The Organization Behind the Man.
Vol. 9, No. 3, 1987, p. 21
To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. By Adam Fairclough. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. 505 pp. Paper, $17.95. Cloth, $35.)
Arriving coincidentally with David Garrow’s overwhelming work on the same topic, this thoroughly researched, thoughtful, and well-written study by a British historian is likely to life under the shadow of being “the other book,” yet there is much that can be learned from it. Fairclough uses Garrow’s earlier writing, expresses appreciation for personal sharing, and does not basically disagree with his interpretation of King and what happened in and to the movement. The difference in emphasis is indicated by the ordering of the sub-titles. Garrow names King first, and Fairclough, the SCLC. Both authors are in agreement on King’s achievements, on the centrality of religion and non-violence in King’s life and King’s centrality in the SCLC, the collapse of the civil rights movement after the Voting Rights Act, and King’s growing radicalism, but Fairclough is writing organizational history, not biography.
Although recognizing housing as the “bedrock” of school and job segregation, neither author has much favorable to say about King’s 1966 campaign in Chicago, which may underline how difficult the basic problem was. In the face of white backlash, a hostile coalition in Congress, black nationalism, urban rioting, the Vietnam war, and the loss of presidential backing, there was little hope for new gains. Fairclough seems to suggest that King and the SCLC might have fared better by concentrating on voter registration and political organization, but the “movement phase” of change was probably over. Movements are hard to organize and difficult to maintain. It is not easy to repeatedly face possible injury, arrest and job loss, particularly when one has a family to support. People have other personal priorities and lives to live. Problems beyond the defeat of legal segregation were too deep to be touched by non-violent demonstration in the streets. Coalitions were fragile, and maintaining unity was difficult. Even during the “great days” in Birmingham, only about ten percent of the city’s black ministers actively supported the campaign.
Fairclough gives less importance to Birmingham than Garrow does and offers a more favorable picture of Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth. He particularly admires the political sophistication of the older left activists Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison, but even they had no real path to offer after the middle sixties.
Because of his focus on the organization, rather than King, Fairclough often gives a much broader picture of what was going on. He begins with a brief description of the bus boycotts in Baton Rouge and Tallahassee which set the scene for Montgomery and explains what went on during the fatal Memphis garbage strike in 1968. He offers useful thumbnail biographical sketches of James Bevel, Wyatt Walker, Harry Wachtel, James Lawson, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, C.T. Vivian and other movement leaders, and he carries the story through the Abernathy years after King’s death. In summing up, Fairclough comes back to King again. Desegregation and the ballot did not end discrimination and poverty, but it did knock away major props of institutionalized white supremacy and helped black people achieve dignity. With idealism, dedication, and courage, Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the history and culture, and expressed the aspirations of black Southerners. “SCLC itself was far more than King,” Fairclough concludes, “but his death revealed how completely he dominated it through intellect, personality, moral example, and organizational skill.”