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Author Myrlie Evers-Williams is a trailblazer as an activist for civil rights

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Chosen to serve

Martin Luther King, Jr. photo
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appears deep in thought at an April 1967 press conference in Atlanta, Georgia, when he announced that he would not be a candidate for U.S. president. King was assassinated the following year  

King's education, vision made him an ideal leader

January 31, 2001
Web posted at: 12:48 PM EST (1748 GMT)

In this story:

The forerunners

Selecting a King

Student News Archive

For more than 40 years, people have associated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with the civil rights movement -- almost to the exclusion of others who were jailed and beaten with him. But other men and women such as E.D. Nixon, James Farmer and Ralph David Abernathy played crucial leadership roles in the fight to secure equal privilege and rights for African-Americans. Some were even considered for being the spokesman for the civil rights movement. But the people chose King. History books may have overlooked many of these potential leaders, but they played a crucial role in an era that changed the country.

Can you talk about the civil rights movement or Black History Month without speaking of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Probably not.

It was under King's leadership that African-Americans took the actions that desegregated America. His name has become synonymous with the triumphs of that period. And it's King's legacy that is stamped on the calendar and conscience of the United States.

But what about the forerunners? The ones who pioneered tactics that King made famous years later? Or people who were natives of Montgomery, Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, and who had wrestled with Jim Crow there years before Rosa Parks' arrest and King's arrival in the city?

In the 344 years between the first slaves' arrival and King's proclamation of his vision for America, other people had dreams, too. So why did King, at 26, become the spokesman and the leader of the masses?

It wasn't chance. It was choice. King didn't rise to the role. The people reached for him.

C. T. Vivian photo
Activist C.T. Vivian leads a prayer February 5, 1965, on the courthouse steps in Selma, Alabama, where he led hundreds of demonstrators armed with petitions, asking for longer voter registration hours  

C.T. Vivian, 76, an activist who worked closely with King, explains. "Martin had a method, the means and a message for the movement."

The forerunners

Last month, Americans observed the King Holiday. But there were others whom African-Americans considered to lead the civil rights movement.

Had the choice been different, perhaps schools, banks and government agencies would have closed in recognition of James Farmer Day in January, shut down in March in honor of Ralph David Abernathy's birth or in July to commemorate the courage of E.D. Nixon. They were all contenders.

It was Nixon who signed Rosa Parks' bond. Police arrested Parks after she refused to give her bus seat to a white rider. Nixon formulated the idea for the Montgomery bus boycott that led to the desegregation of buses in that city.

Top: New York police carry James Farmer from a protest in front of the New York City pavilion at the New York World's Fair on April 22, 1964. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano) Bottom: E.D. Nixon, center, signed the bond for Rosa Parks, left, who was arrested after refusing to give her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama  

Nixon was president of the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before state officials outlawed the existence of the organization. As a Pullman porter, Nixon was deeply involved with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s and 1930s and worked closely to organize fellow workers into the union. He also helped white and African-American workers fight for better wages and work conditions and in 1944 led almost 800 African-Americans to register to vote at the Montgomery County Courthouse.

"He was a very fearless leader in the Montgomery community who wasn't afraid to confront the injustices," said Johnnie Carr, 90, an elementary school classmate of Parks' and the current president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized the bus boycotts in the 1950s.

In 1942, when King was only 13, James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, pioneered nonviolent civil disobedience in Chicago, Illinois. Vivian was there with him when sit-ins integrated the lunch counters of downtown Chicago.

"I would say the best prepared person to lead the movement was Jim Farmer. He was a leader in the NAACP, in the United Church of Christ and had experience with labor organizing," Vivian said. "But he was not a Martin King. He did not have it. He started direct action, but he didn't know where to go with it. We all had courage, but Martin had the vision."

While Farmer was the most prepared, the "Rev. Abernathy would have been the most logical person to be the leader," said Vivian, who was the national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference affiliates and served as a bridge between local offices and King. "Ab led the ministerial alliance, which was the most powerful black organization in the city. And the other thing was that he was the pastor of the mass church in Montgomery. King was the pastor of the blue-stocking church."

While there was discussion of other people, said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, King was the sum of the parts that other people possessed. He had the followership of Abernathy, the courage of Nixon and the method of Farmer. And King had the education and eloquence that no one else possessed.

Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. photo
The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, left, and King, leaders of the black bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, are shown leaving their attorney's office  

Selecting a King

The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed in response to Parks' arrest. And "when the boycott started, King was the chosen leader for several reasons," said Lowery, 79, who was a minister in Mobile, Alabama, during the movement and met monthly with King and Abernathy to develop strategy.

"He was relatively new in town," Lowery said, "and he didn't have a whole lot of the political enemies that others had. And his disposition and intellect were the best suited for leadership."

King entered college at 15, began working on his master's degree at 19 and had a doctorate by the time he was 26.

"I do not know of any other person with a doctorate degree in the Deep South, black or white, who was in the pulpit," Vivian said.

And it would be logical for the leader of an African-American movement to come from the church.

"The black church was the most independent institution in the country," Lowery said. "The black church wasn't accountable to the chamber of commerce, or the state legislature of any boards of education. And the preacher was the spokesman for that independent organization and was often the better trained person in the community."

civil rights march photo
Abernathy, right, and Bishop Julian Smith, left, flank King during a civil rights march in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 28, 1968  

The leadership would come from the church for another reason, Lowery said. Racism, segregation and the fruits they bore were ethical, moral and spiritual issues, he said.

His position as a pastor completed King's qualifications. But was his age ever a factor? All the other potential leaders were in their 30s or older.

"No," Lowery said. "We were all young. We didn't recognize age. We recognized ability. We never worried about someone's race, age or gender."

Thousands rally to 'redeem the dream'
August 26, 2000
Nation pauses to remember civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
January 15, 2001
Feds charge Mississippi man with civil rights-era murder
June 8, 2000

E.D. Nixon
James Farmer
Congress of Racial Equality
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

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