History, Hope and Heroes
By Julian Bond
Vol. 15, No. 4, 1993, pp. 1-7
In 1993, the grandson of an American slave teaches at the university slave owner Thomas Jefferson founded in Virginia, and teaches young Americans about the modern day struggle for human liberty. That struggle has its roots in Jefferson’s words more than his deeds and its parallels in my grandfather, James Bond’s, membership in a transcendent generation—that body of black women and men born in the nineteenth century in servitude, freed by the Civil War, determined to make their way as free women and men.
My students are modern young men and women, filled with the cynicism and despair of their age. For them, these are the worst of times, and my documentation of a harsher and more oppressive past does not always convince them that these days are better times than those older days they study with me.
Today’s world holds few heroes for my students, and this lack of heroes, coupled with their pessimism, makes them unlikely candidates to create a movement of their own.
My students learn about a more modern generation of Americans than my grandfather’s. The transcendent generation they study, born in segregation in the twentieth century, was freed from racism’s legal restraints by its member’s own efforts, determined to make their way in freedom.
The historian’s task is to remind the students—to remind ourselves—that King was more than the movement and that the movement was more than Martin Luther King. Through demonstrating the democratic nature of the movement, we not only discover and
expose heroism unknown, we demonstrate the optimism and sense of possibility which was the movement’s engine. By giving voice to the hopefulness of earlier generations who faced resistance and oppression my students have never known, and will never know, we make heroism more available, more attainable.
I want my students to learn history, heroes, and hope.
Preserving and interpreting the civil rights past requires acknowledgement that the movement was made by many, not the few, and the avoidance of the King-deification and dependence which has so permeated the historical discourse.
One hundred and thirty years ago President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Because my grandfather was born in Kentucky, he remained a slave until the 13th Amendment became law in 1865.
Fifty years ago the world was at war, and Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met in Teheran.
Back in the United States, between May and August of 1943, race riots swept through American cities, resulting in forty deaths.
1993 also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the civil rights movement’s notable March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his best-remembered speech, in which he asked Americans to share his dream.
These anniversaries provide a handy platform from which retrospectives can be launched, and a proper distance from which to look back upon an event with suitable detachment.
In our glorification of the past, we often bemoan the present day reality. From the present we look backward and see the modern civil rights movement as heroic, with King in the leading role. I want to discuss King as hero, first in the larger context, and specifically in his role in Birmingham, Alabama thirty years ago. By regarding King and the civil rights movement as heroic, we miss the reality of each. Each becomes more—and less—than they actually were, robbing today’s lesser mortals of any ability to duplicate their heroism today.
Too, our heroes have changed as technology has changed our expectations, and that technology has expanded the lists from which heroes can be chosen—today they come more frequently from weekly combat on
the playing field than from the battleground.
The oral tradition that once transmitted heroic words from generation to generation has been replaced by the VCR. Today we can fast-forward through a modern hero’s life to get to the good parts. Once we were inspired by the telling; today we are entertained by the viewing.
Buckskin-clad backwoodsmen and powder-wigged Founding Fathers have been replaced by the Italian-suited Wall Streeter and the head-shaved sports star. That athlete transcends racial boundaries; today, so does Martin Luther King.
This marvelous man who was my college teacher speaks in death and memory to whites and blacks as he never did in life.
In grainy film taken at his 1963 March on Washington speech, we hear again the measured, rhythmic cadence, we see the commanding presence, we hear the booming voice, we share the martyr’s dream.
We honor him because of what he means to our imperfect and selective memories—the stoic who faced injury and death, and the major figure of his period, the spokesman for nonviolence, able to articulate for whites what blacks wanted and for blacks what would be required if freedom was to be the prize.
But that King is half the man. The King we see is a blurred picture of who the man was.
The reappraisals of King, his leadership, the movement he helped to make, and most recently his character have taken a familiar path.
Thirty years ago he emerged triumphant from Birmingham. He had skillfully employed youthful demonstrators whose buoyancy and vitality provoked the anticipated and nationally-televised violence from the local police. He had drawn an unwilling President into his drama; the President’s men helped make a settlement possible.
