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Crusader without Violence: A Q&A on the Martin Luther King Jr. biography ahead of its time

In 1960, Alabama’s state board of education ordered the firing of Dr. Lawrence D. Reddick from his post as chair of the history department at Alabama State University (then Alabama State College).

Reddick’s crime? He had been accused by the state’s segregationist governor, John Patterson, of being a member of the Communist Party. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left, sits with historian Lawrence D. Reddick. In 1959, Reddick published Crusader without Violence, the first biography of King. The following year, he was dismissed from his position as the chair of Alabama State University's Dept. of History for allegedly being a member of the Communist Party — a charge levied at many civil rights activists — by the State Board of Education. Photo courtesy of Derryn Eroll Moten

It was a charge levied against many who were involved in the civil rights movement. A year earlier, Reddick had published Crusader without Violence, the first biography of Martin Luther King Jr., who had arrived in Montgomery six years earlier with his wife and children to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which Reddick attended. During his time in Montgomery, King became the leader and most recognizable voice of the national movement for civil rights, largely because of his role in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. Reddick, as the historian of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized the 13-month nonviolent protest, watched it all unfold. 

Crusader without Violence is one of just two biographies of King written during his lifetime. It was out of print for years, until Derryn Eroll Moten – the current chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University – republished it with Montgomery-based NewSouth Books in 2018.

We talked to Moten recently about the importance of Reddick’s book, King’s legacy as a civil rights leader, the role of Alabama in the civil rights movement, and the parallels he sees between the 1960s and today. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.   

Tell us about Lawrence D. Reddick and his book, Crusader without Violence. 

This book is important because it was written about Dr. King at a time when many outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama, really knew nothing about Dr. King. I would say that Montgomery made Dr. King famous, particularly the Montgomery bus boycott. So, this book is important because Dr. Reddick was an eyewitness to the Montgomery bus boycott. He was the historian of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He was a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Dr. King pastored, the reason why Dr. King moved to Montgomery.

Why did you decide to republish Crusader without Violence?

Derryn Eroll Moten, chair of Alabama State University's Dept. of History and Political Science

I’m now the chair of the Department of History and Political Science. Dr. Reddick was the chair of the Department of History when he wrote this book, and I was also moved to republish this book because of what happened to Dr. Reddick in the wake of this book’s publication. Dr. Reddick was terminated in June of 1960 at the behest of Gov. John Patterson by the Alabama State Board of Education for allegedly being a member of the Communist Party. 

Dr. Reddick alleged, and I agree, that the real reason why he was fired was because of his biography of Dr. King and because of his position against segregation or the segregation laws in the city and in the state. So I wanted this book republished because not a whole lot of people know about this book, including my students. So now, we have a chance to introduce this book to a new generation of readers.

African Americans walk to work instead of riding the bus during the third month of an eventual 381-day bus boycott, Montgomery, Alabama, February 1956. (Photo by Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Why is Crusader without Violence significant to African Americans who participated in the civil rights movement? 

I think it’s a reminder of what it took. … The Montgomery bus boycott was not an ordinary protest in that this was a 13-month-long protest. Probably one of the longest protests in American history, and there were all kinds of reasons why people would have believed that the protests wouldn’t have been successful. And yet, you had ordinary Montgomery citizens, you had porters, you had maids, you had schoolteachers, you had ministers, and everybody else in between who participated in this movement. 

It required … a certain discipline, but it also required them sort of trusting Dr. King. He was an unknown entity to this community. He did not grow up here; he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. But very few people knew anything about Dr. King, so they had to put their trust in King and I think he rewarded that trust over and over again. You know, Dr. King was 25 years old and when they took on the city fathers of Montgomery, they entered the lion’s den.

Dr. King was able to orchestrate a 13-month, non-violent protest which overturned the segregation laws of the city as well as the segregation laws of the state for buses. I think then and now people can look back on that moment with pride because, as I said, nothing like that had really been accomplished prior to the Montgomery bus boycott. The odds were against any success at all. 

Map of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

How were African Americans participating in the Montgomery bus boycott affected by the protest?

[Montgomery] was very much segregated, and so people did have to walk some distances, particularly for those persons who worked in white homes. And then, at a certain point, their employers would pick them up on street corners or whatever and ferry them to their residence. When people participated in this boycott, they put everything on the line. They put their jobs on the line. They put their personal security on the line. … Birmingham has the reputation of being “Bombingham,” but Montgomery was probably the twin of Birmingham.

And the white community rallied against the boycott. Can you talk about that a bit?

A black woman watches as robed Ku Klux Klansmen walk in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, prior to a cross burning rally that night, November 24, 1956. Circulars advertising Klan meeting said, "We believe in white supremacy, we need you -- you need us." The boycott, which last for 13 months, ended segregated public transit in Montgomery and throughout Alabama. (AP Photo)

I think one of the things those of us who didn’t grow up during those days really can’t sort of grasp is the sheer determination that whites had to maintain segregation. There was no waffling on this issue at all. People were clear in their minds for whatever reasons that this system would exist. And I often tell my students despite all the doomsday theories, all the chicken littles – the sky’s gonna fall if my son sits next to your white daughter – none of that has happened. Yet, people held onto these beliefs tenaciously.

I really do think that at the root or the crux of it, it was really about power. … What I think whites feared more than anything is blacks having the same political rights as they had because that would mean that they would then have to compete with African Americans for these political laws and such. So the White Citizens’ Council and so on, these groups were adamant that segregation, as George Wallace said in his [1963] inaugural address, [would continue] today, tomorrow, forever.

