal act, performed by a person actively grounded in a faith community.  It was communicative and interactive, preceded by a sense of divine presence and call, and followed by interpretative acts (i.e., a bus boycott) meant to transform perceptions and practices within human social reality.

Before leaving the story of Rosa Parks, one final moment of prophetic irony deserves to be mentioned.  The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for thirteen months, until December 1956 when the Supreme Court rejected the segregationist position of the Montgomery City Commission and ordered that, by 20 December, all the buses be integrated by law.  At 9:00 a.m. on 21 December 1956, a reporter and photographer from Look magazine knocked on Rosa Parks’s door and persuaded her to have her picture taken riding a bus on that first day of integration.  The famous subsequent photograph, showing Rosa Parks’s glancing out a window with a white male passenger sitting int he row behind her, happened to be taken on a bus driven that day by James Blake.

The Letter Written From the Birmingham City Jail

In the early 1960s, Birmingham was the largest city in Alabama, boasting a population of over 350,000.  Although African Americans accounted for forty percent of the city’s population, it was a city characterized as the most “intransigent citadel of segregation.”  Birmingham, if not violently opposed to change, was a city that often chose to respond to change with violence.  A string of unsolved dynamite attacks between 1957 and 1963 had earned it the nickname of “Bombingham.”  It was here in early 1963 that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., focused the energy of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in pursuing the cause of integration.

If Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience is too well-known in its flawed, overly-simplistic version, the details surrounding King’s decision to go to jail in Birmingham are not well-known at all.  This obscures, I believe, the full prophetic import of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  This letter is recognized as a powerful document and a stirring reflection on the necessity of civil disobedience.  It is included in anthologies and read as part of contemporary history class curricula.  Yet just as Rosa Parks’s story is diminished by being told without taking seriously the issues of racism and her personal commitment to social justice, so too is the power of King’s letter diminished when it is read in isolation from the events that prompted its composition in that solitary confinement cell over the Easter holiday in 1963.

When King’s letter is discussed, comparisons are commonly made between it and Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience.”  It is appropriate to consider briefly this other example of protest literature, so that the question of historical precedence can be explored.  In 1845, the 28-year old Thoreau retired to live “essentially” beside the banks of Walden Pond.  In July 1846, he went into town to get a shoe from the cobbler, when he was arrested for refusing to pay a required, nine shilling poll tax.  The reason for this defiant act, according to Thoreau, was because he did not “recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.”

What is summarized in five sentences in Walden, Thoreau later fleshes out into a significant essay on civil disobedience centered on the one night he spent in the Concord jail.  One commentator suggests that during the months immediately prior to Thoreau’s arrest he was focusing on the material that would become the crucial second chapter of Walden, entitled, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.”  It is here that Thoreau states: “I went to the woods because I wishes to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  It is this same idea that shaped his resistance to having to pay the poll tax: “Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and ;aw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.  It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run ‘amok’ against society; but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me, it being the desperate party.”

The similarities and differences between the histories of Thoreau’s essay and King’s letter emerge when one compares both the substance of each text and the particularities of each act of composition.  In terms of differences, this was Thoreau’s first and only experience in jail, and it lasted for just one day.  King’s incarceration was the twelfth of his career and it lasted for over a week.  Thoreau apparently did not do any writing while in jail, choosing to spend his time either reading or in conversation with his cellmate.  King was kept in solitary confinement, yet he did manage to compose the bulk of his letter while under arrest.  However, both authors wrote powerfully in the first person, Both quoted extensively in their essays from other sources, often having to do so from memory.  And both pondered the difficult question of whether unjust laws should be obeyed until amended or transgressed at once to provoke change.

There is a direct relationship between the respective documents of Thoreau and King: the former is definitely an influential precursor for the latter.  In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, King candidly admits this fact: “I began to think about Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience.  I remembered how, as a college student, I had been moved when I first read this work.  I became convinced that what we were preparing to do in Montgomery was related to what Thoreau had expressed.  We were simply saying to the white community, ‘We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.'”  Though the issues to which the essays are addressed differ, they share a common conviction that at times one best serves the State with clear conscience by resisting the State.