A few months later his dramatic speech at the March on Washington cemented his place as first among equals in America’s civil rights leadership. Like the beatings and hosings in Birmingham, King’s Washington speech was televised; in a nation-wide mass meeting, an American audience was treated for the first time to the unedited oratory of America’s principal preacher, and for the first time, a mass white audience heard the undeniable justice of black demands. By 1965 King was at the apex of black leadership; his success in Selma at soliciting national revulsion at racist violence translated into federal action and marked him as the primary figure in America in the leadership of what was being called the Negro revolution. With King as leader, the organized movement would remain peaceful, and the movement’s goals would remain inclusive into the American mainstream, but other events and personalities would begin to intrude.
In December, 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; within a few months he demonstrated he took the Prize seriously, speaking out against the War in Vietnam.
King’s conscience could not avoid involving him against the war, and his anti-war activities gave him a chance to further define himself.
“I’m much more than a civil rights leader,” he said in mid-1965, while insisting his major focus would continue to be the struggle against black oppression.
He took a campaign against discrimination and black poverty to Chicago in 1965 and 1966, but Chicago’s rigid politics suffocated the movement he tried to build. He still peppered his speeches with darts against the war and spoke more forcefully against what he called America’s “vicious class system(s).”
“If our economic system is to survive,” he told his Atlanta congregation, “there must be a better distribution of wealth… We can’t have a system where some people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.”1In the middle of King’s Chicago campaign, James Meredith was shot on his one-man march through Mississippi. King and others took up the March. In a dusty cotton field Stokeley Carmichael shouted “Black Power,” and the rift between King’s moderation and the militancy of other movement figures became public. Black power did more than frighten whites and black moderates; it divided support for the move-
ment and gave sanction to those who thought American blacks already had won enough.
Acceptable pluralism became unacceptable separatism when the proponents’ skins were black; pride became arrogance when nonviolent petitioner became militant demander.
King’s last years were marked by attitudinal changes—in black America’s demands and white Americans’ response. In Montgomery in 1955 blacks had asked for seats at an abundant table; they could gain and no one—except the believers in white supremacy—had to lose. As the movement grew in strength and extended beyond the borders of the Old Confederacy, many whites began to believe blacks wanted the whole table for themselves.
King interrupted preparations for a Poor People’s March on Washington to help striking garbage workers in Memphis; it was there he was murdered in 1968.
The violence he had fought against in life, and had exploited so brilliantly to win sympathy for civil rights in the South, exploded across America in the aftermath of his murder.
Eighteen years later, President Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed the law that made King’s birthdate a national holiday, and today schoolchildren across America know part of the story of Martin Luther King. His heroic status was assured.
The story schoolchildren do not know is what makes making heroes the peculiar and ironic process that it is. They do not know that in Martin Luther King’s America what had been “a culture with a racist ideology,” became “a chronically racist culture” after Emancipation, unifying all who found themselves “within the Caucasian chalk circle,” offering reward and punishment based on pigmentation in King’s time and today.2
The movement King helped to lead destroyed the moral authority undergirding that culture; that is why we honor him. We do not honor the severe critic of capitalism and its excesses. We do not honor the pacifist who preached that all wars were evil, who said a nation which chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself. We do not honor the man who linked apartheid in South African and South Alabama. We honor an antiseptic hero.
He could not have imagined his birthday would be a national holiday or that American schoolchildren of all races would spend the days surrounding January 15 each year declaiming his March on Washington speech, learning about Rosa Parks and the boycott in Montgomery.
And he could not have imagined that he would be considered by many to be a hero, for if he realized he was worshiped in his lifetime, he thought that worship vainglorious and misplaced. He knew his human failings.
Because his opinions remain controversial today, we selectively honor only part of the whole man; even the most vigorous opponents of civil rights can find a King quote to camouflage their racism. They often chose excerpts from the “I Have A Dream” speech given thirty years ago.
