Of Movements and a Man.
By David Chalmers
Vol. 9, No. 3, 1987, pp. 20-22
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By David J. Garrow. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986. $800 pp. 19.96 [sic] )
Society castrates its saints and turns them into idealized plaster-cast statuary. In order to live with them, we trivialize their lives and dilute their message to the point that they no longer make us uncomfortable. St. Francis, whose radical poverty challenged the wealth and power of the Church, became the kindly friend of the birds and animals, and the Martin Luther King of memorial orations and student papers offers an unthreatening message of love and non-violence. In the Epilogue to his Pulitzer-prize winning account of King and the civil rights struggle, David Garrow approvingly quotes Vincent Harding’s complaint that King is being turned into a “rather smoothed-off respectable national hero.” However, if anything threatens to crack the plaster of that respectability, it is not King’s radicalism, but his humanity. As the recent struggles of presidential candidates, TV evangelists, the United States Marines, and the Roman Catholic Church remind us, there are no easy answers to coming to terms with human sexuality, and there is always the danger of discrediting information falling into unfriendly hands, in King’s case, the FBI which set out to destroy him.
At the core of western Christianity is the Jesus who is both suffering human and son of God, and a deep religious conviction was the mainstay of King’s thirteen-year public ministry. King was twenty-six in 1955 when he was called to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery; when he was killed in Memphis, he was thirty-nine. It was in Montgomery, sitting alone in prayer at his kitchen table, that he found himself in the voice of Jesus which told him to fight on and promised “never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.” From that vision, which echoed through the rest of his life, he came to accept the role from which he realized he could never escape and that he foresaw would lead to his death. This acceptance is central to his life and the account of that ministry which David Garrow appropriately entitles, Bearing the Cross. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It is a monumental piece of research, based on more than seven hundred interviews (over two hundred conducted by Garrow himself), tens of thousands of pages of material obtained from the government under the Freedom of Information Act (including hundreds of King’s tapped phone conversations), and the careful search of archival and secondary sources. For years, David Garrow, an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York, has been the best-informed and most thoughtful historian of the Southern civil rights movement, freely sharing his work with other interested students. His previous studies on Protest at Selma (1978) and The FBl and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1981) also helped prepare the ground for Bearing the Cross.
Although the Pulitzer award was for biography rather than in the history category, a shift made by the governing board, Garrow is basically interested only in King’s life in the civil rights movement. Until his death, first the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and then the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were his life, and his, theirs. What was going on in Washington, Mississippi, Chicago, in the King family, and elsewhere, are presented only from the angle of his participation; the rest simply lies outside of the scope of Garrow’s book.
From this “movement book,” much can be learned about movements for social change. Overshadowing everything else is how difficult it was to keep going. Unlike a corporation, political party, or government, it did not sell a product candidate, or the exercise of public power. There was no
firmly institutionalized structure and source of income. The SCLC was essentially one man; King was its policy, image, and, often, funding. He had to make the decisions, give the word on the strategy of the campaigns and the tactics in the streets, reconcile the conflicts within SCLC and between it and SNCC, the NAACP, and the power structures of Birmingham, Chicago, and Washington. Often the fees for his speeches were SCLC’s major source of income. As a result, he was continuously in motion, not just in the South but across the country, speaking, preaching, fund raising, planning, conferring, negotiating, persuading. Mixed in with these were marches, court appearances, jail time, and violence. He was the recipient of blows, missiles, and a stab wound close to the heart, death threats, and pressure from the FBI. The combination of all of these repeatedly brought him to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion.
The civil rights movement was threatening not only to white supremacy, but to black arrangements as well. This meant the hostility of the NAACPs Roy Wilkins as well as the National Baptist Convention’s Joseph Jackson. Cooperation often proved difficult for black ministers more accustomed to domination over their own congregations. The jealousy of Ralph Abernathy, the prickly independence of Fred Shuttlesworth, the imperiousness of Wyatt Walker, the uncertainty about Jesse Jackson’s motives, the alienation of E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks, and the hostility of Ella Baker produced problems, and there was always conflict between top staffers to be addressed. In his emotionally demanding world, King was closest to his old Montgomery friend Abernathy and particularly came to depend on Andrew Young and Stanley Levison.