Why is it important to recognize that Dr. King had a sense of humor and found joy in life, in addition to recognizing the seriousness of his work for civil rights?

Not many people saw the jovial side of him. Of course, his family did. His friends did. His close associates did, and one of his closest associates was Rev. Ralph Abernathy. So they knew that side of Dr. King, but Dr. King was burdened by a lot. What he had on his shoulders at the tender age of 25, 26, 27, was a lot and more than most people could probably withstand.

Crusader without Violence is one the first biography written of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Its author, Lawrence D. Reddick, was one of King's parishioners at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the historian of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized the 13-month long Montgomery bus boycott.

Once the boycott was fully in gear, the death threats were constant, so there are reports that Mrs. King wouldn’t even want to answer their home phone out of fear that the person on the other end of the line would be someone who would threaten their family. So all that weight was on Dr. King. So yeah, I think most of the times when we see photographs of him, he is very somber. But one of the reasons why we chose the photograph that we use for the cover of the republished Crusader without Violence is that this is a photo that actually shows Dr. King smiling. He had a good smile. 

Dr. King became the leader of the civil rights movement by happenstance. He did not come to Montgomery to lead a movement. He came to Montgomery to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The hands of history sort of worked the way they did, and he was chosen primarily because of his education and primarily because he was an outsider. As they say in Hollywood, the rest is history. He was probably the best spokesman for not only the civil rights protest here in Montgomery, but the civil rights movement nationally.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, the first defendant called to trial in the Montgomery bus boycott, holds a press conference on March 19, 1956 on the steps of the Montgomery County courthouse where he and 92 others are on trial. They are charged with the violation of the anti-boycott law. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick)

What makes this an important book for people fighting for civil rights today?

I think there’s a lot we can learn from the Montgomery bus boycott. Keeping a movement together for over a year requires a lot. You have to be pretty skilled. … I don’t know if they study the Montgomery bus boycott in the war college, but they probably should, because I think generals can learn a few things from the leaders of this movement. They kept people disciplined. I mean, there were no violent outbreaks even though there were many occasions where there could have been, and I think that’s no small feat.

When people are committed to a cause and when they believe in their leadership, they’ll go wherever. And as I said, these people, they were committed. They believed in the leadership of that movement and they would have gone two years, they would have gone three years, I believe. They were in it to win it. 

What made Alabama such a critical place for civil rights organizing?

People listen to speakers during an event at the Lorraine Motel commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis, on April 4, 2018. "He believed that he could reason to a higher power and that, eventually, if this country was going to survive, if the Constitution was going to survive, then segregation would have to end," historian Derryn Eroll Moten said. Photo by Hannah Baldwin

I think Alabama is America’s Concord, Boston, Lexington. This, to me, was really the place where the second American Revolution took place, and this was really about the Constitution. So, as Julian Bond liked to say, the people who participated in the Birmingham campaign and the Montgomery campaign and the Selma campaign made the Constitution real. One of the things I like about Dr. King is he said at that first mass meeting that the hallmark of the

American Constitution is the right to fight or to protest for rights, and I believe that. So just as Thurgood Marshall or Robert Carter or Spottswood Robinson and all those NAACP attorneys believed, if they kept hammering away at segregation, reminding judges what the Constitution says, eventually they would overcome and they would be victorious.

And I think Dr. King shared those views, that he believed that he could reason to a higher power and that, eventually, if this country was going to survive, if the Constitution was going to survive, then segregation would have to end.

What parallels do you see between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1960s?

I suppose the parallels that I see between the presidency of Donald Trump and the 1960s is this whole idea of nullification, this whole idea of interposition, this whole idea that gives aid and comfort to groups like neo-Nazis and the [Ku Klux Klan]. It’s just frightening on so many levels.

For the president of the United States to say publicly that the caravan that’s … making its way to the United States has among the group rapists, and we need to prevent these folks from entering the United States because we need to protect our women, I mean that is chilling. … And let’s just be honest, a white male president of the United States talks about brown men in that fashion because 50 years ago white male politicians said the very same thing about black men. And black men were lynched from one end of the country to the other because of those fears and those accusations.

What do you think we should do about public symbols of the Confederacy?

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America. Courtesy of WikiCommons

The first time the word “slave” appears in the U.S. Constitution is in the 13th Amendment, as opposed to the Confederate Constitution, where it says … that the Confederate Congress shall pass no law banning the importation of Negro slaves into the Western territories. So what I say to my students is that where the U.S. Constitution is ambiguous, the Confederate Constitution is unambiguous. They wanted me to know they weren’t talking about white indentured servitude, they were talking about Negro slavery.

So with all due respect to the Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, when I have these discussions with them I say, “Well, if you guys weren’t interested in slavery, or if the Confederacy wasn’t interested in slavery, why is it in [the Confederate] constitution?”

How do you respond when people say the American Civil War was fought over “states’ rights” and not slavery? 

It’s ridiculous, in my opinion, because all you have to do is read the Confederate Constitution. I mean, it’s clear. The soldiers may have felt they were fighting for their sovereignty or whatever, but the Confederate government, in so far as [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis and [Vice President] Alexander Stephens were concerned, no. This was about slavery, pure and simple. 

And why wouldn’t it have been? Slavery was the bread and butter of the Southern economy. My two favorite antebellum cities are Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. The first time my wife and I visited Charleston, which was back in the 1980s – and I don’t want to be melodramatic – we went down to the historic section near Battery Park and I stood there and I cried, because I’m thinking, “My God. How in the world did these people live like this?” And then it was obvious. Slavery. These people lived better than 95 percent or more of Americans that lived in this country.