On the 57th day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on January 30, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. was giving a speech when he got the news that his home in the Alabama city had been bombed. His wife, Coretta Scott King, and their 10-week-old daughter, Yolanda, who were in the home at the time of the bombing, were unharmed.

A month earlier the boycott had begun after Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on one of the segregated Montgomery buses.

Fresh out of his doctoral studies at Boston University and the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the 26-year-old King had been drafted shortly after Parks’ arrest by local Black leaders to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). This organization was responsible for coordinating the carpools that helped 30,000 African Americans get to and from work after the start of the strike that would launch the civil rights movement.

On the day of the mass meeting at the First Baptist Church, the MIA’s executive board voted to file a federal lawsuit against the Birmingham bus system. King’s speech that night, wrote biographer Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, was not one of his best, but that the leader “tried to rally everyone’s courage behind the lawsuit decision and the boycott, pulling the distant hopes nearer while dispelling the fears close by.”

A Test of Nonviolence Strategy

After being told of the bombing, King rushed to his home at 309 South Jackson Street. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, a witness had seen a man around 9:15 pm toss a homemade bomb, severely damaging the front porch. At the house, King was confronted with Black men carrying knives and guns, promising retaliation for the bombing.

As an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta, King had been introduced to the theory of nonviolent resistance through Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience. Later at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, the writings of Muste, Nietzsche, Niebuhr and Gandhi helped him refine those views. For the first time in his young career, the boycott would force King to confront nonviolence not simply as an idea, but as a core strategy of the civil rights movement.

“As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more,” he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, his 1958 memoir about the boycott. “Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”

Calming the Crowds

Now with about 300 angry Black people standing in front of his home, demanding justice for the bombing, a bevy of reporters and police officers, and surrounded by MIA staff,  King needed to put his learning into action. According to Branch, the police tried to disband the crowd, but they insisted on staying until they were sure that the King family was safe.

“Don’t do anything panicky,” King told the crowd from the front of the porch. “Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies.”

King pressed the group to go home and “be calm as I and my family are.”  Were it not for King’s pleas of peace and calm, admitted a white policeman at the scene, he would have been killed by the mass of angry King followers.

“Many of the Negroes would liken the sight of King with his hand raised to the famous poses of Gandhi or to Jesus calming the waters of the troubled sea,” wrote Branch of the minister’s way with the crowd.

'If I am stopped, this movement will not stop.'

Martin Luther King Jr., January 30, 1956

Two days after the bombing, Fred Gray, MIA’s lawyer, filed suit in Federal court on behalf of four Black women against the segregated Montgomery bus system. The District Court would find that the segregation of Black and white passengers on Montgomery city buses was unconstitutional.

Following appeals from the city and the state of Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Browder v. Gayle decision in November 1956. After 381 days, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended on December 20, 1956.

King’s life would be threatened many times before his assassination on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Yet the Montgomery bombing of his home was his first major personal test of his moral conviction in nonviolence. There were no evil forces, not even his death, he believed, that could stop African Americans from ultimately gaining their civil rights and succeeding through the power of a movement founded on nonviolence.

“I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement  will not stop,” he said on the night of the bombing. “For what we are doing is right, what we are doing is just. And God is with us.”

HISTORY Vault: Voices of Civil Rights

A look at one of the defining social movements in U.S. history, told through the personal stories of men, women and children who lived through it.