Martin Luther King, Jr. Writes a List of 16 Suggestions for African-Americans Riding Newly-Integrated Buses (1956)

Montgomery Bus Integration Suggestions

Last Tues­day, Decem­ber 1st, marked the 60th anniver­sary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to relin­quish her seat at the front of a Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma bus, and as some peo­ple point­ed out, the sto­ry many of us were told as chil­dren about Parks’ act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence was fab­ri­cat­ed. Parks was not a hum­ble, elder­ly seam­stress worn out from a long day of work, a myth author Her­bert Kohl sum­ma­rizes as “Rosa Parks the Tired.” She was a well-con­nect­ed activist and NAACP leader who had already ini­ti­at­ed actions to inte­grate local libraries. Of her gross­ly over­sim­pli­fied biog­ra­phy, Parks remarked in her mem­oirs, “I was not tired phys­i­cal­ly, or no more tired than I usu­al­ly was at the end of a work­ing day. I was not old, although some peo­ple have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giv­ing in.”

Nor was Parks the first to brave arrest for refus­ing to give up a seat at the front of the bus. That same year, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give in, and sev­en months lat­er, so did 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith. Nei­ther of their arrests, how­ev­er, had the pow­er to spark the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott, the action that brought nation­al atten­tion to the civ­il rights move­ment and to Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s lead­er­ship role. King would lat­er recall that “Mrs. Parks was ide­al for the role assigned to her by his­to­ry” because “her char­ac­ter was impec­ca­ble and her ded­i­ca­tion deep-root­ed.” King’s repeat­ed empha­sis on “char­ac­ter” through­out his direc­tion of the boy­cott and beyond often seems an awful lot like what is today dis­par­aged, with good rea­son, as “respectabil­i­ty pol­i­tics”—the notion that only those who con­form to con­ser­v­a­tive, mid­dle-class norms of dress and behav­ior deserve to be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty and to have their civ­il rights respect­ed.

But this was not nec­es­sar­i­ly his point. His embrace of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance was in part a strate­gic means of pre­sent­ing the Jim Crow pow­er struc­ture with an implaca­ble unit­ed front that could not be moved to react in ways that might seem to jus­ti­fy vio­lence in the eyes of a large­ly unsym­pa­thet­ic public—to make it clear beyond any doubt who was the aggres­sor. And the vio­lence and repres­sion direct­ed at the boy­cotters was sig­nif­i­cant. They were attacked while walk­ing to work; King’s and civ­il rights leader E.D. Nixon’s hous­es were both fire­bombed; and King, Parks, and 87 oth­ers were indict­ed for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the boy­cott.

Nor did the boycott’s suc­cess in 1956 put an end to the attacks. As a site com­mem­o­rat­ing this his­to­ry sum­ma­rizes, “After the boy­cott came to a close, snipers shot into bus­es in black com­mu­ni­ties, at one point hit­ting a young black woman, Rosa Jor­dan, in the legs.” And on one sin­gle night in 1957, “four black church­es and two homes were bombed.” These acts were on the extreme end of a dai­ly series of aggres­sive con­fronta­tions and humil­i­a­tions black rid­ers faced as they board­ed the new­ly-inte­grat­ed Mont­gomery bus­es. To help those rid­ers nav­i­gate this envi­ron­ment, King pre­pared the list of guide­lines above on the week before the bus­es inte­grat­ed. You can read a full tran­script of the list below, thanks to Lists of Note, who include it in their recent book-length col­lec­tion.

King makes his agen­da clear in the intro­duc­to­ry para­graph: “If there is vio­lence in word or deed it must not be our peo­ple who com­mit it.” Some of these direc­tives encour­age great pas­siv­i­ty in the face of often extreme hos­til­i­ty. It is very dif­fi­cult for me to imag­ine respond­ing in such ways to insults or phys­i­cal attacks. And yet, the boy­cotters had already dai­ly, and calm­ly, faced death and severe injury. As white Luther­an min­is­ter Robert Graetz—whose home was also bombed—remembered lat­er, “Dr. King used to talk about the real­i­ty that some of us were going to die and that if any of us were afraid to die we real­ly shouldn’t be there.”




