On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Two days later, after the first day of a boycott to challenge bus segregation, its organizers discussed whether they should end the boycott. They put off a decision and headed to a protest rally at Holt Street Baptist Church, where lightning struck. Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor lacking almost any background in social activism, electrified the Holt Street gathering with a sensational address. King had no time to prepare his speech, but like Parks, he had prepared for this moment without knowing it. She was a department-store seamstress who acted spontaneously on December 1, though she was also the secretary of the local NAACP and knew that a plan existed to challenge bus segregation. He was uniquely suited to inspire and hold together America’s greatest liberation movement. Had King not lived in Montgomery, someone else would have had to emerge to lead the civil rights movement. But had King lived anywhere else, lightning would not have struck in Montgomery.
He did not come from nowhere. Long before King burst on the national scene, there was a tradition of black social-gospel leaders who tried to abolish Jim Crow and the mania of racial lynching, refuted the racist culture that demeaned their human dignity, and formed a succession of protest organizations. They showed that progressive theology could be combined with social-justice politics in black-church contexts. They refused to give up on the black churches, even as a chorus of black and white intellectuals contended that black churches were hopelessly self-centered, provincial, insular, anti-intellectual, and conservative. The black social gospel is strangely overlooked, but it provided the theology of social justice that the civil rights movement preached and sang, and without it King would not have known what to say when lightning struck in Montgomery.