not long after the last war, Bayard Rustin got on a bus in Chicago and headed south. When they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, he stayed where he was. The cops took him off. He “went limp.” They beat him into unconsciousness. They took him to jail and finally to a hospital. When he got out, he got on another bus and continued south. So it went, for months—sometimes jail, sometimes the hospital, sometimes they just kicked him into the ditch. Eventually he got to New Orleans. Eventually Jim Crow was abolished on interstate carriers. Individual non-violent direct action had invaded the South and won. The Southern Negro had been shown the only technique that had any possibility of winning.
Things simmered for a while and then, spontaneously, out of nowhere, the Montgomery bus boycott materialised. Every moment of the birth and growth of this historic action has been elaborately documented. Hour by hour we can study “the masses” acting by themselves. It is my modest, well considered opinion that Martin Luther King, Jr., is the most remarkable man the South has produced since Thomas Jefferson—since, in other words, it became “the South.” Now the most remarkable thing about Martin Luther King is that he is not remarkable at all. He is just an ordinary minister of a middle-class Negro church (or what Negroes call “middle class,” which is pretty poor by white standards). There are thousands of men like him all over Negro America. When the voice called, he was ready. He was ready because he was himself part of that voice. Professional, white-baiting Negroes who thrill millionairesses in night clubs in the North would call him a square. He was a brave square. He is the best possible demonstration of the tremendous untapped potential of humanity that the white South has thrown away all these years. He helped to focus that potential and exert it. It won.
. . . The Montgomery bus boycott not only won where Negro Zealotism, as well as Uncle Tomism, had always failed, but it demonstrated something that had always sounded like sheer sentimentality. It is better, braver, far more effective and far more pleasurable, to act with love than with hate. When you have won, you have gained an unimpeachable victory. The material ends pass or are passed beyond. “Desegregated” buses seem natural in many Southern cities today. The guiltless moral victory remains, always as powerful as the day it was gained. Furthermore, each moral victory converts or neutralises another block of the opponents’ forces.
Before the Montgomery episode was over, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King had joined forces. Today they are world statesmen in a “shadow cabinet” that is slowly forming behind the wielders of power, and the advisers and auxiliary leaders in the councils of Negro Africa. At home in America, the Montgomery achievement has become the source from which has flowed the moral awakening, first, of Negro and, following them, of white youth.
Everything seemed to be going along nicely. According to the papers and most of their professors, 99 44/100 per cent of the nation’s youth were cautiously preparing for the day when they could offer their young split-level brains to G.M., I.B.M., Oak Ridge or the Voice of America. Madison Avenue had discovered its own pet minority of revolt and tamed it into an obedient mascot. According to Time, Life, M.G.M. and the editors and publishers of a new, pseudo avant-garde, all the dear little rebels wanted to do was grow beards, dig jazz, take heroin and wreck other people’s Cadillacs. While the exurbanite children sat with the baby sitter and thrilled to Wyatt Earp, their parents swooned in the aisles at The Connection or sat up past bedtime reading switch-blade novelists. The psychological
But as a matter of fact, anyone with any sense travelling about the country lecturing on college campuses during the past five years, could tell that something very, very different was cooking. Time and again, hundreds of times, I have been asked by some well-dressed, unassuming, beardless student, “I agree with you completely, but what shall we, my generation, do?” To this question, I have never been able to give but one answer: “I am fifty. You are twenty. It is for you to tell me what to do. The only thing I can say is, don’t do the things my generation did. They didn’t work.” A head of steam was building up, the waters were rising behind the dam; the dam itself, the block to action, was the patent exhaustion of the old forms. What was accumulating was not any kind of programmatic “radicalisation,” it was a moral demand. And then one day four children walked into a dime store in a small Southern city and pulled out the plug. Four children picked up the massive chain of the Social Lie and snapped it at its weakest link. Everything broke loose.