This is a his­toric week because seg­re­ga­tion on bus­es has now been declared uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. With­in a few days the Supreme Court Man­date will reach Mont­gomery and you will be re-board­ing inte­grat­ed bus­es. This places upon us all a tremen­dous respon­si­bil­i­ty of main­tain­ing, in face of what could be some unpleas­ant­ness, a calm and lov­ing dig­ni­ty befit­ting good cit­i­zens and mem­bers of our Race. If there is vio­lence in word or deed it must not be our peo­ple who com­mit it.

For your help and con­ve­nience the fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions are made. Will you read, study and mem­o­rize them so that our non-vio­lent deter­mi­na­tion may not be endan­gered. First, some gen­er­al sug­ges­tions:

1 Not all white peo­ple are opposed to inte­grat­ed bus­es. Accept good­will on the part of many.

2 The whole bus is now for the use of all Take a vacant seat.

3 Pray for guid­ance and com­mit your­self to com­plete non-vio­lence in word and action as you enter the bus.

4 Demon­strate the calm dig­ni­ty of our Mont­gomery peo­ple in your actions.

5 In all things observe ordi­nary rules of cour­tesy and good behav­ior.

6 Remem­ber that this is not a vic­to­ry for Negroes alone, but for all Mont­gomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag!

7 Be qui­et but friend­ly; proud, but not arro­gant; joy­ous, but not bois­ter­ous.

8 Be lov­ing enough to absorb evil and under­stand­ing enough to turn an ene­my into a friend.

Now for some spe­cif­ic sug­ges­tions:

1 The bus dri­ver is in charge of the bus and has been instruct­ed to obey the law. Assume that he will coop­er­ate in help­ing you occu­py any vacant seat.

2 Do not delib­er­ate­ly sit by a white per­son, unless there is no oth­er seat.

3 In sit­ting down by a per­son, white or col­ored, say “May I” or “Par­don me” as you sit. This is a com­mon cour­tesy.

4 If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evi­dence love and good­will at all times.

5 In case of an inci­dent, talk as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, and always in a qui­et tone. Do not get up from your seat! Report all seri­ous inci­dents to the bus dri­ver.

6 For the first few days try to get on the bus with a friend in whose non-vio­lence you have con­fi­dence. You can uphold one anoth­er by a glance or a prayer.

7 If anoth­er per­son is being molest­ed, do not arise to go to his defense, but pray for the oppres­sor and use moral and spir­i­tu­al force to car­ry on the strug­gle for jus­tice.

8 Accord­ing to your own abil­i­ty and per­son­al­i­ty, do not be afraid to exper­i­ment with new and cre­ative tech­niques for achiev­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and social change.

If you feel you can­not take it, walk for anoth­er week or two. We have con­fi­dence in our peo­ple. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

via Lists of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

‘Tired of Giv­ing In’: The Arrest Report, Mug Shot and Fin­ger­prints of Rosa Parks (Decem­ber 1, 1955)

Read Mar­tin Luther King and The Mont­gomery Sto­ry: The Influ­en­tial 1957 Civ­il Rights Com­ic Book

‘You Are Done’: The Chill­ing “Sui­cide Let­ter” Sent to Mar­tin Luther King by the F.B.I.

200,000 Mar­tin Luther King Papers Go Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Orion0 says:

    I can just imag­ine the vit­ri­ol toward an activist like King in 2015: Don’t police my tone! Don’t tell me to be calm and qui­et! *throws bot­tle at cop*

  • Bill W. says:

    I won­der what the BLM and Black Pan­ther-crowd would think of MLK’s list?

  • Tommy Jordan says:

    For many years I have tried to obtain infor­ma­tion on the woman shot on the Mont­gomery Alaba­ma bus on Dec.28, 1956. The woman Rosa Jor­dan was my moth­er. If there is more infor­ma­tion, please for­ward. Thank­ing you in advance,

    Tom­my Jor­dan

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.