When Rosa Parks’s prophetic act was considered earlier, the various influences affecting her decision not to move from her bus seat were briefly described.  While a similar approach could be followed in considering the prophetic quality of King’s decision to be arrested in Birmingham, it is perhaps more helpful in this case to summarize some of the barriers (both political and social) King had to overcome.  Many negative influences and obstacles made King hesitant to agree to march on 11 April 1963.  But by refusing to be dissuaded from a course of action that he believed to be faithful and just, King set in motion a series of events that led to his arrest and to the composition of his prophetic essay against the flawed practice of racial segregation.

Political Barriers Overcome by King

Martin Luther King, Jr., had called Birmingham a “colossus of segregation,” believing that a victory in that city would spread throughout the South, shattering the whole edifice of discrimination.  Yet one of the first barriers he had to overcome in order to place himself in a position to be arrested and thrown into the Birmingham jail was the reality of the weakened state of the SCLC as it prepared to challenge this southern city “colossus.”  The organization under King’s leadership had just suffered its first serious setback in its 1962 effort to challenge the segregation laws in Albany, Georgia.  That campaign had begun with a Freedom Ride in December 1961.  (“Freedom rides” were organized bus trips in which black and white passengers would travel through the Southern states in violation of their laws of segregation for modes of transportation.)  But after a lengthy series of marches, sit-ins, prayer vigils, and demonstrations, little significant change had been accomplished.  The failure in Albany to achieve the movement’s goals of desegregation, especially involving transportation services and lunch counters, coupled with rising voices arguing that “nonviolence as a social issue was dead” presented serious obstacles as King made plans for Birmingham,.

The comment about the demise of nonviolence campaigns was a sentiment oft repeated by the national media, whose hostility toward King’s efforts in Birmingham was another serious barrier to be surmounted.  Headlines in Time magazine spoke about King’s “Poorly Timed Protest,” while articles argued that he was an outsider intent on inflaming “tensions at a time when the city seemed to be making some progress, however small, in race relations.”  Other sources as varied as Newsweek, U.S> News, and the Washington Post strongly questioned King’s overall strategy in Birmingham and in some cases painted him as a dangerous, polarizing extremist.  King himself admitted how the hostile national press made his work in Birmingham immensely more difficult:

In Montgomery, during the bus boycott, and in the Albany, Georgia, campaign, we had had the advantage of a sympathetic and understanding national press from the outset.  In Birmingham we did not.  It is terribly difficult to wage such a battle without the moral support of the national press to counteract the hostility of local editors.  The words, “bad timing,” came to be ghosts haunting our every move in Birmingham.  Yet people who used this argument were ignorant of the background of our planning.  They did not know we had postponed our campaign twice. . .  Above all they did not realize that it was ridiculous to speak of timing when the clock of history showed that the Negro had already suffered one hundred years of delay.

The primary reason why King was accused of “bad timing” and, consequently, a third barrier he had to overcome in planning the Birmingham campaign was the false sense of optimism associated with an imminent change in the city government.  In November 1962, Birmingham voters rejected the old commission form of government in favor of a mayor and council structure.  Much of the energy behind this reform was an effort to get rid of commissioner (and later mayoral candidate) Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor.  King initially delayed the Birmingham campaign until after the 5 March election, but had to delay the campaign a second time when the election failed to produce a clear winner.  At that time, hopes were raised when moderate segregationist Albert Boutwell defeated Bull Connor in the mayoral runoff election on 2 April.  White moderates and many members of the black community believed that prospects looked good for quickening the pace of interracial progress.  But King and leaders in the Birmingham campaign argued that Boutwell was just a “dignified Bull Connor.”  King also pointed to the fact that Connor was still in power through a cour-sanctioned technicality that allowed him to complete his term as “Commissioner of Public Safety” and lead a city commission that functioned in parallel with Boutwell’s group.  In the eyes of many others, however, all of King’s efforts were flawed because they did not acknowledge what strides had been taken by replacing Connor with Boutwell in the first place.

Another barrier facing King was the slow start he had witnessed in the overall Birmingham campaign.  During the first eight days of the effort, fewer than 150 people had been jailed; when by comparison, nearly twice that number had been jailed in Albany on the first day of protest in that much smaller community.  The press had picked up on this lack of momentum and, based on the numbers active in the campaign, had begun routinely questioning whether King’s agenda had the full support of the region’s over 100,000 African American citizens.  King himself was keenly aware of the “tremendous resistance” to his campaign that was coming from a large sector of the African American business professionals and ministers.  He also knew that there was widespread resentment from local activists due to a lack of communication when planning strategy and organizing events.  Yet, as he put it, “somehow God gave me the power to transform the resentments, the suspicions, the fears, and the misunderstanding I found that week into faith and enthusiasm. . .  With the new unity that developed and now poured fresh blood into our protest, the foundations of the old order were doomed.”

