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Published in 1958, Stride Toward Freedom is the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott told by the man at the forefront of its occurrence and whose involvement increased not on its impact, but also its meaning for the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was approached by publishers a year earlier with offers to transform the boycott into a narrative that capable of placing the boycott into historical context by writing about not just the event taking place during the boycott, but by revealing the perspective of systemic racism that directly led to the decision to enact the boycott.
Stride Toward Freedom also reveals that it took far more than those who took on the starring roles in the Montgomery Bus Boycott to bring about the kind of economic change capable of creating wholesale change in the more intangible arena of self-respect and self-esteem. As such, Stride Toward Freedom wind up becoming a narrative of a major moment—a true turning point—in the Civil Rights Movement. At least 50,000 people of color respected the providence of non-violence as the proper means of protesting the failure to accurately estimate the worth of a human being by a system representing the mindset of a major metropolitan area in the United States, nearly a century after slavery had finally been abolished.
According to Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, his memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, is ‘‘the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth’’ (King, 9).
In early 1957 numerous publishers began encouraging King to write a book about the boycott. By October of that year, he signed a contract with Harper & Brothers that was negotiated by his new literary agents, Joan Daves and Marie Rodell, and began work on the manuscript.
In Stride Toward Freedom, King delineates racial conditions in Montgomery before, during, and after the bus boycott. He discusses the origin and significance of the boycott, the roles that residents, civic leaders, and community organizations played in organizing and sustaining the movement, and the reactions of white Montgomery officials and residents. According to King, before the boycott African Americans in Montgomery were victims of segregation and poverty, but after the boycott, when bus desegregation was achieved, they evidenced a new level of self-respect (King, 28; 187). King points out that most African Americans in Montgomery accepted a nonviolent approach because they trusted their leaders when they told them that nonviolence was the essence of active Christianity.
In the chapter ‘‘Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,’’ King delves into the intellectual influences that led him to accept a philosophy of nonviolence. He discusses the impact made upon his thinking by the works of Thoreau, Marx, Aristotle, Rauschenbusch, and Gandhi. King also outlines his understanding of nonviolence, which seeks to win an opponent to friendship, rather than to humiliate or defeat him (King, 102).
Throughout the writing process, King was dependent on friends and colleagues who supplied text to aid him in meeting publishing deadlines. Stanley Levison, Bayard Rustin, and Harris Wofford provided significant guidance. In fact, King’s discussion of nonviolence draws from an address by Wofford. King also received editorial help from Lawrence D. Reddick, a professor at Alabama State College, Hermine I. Popper, a freelance editor, and Melvin Arnold, of Harper & Brothers.
In revisions of King’s manuscript, the meticulous editors from the press made ‘‘every effort to see that not even a single sentence can be lifted out of context and quoted against the book and the author’’ (Papers 4:404). For instance, they were extremely cautious about King’s discourse on communism, and they suggested changes, such as using the phrase ‘‘social cooperation’’ instead of ‘‘collectivism’’ and calling Marxism ‘‘a partial truth’’ instead of ‘‘a half truth’’ (Papers 4:405).
Stride Toward Freedom was officially released on 17 September 1958. It was lauded by both the general public and literary critics, who labeled it ‘‘‘must’ reading’’ (Mays, ‘‘My View’’). In describing the book in 1958, Benjamin Mays wrote, ‘‘Americans who believe in justice and equality for all cannot afford to miss the book. Negroes can not afford to miss it because it tells us again how we can work against evil with dignity, pride and self-respect’’ (‘‘My View’’).
Introduction, in Papers 4:29–33.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Mays, ‘‘My View,’’ Pittsburgh Courier, 25 October 1958.
Arnold to King, 5 May 1958, in Papers 4:404–405.