Minutes after 9 p.m., on the night of Jan. 30, 1956, a segregationist parked his car in front of the modest white clapboard parsonage home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. In the shadows, the man walked up five steps leading to the front door and planted a stick of dynamite on the porch.
King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and a fellow Dexter Avenue Baptist Church member, Mary Lucy Williams, had been in the living room when they heard noise on the porch, according to a Jan. 31, 1956, report in the Montgomery Advertiser. The two women ran to a backroom of the house, where the Kings’ newborn baby daughter, Yolanda, was asleep.
Seconds later, the dynamite exploded, blasting out windows, tearing a hole in the porch, shredding floor boards and ripping through a porch pillar holding up the house that sat on a quiet Alabama street.
At the time of the bombing, King had just celebrated his 27th birthday. He’d been the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery for 19 months. And he’d started leading the Montgomery bus boycott, a movement organized after the Dec. 1, 1955, arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to vacate her bus seat to a White man.
In his 1958 memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom,” King described Parks as “ideal for the role assigned to her by history” because “her character was impeccable,” and she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”
Days after Parks’s arrest, King and others created the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the bus boycott, which became a seminal event in the civil rights movement. Together, Black people in Montgomery would refuse to continue to ride segregated city buses, where they were subjected to discrimination and racism.
The boycott infuriated White Montgomery and its fervent segregationists.
On the night his house was bombed, King was speaking before 2,000 people attending a meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
According to notes taken at the meeting by Willie Mae Lee, King told the audience: “Our opponents, I hate to think of our governmental officials as opponents, but they are, have tried all sorts of things to break us, but we still hold steadfast.”
King said efforts to negotiate a compromise had failed, telling the crowd “they tried to conquer by dividing and that failed. And now they are trying to intimidate us by a get-tough-policy and that’s going to fail too because a man’s language is courage when his back is against the wall.”
“If all I have to pay is going to jail a few times and getting about 20 threatening calls a day,” King said, “I think that is a very small price to pay for what we are fighting for.”
There is no indication in Lee’s notes about when King received news of the bombing.
But King rushed from the pulpit and arrived at his damaged home 15 minutes later. To his relief, he found that this his wife and daughter were not injured.
An angry crowd of Black people began gathering outside King’s front yard.
He walked out on his damaged porch and delivered an impromptu speech seared in history.
“People let out with cheers that could be heard blocks away,” the Advertiser reported. “With the raising of his hand, they became quiet.”
King asked the crowd, infuriated by racial injustice and the bombing, to stay calm.
“We believe in law and order,” King said. “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. … Love them and let them know you love them.”
“I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”
Though police offered a $500 reward, there’s no evidence anyone was ever charged with the crime. Instead, King and more than 80 other leaders of the boycott would be indicted by the city “under a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business,” according to the King Institute. King was tried and convicted on the charge and ordered to pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail in the case State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr.
But the boycott continued. It ended successfully more than a year later after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. King’s leadership of the boycott propelled him to national fame — and made him a target.
In Montgomery on the night of the bombing — more than 12 years before an assassin would take his life — King offered reassurance to his followers. He told the crowd to “go home and don’t worry. … We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.”
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