The fifth barrier facing King as he considered being thrown into jail in Birmingham was one of the most troubling political factors he had ever confronted.  This obstacle came in the form of a court injunction issued on Wednesday, 10 April 1963, which expressly forbade King and 132 other civil rights leaders from taking part in any marches, sit-ins, or demonstrations.  This order from Alabama Circuit Court Judge William A. Jenkins now meant any action by King would involve defying both local law enforcement authorities and the state court.  To contravene this injunction would mark the first time King or his group had officially defied a court order.

It was a highly charged moment in the Birmingham campaign.  When the deputy sheriff came to the Gaston Motel to present King with the court order, a group of reporters huddled nearby behind their cameras and microphones anxious for his response.  In his public remarks, King stated emphatically that they “were not anarchists advocating lawlessness, but that it was obvious to us that the courts of Alabama had misused the judicial process in order to perpetuate injustice and segregation.”  Despite such a strong verbal statement, disobeying the court injunction by joining a protest march on the next day was not a step King would take lightly.

A sixth barrier was the lack of bail money available should King be arrested and thrown into jail.  This was one of the main concerns King discussed with his advisers as they met to make plans for a possible protest march on Good Friday.  Those opposed to King’s goals of civil rights and equal justice under the law knew that most of the SCLC efforts operated on a shoestring budget.  In fact, Birmingham politicians conspired with state officials, including Governor Wallace, to raise the maximum bond in misdemeanor cases form $300 to $2,500, applicable only in their home city.  This tactic was designed to avoid any unnecessary violence if at all possible, mimicking the “velvet fist” policies of Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett, while depleting the financial resources of the SCLC.

Soon after King and his associates had announced that they would defy the court injunction by leading a Good Friday protest march, news reached them that their appointed bail bondsman had reached his credit limit.  This meant anyone sent to jail would have no assurance of an early release.  Fifty people were waiting in the wings to join King in prison, which would comprise the largest single group arrested in Birmingham up to that date.  For over two hours, King consulted with two dozen people in his motel suite.  He later described how a “sense of doom began to pervade the room” and his “most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness.”  King himself had exacerbated this gloomy tone when he commented that “he did not want to spend the rest of his life in jail.”  The general consensus was that King should not risk going to jail, both because they had no funds to secure his release and because he was the best resource for securing new donations to help those already in jail.  Surrounded by twenty-four pairs of eyes, King knew that if he backed out of his promise to go to jail, he would be reneging on his word after a recent public announcement about his imminent arrest.  He would be rejecting the very path of incarceration he had just spent weeks recruiting and urging hundreds of other Birmingham citizens to follow.  But before describing how this crisis was resolved in King’s mind, it is important to name the other, non-political barriers that were also a factor in his ultimate decision.

Personal and Social Barriers Overcome by King

Those trying to derail King’s protest activities in Birmingham used every resource possible to convince him of the fundamental folly of his efforts.  Many people argued that the timing of his movement was wrong, insisting that it did not allow for possible reforms to occur under the leadership of Albert Boutwell, and that it would anger the white business owners whose sales would be hurt by a protest over the Easter holidays.  King responded that African Americans have waited more than 340 years for constitutional and God-given rights, and that the argument that they wait for the “right” time is only an attempt to prolong the status quo.  But many of the other concerns faced by King were of a more personal nature and thus harder to rebut.

An initial personal challenge that King had to face in deciding to go to jail was the immediate needs of his family.  His wife, Coretta, had given birth to their fourth child, Bernice Albertine, just one week prior to the start of the Birmingham campaign.  King had left for Birmingham the day after his daughter was born, returning back to Atlanta briefly to take his wife home from the hospital, but leaving that afternoon for further planning sessions.  His absenteeism from his family was an ongoing issue during King’s public life and ministry.