Levison’s recent ties with the Communist Party were the occasion for FBI surveillance that wrapped itself around and sought to destroy King’s life. Despite warnings from the Justice Department and the White House, King maintained his relationship with Levison. By Garrow’s account, Levison served King well as editor, advisor, and friend, showing no signs of a separate agenda.
After Selma, Levison summed up for King the limitations that the civil rights movement faced. The American people were “not ready for a radical restructuring of the economic order.” While they would react strongly against “shocking violence and gross injustice,” they were not prepared to make deep changes in order to free the Negro, and the movement had to act within this limit. It was King who was becoming more radical than Levison, but the question was always how to proceed. He never deviated from his commitment to non-violence, but he came to realize that it had to be a political strategy as well as moral persuasion. By the mid-sixties, no one any longer talked about “redeeming the soul” of the South or of America. The concern was with the power to make changes.
The failure of the Albany campaign in 1962 had been a particularly instructive experience. The key to change was “federal commitment” and provoking violence was the essential way to force its hand. A “Bull” Connor or a Sheriff Jim Clark was necessary to dramatize the situation, bring tensions to the surface, reach a national government that placed “order” above social justice. Action had to be focused. Specific targets were necessary. Attacking segregation in general was too broad. Where voting strength was lacking, it was a mistake to go after the politicians. The economic power structure was more crucial and the local business community could be frightened by the threat of black disorder. Not only were school children used as demonstrators in Birmingham, but crowds of black spectators were liable to erupt into brick and bottle throwing when the police used dogs and firehoses on demonstrators. This and masses of unrestrained black teenagers downtown had more of an impact on businessmen than peaceful picketing and sit-ins.
Coming off of the failure in Albany, the lessons of Birmingham were those of better planning and preparation, the importance of selecting specific goals, and the power of economic boycott, youthful protest, and spontaneous participants. Both King and the Kennedys became convinced that legislation was necessary. The murder of Medgar Evers, on the night of the President’s television address against segregation, surely underlined that persuasion alone was not enough. Protest tactics alone were not enough. Political action and coalitions were necessary for change.
Although the crucial audience had become national, the battle for that attention had to be fought locally. This meant local people, local organizations, and local goals. Despite appearances, local unity was often fragile or lacking; middle-class black people and college students were often hesitant to take part. One of the real achievements in Selma was the participation of the school teachers. Local campaigns could not be sustained for very long periods. There had to be a way to convince local people that it had all been worthwhile. Focus on two or three points could produce a sense of victory, so the campaign could wind up and move on elsewhere. It was sometimes difficult for local people to understand the broader symbolic consequences of small, tangible gains. The irresolvable conflict between King and SNCC was that SCLC was using local turf to fight national battles within the system, while SNCC’s young activists sought to develop grassroots organization and power. SCLC’s strength was the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., not participatory democracy, and King’s jail time was a strategic resource, not an everyday tactic.
Like everything else, the role of the press was ambiguous. Its coverage was the essential gateway to the national scene, but it fed on conflict, praised Albany Police Chief Laurie Prichett for “remarkable restraint” when he didn’t produce any, and undercut civil rights strategy by sharing their inside information with him. The agendas of the press were not always favorable; when King committed himself against the Vietnam War, it was not only Life Magazine but also the New York Times and the Washington Post that denounced him.
For King and SCLC, the problem was always “What next?” As he went north to Chicago to agitate about jobs, housing, and education, he was increasingly concerned about the problems of wealth and class in American society. By failing to speak out against the Vietnam War, he believed that he was shirking his responsibility. Racism, militarism, and economic exploitation were all tied in together. His radicalism and his pessimism grew together. The civil rights movement was too middle class and America as a nation had never committed itself to economic justice. The leaders who preached non-violence through the democratic system were “not given enough victories,” but still within its context he searched for a new strategy. Although no one was really enthusiastic over it, he decided on a “poor people’s campaign.” Waves of the “poor and disinherited” would descend on Washington, practice civil disobedience in the streets, and lobby and pressure Congress. Tired, drained, increasingly melancholy, he more and more referred back to his kitchen vision in Montgomery, and talked of his own death. A march in support of striking garbagemen in Memphis broke down into a riot, so King went back again to Memphis, to Golgotha, to show that it could be carried off nonviolently.
David Chalmers is Distinguished Alumni Professor at the University of Florida and is author of Hooded Americanism, The History of the Ku Klux Klan. He is at work on a history of social change in the 1960s.