A second personal barrier was the steady stream of opposition King faced from various members of the African American community in Birmingham.  Some were professionals who believed that Boutwell’s administration should be given an opportunity to work for reform.  Others showed their opposition by refusing to answer the call at the mass meeting for more protest marchers, out of legitimate fear of arrest and loss of employment.  Both Coretta and Martin Luther King mention that another reason for peer opposition was the lingering resentment about “outsiders” running the Birmingham campaign and not keeping local residents properly informed about strategies they were planning to adopt.  Taken together, King faced the challenge of trying to lead a divided community in Birmingham, thereby making a successful outcome to his efforts (including being sent to jail) far from certain.

Another personal barrier was the fact that almost his entire close circle of personal advisers and friends advised King not to march or join protest efforts that would lead to his arrest in Birmingham.  Ralph Abernathy has described how their advisory committee asked King not to defy the court injunction or “violate the sanctity of the Easter season by acts of civil disobedience that might provoke violence.”  A NAACP lawyer, Norman Amaker, warned King early on Good Friday mornign that even if the injunction was unconstitutional, marching in violation of it would probably still lead to arrests and time in jail.  Also raising objections to King as they met in Room 30 of the Gaston MOtel was his own father, who strongly questioned the wisdom of violating the court order.

Surrounded by a general mood of hopelessness, the final personal barrier to be noted is King’s own sense of defeat and fear as he considered his options.  King had already spent time in jail before and was well aware of the personal risk he faced once he was locked up away from supportive crowds and media attention.  He was afraid of what might happen in jail and worried about not getting released anytime soon.  All of the aforementioned reasons, both political and personal, converged on King during the two-hour session in the Gaston Motel that Good Friday morning.  Fortunately, we have King’s own description of his thoughts as he confronted these challenges and eventually overcame them with his prophetic decision to march and be arrested that day.

I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room.  There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face-to-face with himself.  I was alone in that crowded room.

I walked to another room in the back of the suite, and stood in the center of the floor.  I think I was standing also at the center of all that my life had brought me to be.  I thought of the twenty-four people, waiting in the next room.  I thought of the three hundred, waiting in prison.  I thought of the Birmingham Negro community, waiting.  Then my mind leaped beyond the Gaston Motel, past the city jail, past city lines and state lines, and I thought of twenty million black people who dreamed that someday they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their way to the promised land of integration and freedom.  There was no more room for doubt.

I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail.  “I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from.  But I have to make a faith act.”

The Second Part of King’s Prophetic Act

King’s “faith act” was the willingness to lead a protest march on Good Friday and be thrown in jail by Bull Connor’s police officers.  It was that decision that set in motion the series of events that eventually created the powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  But only when both these events (the arrest and subsequent letter) are considered together is the prophetic impact of King’s actions fully appreciated.

On 10 January, King gathered in Dorchester, Georgia, with ten advisers to plan “Project C” (C for Confrontation) in Birmingham.  With key leaders such as Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and Fred Shuttlesworth, King created a plan of attack against the segregationist policies of that city.  The hope for the campaign was that it would involve more people and be more effective than what had been tried in Albany, ideally reaching a crescendo through an escalating series of organized sit-ins, boycotts, mass marches, and arrests leading to overflowing jails.  Immediately after the planning session, King delivered a paper in Chicago at the National Conference on Religion and Race entitled, “A Challenge to the Churches and Synagogues.”  In that document, he argued that the “religious bodies in America have not been faithful to their prophetic mission on the question of racial justice,” and that if “the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become little more than an irrelevant social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.”

“Project C” was originally scheduled to being on 6 March, but due to the election controversy it was delayed twice, first to 14 March and then to 3 April.  During that period of delays, King spent time, first in New York City and then in Birmingham, convincing skeptics about the necessity of going ahead with the scheduled protest despite all the publicity around a possible Boutwell administration.  In retrospect, it was the combination of the material compiled in the Chicago seminar paper and the arguments King presented in the subsequent planning meetings that provided much of the rhetoric and rationales that would later coalesce in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

When King changed into his work clothes and told his advisers there at the Gaston Motel that he was ready to be arrested and go to jail, he headed to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, from which he and about forty demonstrators would march toward Kelly Ingram Park.  Soon after the protest began, police detectives quickly arrested King and Abernathy, which provoked the crowds and eventually led to fifty-two others being taken to jail that day.  Once in jail, King was singled out for solitary confinement.  This was an unusual situation for him.  In his other times of incarceration, he had been able to share a cell with Abernathy.  King – a public man and gregarious personality – now found himself isolated in a darkened jail cell with only a metal cot without mattress, pillow, or blanket.

An interesting contrast can be made between King’s experiences that Good Friday and a gathering of a different ministerial group that day.  The  latter group had no formal name, but had sometimes called themselves the “Committee of Reconciliation.”  It consisted of eight prominent local clergyman: Bishop J. Durick (Roman Catholic), Rabbi M. Grafman (Jewish), Bishop P. Hardin and Bishop N. Harmon (Methodist), Bishop G. Murray and Bishop C. Carpenter (Episcopalian), Reverend E. Ramage (Presbyterian), and Reverend E. Stallings (Baptist).  While King fasted that day in preparation for going to jail, these men gathered in a hotel in Birmingham to share lunch and draft a response to the anticipated threat of public, civil rights demonstrations in their city.  The clergy were not segregationists; in fact, they had become targets of much pro-segregation abuse since all of them had spoken out in January through a press release challenging Governor George Wallace’s promise of “segregation now. . . segregation tomorrow. . . segregation forever.”  Yet in their Good Friday response, they used some of the same arguments from their earlier statement now against King and the Birmingham campaign leadership.  Their remarks emphasized that efforts to eliminate racial injustice should be handled through legal action, not through extreme measures or public demonstrations.  They then closed with an appeal for all citizens “to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

This brief statement was drafted in Bishop Harmon’s hotel suite and then appeared in the Birmingham papers on Saturday, 13 April 1963, the day before Easter.  It is not entirely clear when the incarcerated King received a copy of the paper containing this ministerial press release.  King’s own text, Why We Can’t Wait, does not describe the situation leading up to the composition of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail, except to note that he remained incommunicado from the time of his Friday arrest until at least Easter Sunday.  On that day, two attorneys, Orzell Billingsley and Arthur Shores, were allowed to visit King.  More than likely, King first stumbled on the press release among some papers given to him by New York lawyer, Clarence Jones, who visited him on Monday, 15 April.

The clergy statement appeared on page two of the Birmingham News with the headline, “White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations,” and it was near a photo of King and Abernathy marching prior to being arrested.  King himself is not mentioned by name; however the statement explicitly urged all Birmingham citizens to withhold support for any demonstrations directed and led by “outsiders.”

The frustrating dynamic for King was that he was being challenged by colleagues who should have been counted among his active supporters.  These were liberal clergy who had not only taken a stand against Wallace’s segregationist views, but had even admitted African Americans into special sections of their worship services.  King felt he could not remain silent.  He immediately began writing a response to the clergy statement, opening his second sentence with the phrase, “Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work.”  King scrawled his thoughts in the margins of the same paper that carried the clergy statement and then handed over his comments to Jones when the lawyer visited the next day.  Over the coming days, King’s “Letter” was largely written on scraps of paper and then smuggled out of jail, to be reconstructed and typed off-site by volunteers.

The edited version of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was over 6,000 words long, yet it was never sent to the eight clergymen whose 13 April press statement provoked King’s lengthy response.  It was not immediately published in the Birmingham newspapers; in fact, according to noted King biographer, Taylor Branch, it was not officially released by the SCLC until later in May 1963.  Excerpts of the “Letter” appeared in the New York Post on 19 May, the New York Times on 26 May, and Christianity and Crisis on 27 May.  THe first full edition of King’s letter was published by the American Friends Service Committee in pamphlet form and released to the public on 28 May.  SCLC staffers circulated a copy of the “Letter” in Birmingham during May 1963, but the local newspaper did not even mention King’s letter until 30 July.

Although in time, over a million copies of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” were in active circulation, the delays involved in bringing it to print have led some to conclude that it had “no influence on the [Birmingham] campaign.”  It is hard to argue with that opinion, given that King’s essay was not widely read until late May and the bulk of the civil rights’ reform work in Birmingham was codified in an accord publicly announced on 10 May.  Taylor Branch has even drawn the following conclusion: “In hindsight, it appeared that King had rescued the beleaguered Birmingham movement with his pen, but the reverse was true: unexpected miracles of the Birmingham movement later transformed King’s letter from a silent cry of desperate hope to a famous pronouncement of moral triumph.”  Even if this assessment is true, is the prophetic quality of King’s combined acts (marching in the protest and subsequent writing of his letter) diminished by the timing of how the Birmingham events unfolded?  Or is there a quality in King’s prophetic acts that transcends the strict chronology of these events?

Evaluating the Prophetic Quality of Martin Luther King’s Acts

The same three perspectives used earlier in evaluating Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience will now guide a similar reflection on King’s prophetic acts in Birmingham, beginning with the fourfold rhetorical paradigm put forth by Kelvin Friebel.  First, did King’s actions capture an audience’s attention?  The public act of being arrested on Good Friday, especially as it meant violating a court injunction, ensured that King’s acts were witnessed by local, regional, and national audiences.  Second, were King’s actions readily comprehensible?  The honest answer to that question would have to be, “No,” since King’s actions meant different things to different people.  To some African Americans in Birmingham, King’s willingness to go to jail in order to desegregate their local lunch counters was a clear and courageous act of appropriate civil disobedience.  To other African Americans and much of the remaining city population, King’s acts were dangerous tactics being used by an “outsider” in order to provoke violence and social disorder, coming at an unfortunate time given the recent changes in the city’s elected leadership.  It was largely due to these disparate views about King’s motives prompting his actions that led him to write the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” so that his critics might be answered and his deeds made more readily comprehensible.

Friebel’s third and fourth criteria ask whether the prophetic act (or acts) can be easily remembered as well as provide an incentive for changes in behavior or attitudes.  Taken by itself, King’s decision to be arrested on 12 April was arguably neither unique nor a strong motivator for change.  It was the twelfth time he had been arrested, and the eight days he spent in jail actually caused a loss of momentum for the Birmingham campaign.  However, the writing of his “Letter” accomplished both of the aforementioned goals.  Here was a document written from prison that called to mind the numerous New Testament epistles of Paul also composed while enduring unjust imprisonment.  Here was a letter ostensibly directed at eight, white clergymen, but intended for a much wider audience, including the Kennedy administration, white church “moderates,” and national supporters of the American civil rights movement.  Over and over again, King scholars name the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as the most “widely-read, widely-reprinted, and oft-quoted document of the civil rights movement.”  Thus it can reasonably be judged affirmatively in terms of Friebel’s final two criteria.

A next step in evaluating the prophetic quality of King’s acts in Birmingham is to consider whether a dimension of kairos was present in his decisions to be arrested and compose the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  The word kairos was not in King’s active vocabulary; however, the sentiment was present throughout his career’s work for civil rights.  In a statement made on 1 December 1959, King announced that the “time has come for a broad, bold advance of the Southern campaign for equality” and that he was convinced that “the psychological moment has come when a concentrated drive against injustice can bring great tangible gains.”  Two years later, in a meeting with President Kennedy, King would argue that the clock of history was “nearing the midnight hour.”  Others, like theologian James Cone, have suggested that time and circumstances conspired to make the writing of his letter from jail necessary.

The quality of kairos is present more subtly and implicitly in King’s acts in Birmingham than was the case in reference to Rosa Parks’s act of defiance in Montgomery .  To begin with, King was definitely affected by the experience of being imprisoned in solitary confinement on Good Friday.  He described the experience as “brutal,” although he stressed that he was not truly in solitary confinement, for “God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell.”  This timing of these events had tremendous symbolic power both for King and for the civil rights’ movement.

Soon after he was released on bail on 20 April 1963, King agreed to allow children and students to participate in the Birmingham protest marches.  This was a dangerous, yet pivotal, decision on the part of King and his advisers.  It placed minors at risk and was denounced from many corners; yet it was also a key factor in getting the world literally to see the brutality experienced in segregationist cities.  Once Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs were set upon peaceful marchers including women and children, the timetable for change in Birmingham was greatly accelerated.  It is possible to attribute some of the courage and visionary conviction of the later Birmingham campaign to King’s decisions to be arrested and then compose his personal manifesto about why the time was right for forceful, faithful, kairos action.

In defense of this position, it is interesting to note that in an interview King gave to Playboy magazine in January 1965, he was asked directly whether the subsequent events in Birmingham and America justified the sentiments King expressed in his letter.  Here was King’s reply:

I would say yes.  Two or three important and constructive things have happened which can be at least partially attributed to that letter.  By now, nearly a million copies of the letter have been widely circulated in churches of most of the major denominations.  It helped to focus greater international attention upon what was happening in Birmingham.  And I am sure that without Birmingham, the march on Washington wouldn’t have been called – which in my mind was one of the most creative steps the Negro struggle has taken. . .  It was also the image of Birmingham which, to a great extent, helped to bring the Civil Rights Bill into being in 1963.  Previously, President Kennedy had decided not to propose it that year, feeling that it would so arouse the South that it would meet a bottleneck.  But Birmingham, and subsequent developments, caused him to reorder his legislative priorities.

Thus, while it may be difficult to pinpoint a precise kairotic moment in the events associated with King’s leadership in Birmingham, a strong case can be made for assigning that quality to his willingness to be arrested and the subsequent writing of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

A final step in evaluating the prophetic quality of King’s acts in Birmingham is to draw comparisons between his activity and the biblical examples of prophetism already cited.  Of the prophetic acts of Jeremiah surveyed earlier, the ones most helpful here are the prophetic acts of the spoiled waistcloth, (Jeremiah 13), and the scroll written against the Babylonians, (Jeremiah 51).  Both of these events involve dual acts that, taken together, comprise a single prophetic message.  For example, the loincloth was first buried and then displayed after it was spoiled, in order to serve as a warning for the houses of Israel and Judah.  Likewise, Jeremiah first wrote a prophecy against Babylon on a scroll and then entrusted it to Seraiah to read it aloud before throwing it in the Euphrates river – an act meant to symbolize how Babylon itself was doomed to sink into oblivion.  By comparison, King’s commitment to achieve integration in Birmingham precipitated the dual events of his arrest and then his composition of the “Letter.”  Granted, King did not initially plan to write a letter while incarcerated; however, his time in solitary confinement provided a dramatic opportunity for him to compose a powerful exposition about why the time for integration and justice had finally arrived.  Thus, the events in Birmingham became a posteriori a two-part prophetic act.

Another similarity exists between the Birmingham events and the prophetic act in Jeremiah 13.  The prophet Jeremiah took a common linen loincloth and, after allowing it to become spoiled, displayed how it no longer served the purpose for which it was intended.  In the same way, King held up for public scrutiny the segregation laws of Birmingham and exposed them as being “spoiled” and contrary to purposes of justice for which all laws should be enacted.  By walking peaceably down the street, King publicly paraded to the residents of Birmingham how their laws were like the indictment found in Jeremiah 13:10 – “This evil people, who refuse to obey my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing.”  By his actions, King was embodying the role of prophet, both by challenging the prevailing group sentiments and being a motivating influence for constructive change.

Regarding the prophetic act described in Jeremiah 51, the obvious similarity is that both involve written words that were intended for a larger audience.  Although the content of Jeremiah’s scroll against Babylon is not explicitly known, the assumption is that it contained some of the material found in Jeremiah 50 and 51.  And though the scroll was intended to be tied to a stone and thrown into the Euphrates, it was more than likely first read out loud to the Judean community living in exile in Babylon.  In making a comparison with King’s situation in Birmingham, it does not take much effort to draw linkages between the exile community subjugated in Babylon and the experience of modern African Americans living under oppressive social orders in cities like Birmingham.  Both groups were taking guidance and seeking inspiration from an absent leader, whether the distant prophet Jeremiah or the imprisoned Dr. King.

Lastly, in both cases, the work of disseminating the prophetic words was entrusted to someone other than the work’s author.  In the former situation, Baruch’s brother Seraiah was given the task of reading the prophecy against Babylon.  In the latter situation, King’s coworkers within the SCLC organization, coupled with the faith community and American news media, were responsible for sharing the message of his “Letter” to as many people as possible.  Over time, these two examples of speaking words of faith, whether done on behalf of a people subjugated by Babylon or on behalf of an oppressed people whose civil liberties were unjustly disregarded, have proven to be powerful and truly prophetic acts.

Since his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., has been remembered in many ways, including as a modern-day prophet.  When his deeds in the Birmingham campaign are considered in light of the working definition of prophetic acts already proposed, they can be acknowledged as being deliberate and specific acts, performed by a person actively grounded in a faith community.  King’s arrest and subsequent essay-writing were communicative and interactive acts, preceded by a sense of divine presence and call, and followed by further interpretative acts intended to modify and transform patterns of human social reality.  Therefore, it can be concluded that King’s acts of witness done in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 fit the general description of prophetic acts as outlined.


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