1993 marks also the thirtieth anniversary year of “Project C” for ‘confrontation,’ the plan created by the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to bring creative tension to Alabama’s largest city. I first knew Birmingham as a student from Atlanta; it was a place where you did not linger after football games between Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and Birmingham’s Parker High School, particularly if Parker lost. I knew the city later, from the perspective of a participant in the modern civil rights movement, as “Bombingham” because of the frequency of its explosive attacks on blacks. It became known throughout the nation and the world in 1963 as the site of a ferocious fight between the movement’s nonviolent forces and the white resistance, and it was here thirty years ago that a bloody bomb ended the lives of four young girls. In Birmingham’s streets a drama unfolded that typifies the entire civil rights movement for many: nonviolent protestors, many of them pre-school children, singing while they marched from the Sixteenth Street
Baptist Church into blasts of water fired from cannons whose power, it was said, could strip bark from trees and bricks from buildings.
Looking backward from today at the events which happened here, we can see the Birmingham of 1963 through others’ eyes. Historians and movement leaders alike have much to tell us about what was done and what it meant—to them then and to us today.
Taylor Branch and David Garrow, in their Pulitzer Prize winning studies3 of Martin Luther King, have given us moving portraits of the man and the movement he helped to make, in Birmingham and elsewhere. For Garrow, Birmingham was where “SCLC had succeeded in bringing the civil rights struggle into the forefront of the national consciousness.”4
For some in the civil rights movement, Birmingham was observed through the parochial prisms of organizational interests, through the lens of competition with King and SCLC for national sympathy and contributions, for the loyalty of black America, and for the attention of the White House.
Despite the descriptions of prize-winning historians and authors, and despite some criticism and carping from the civil rights movement’s more prominent participants, there is much more to be learned about what happened in the Magic City in the Spring of 1963. The popular view of the Birmingham movement—children facing fire hoses and the leadership of Martin Luther King—obscures a larger level of participation and involvement that explains the democratic nature of the Southern struggle for human rights.
A visitor today may be surprised to learn that Birmingham is eager to exploit its civil rights past. The city is home today to a new Civil Rights Institute, opened in 1992. It is a wonderful structure, built with taxpayers’ money, a remarkable fact in view of the outbreak of protests in Birmingham a mere thirty years ago. A visitor to the Institute can learn much about what took place in the surrounding streets three decades ago, particularly why the movement was called a mass movement. Here visitors have a chance to learn much about heroes and heroism.
In a ledger the Institute has used as a visitors’ book on and since its opening days are written the accounts of movement participants. Those who signed were asked to record what they did—whether they marched, were arrested, or served in some capacity or capacities, many having performed more than one activity.5
On the ledger’s first page are found thirty-six names of those who marched in 1963’s demonstrations, three who served as security guards, seven who said they were arrested and six who said they were jailed, two who served as committee members, two who served meals, and ten who worked to register voters. The pages which follow list many more.
The visitors’ ledger is the basis for the Civil Rights Institute’s planned oral history project. Its sign-up sheets are also the Birmingham movement’s social register, a roster of who was who and who did what, a roll call of the movement’s nameless and forgotten.
In a few words, testimonies of cramped shorthand, the episodes they chose to record compose their Birmingham movement.
Empress Akweke-king, now of Brooklyn wrote: “dog attacked.”
Rev. BW. Henderson of Avenue O reports “house bombed on Sugar Hill.” Ruth Barefield-Pendleton of 2nd Street West “marched Selma to Montgomery.” Doris Brewster of Riverchase Parkway simply wrote “hosed.”
Rodrick Hilson “brought kids from Bessemer to Birmingham.”
In Arthur Lee Smith’s account he “acted as liaison between jail and headquarters (church).”
Willie James Coleman boasts he was “first to go to jail for park.” Sandra Johnson’s brief narrative says simply “left school.” Glenda Bailey of Adamsville remembers “heard blast at church from the fountain Heights Methodist Church.”
Thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware could not sign in for himself; he was killed on the afternoon of September 15, 1963, in the angry aftermath of the dynamite blast Glenda Bailey heard. Riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle, he was shot by a sixteen-year-old white boy riding on the back of a motor scooter. Someone signing in for Virgil Ware wrote: “Deceased. KKK killed him same day 16th Street Baptist was bombed.”
Charlotte Billups Jernigan modestly described her father, the Rev. Charles Billups as, “Foot soldier, dedicated worker, 1927-1968.” Historians of the Birmingham movement will remember that while Rev. Billups was a dedicated worker, he was far more than a foot soldier; he was at least a Major General.
Flora Smith of Bessemer was “chaplain in jail.”
Not all who made the movement were black. Melva Jimerson, now of Washington, D.C., was “part of Alabama Council on Human Relations.” Randall Jimerson, now of East Hampton, Connecticut, “spoke out on civil rights issues with white students in Homewood.”
Many are modest. From Stafford, Vermont, William Sloane Coffin described himself simply as “Freedom Rider.”
Will Eatman of Birmingham remembered, “I was water down on 5th Avenue 17th Street.”
After twenty-five pages, each page with forty-one lines, each line defining a small space, each space filled with proud self-identifications of contributions made to breaking Alabama’s rigid walls, of days in jail, of dogs and hoses, of marches and mass meetings, and explosions heard, of offices sought and sons killed in war, of ushers and musicians and food servers, of explosions
heard, Steve Norris is the first to mention the man most Americans associate with Birmingham then and now.
Norris writes: “In jail with Martin Luther King.”
“In jail with Martin Luther King!”
Here Steven Norris lists what must have been for him the significant moment of his involvement in the Birmingham campaign. His fellow authors had summed up their magic moments in other ways; they are the primary actors, only occasionally the acted upon. It is they who “march” or “brought kids” or “were first” to go to jail or were “water down;” they were attacked by dogs or hosed by firemen or simply “spoke out” where speaking out was dangerous.
These pages, filled with the self description and identification of movement makers from Birmingham and Alabama thirty years ago—provides excellent opportunity for historians to examine the Birmingham movement anew, from the heart of the movement’s mass.
Let no one tell us their movement did not succeed.
Ask Hartman Turnbow, a black Mississippian, who said:
“Anybody hadda told me ‘fore it happened that conditions would make this much change between the white and the black in Holmes County here where I live, why I’da just said, ‘You’re lyin’. It won’t happen.’
“I just wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t dream of it. I didn’t see no way. But it got to workin’ just like the citizenship class teacher told us—that if we would register to vote and just stick with it. He says it’s goin’ be some difficulties. He told us that when we started. We was lookin’ for it. He said we gon’ have difficulties, gon’ have troubles, folks gon’ lose their homes, folks gon’ lose their lives, peoples gon’ lose all their money, and just like he said, all of that happened. He didn’t miss it. He hit it kadap on the head, and it’s workin’ now. It won’t never go back to where it was!”6
It succeeded in spite of Turnbow’s “difficulties,” in spite of what King called the brutality of a dying order shrieking across the land.
In its successes, it has much to teach us now.
Today, from Somalia and Haiti, the United States looks back at Vietnam to discover what went wrong. We can look back at yesterday’s civil rights movement to discover what went right.
Yesterday’s movement succeeded because victims became their own best champions. When Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to stand up, and when King stood up to preach, mass participation came to the movement for civil rights.
Today, too many of my students and too many others—young and old, black and white—believe they are impotent, unable to influence the society in which they live.
Three decades ago, a mass movement marched, picketed, protested and organized and brought state sanctioned segregation to it knees.
One movement message is that people move forward fastest when they move forward together. Another lesson is that heroes need more than a passive audience if their heroism is to flourish. That audience can provide a context for heroism, a supportive cast for heroic deeds and a mirror for its valor.
Black Americans worked their way to civil rights through the difficult business of organizing. Registering voters, one by one. Organizing a community, block by block. Creating a movement in which one hundred parts made up the successful whole.
The civil rights movement provides more than a century’s history of aggressive self-help and voluntarism in church and civic clubs, assisting the needy and financing the cause of social justice, and an equally long and honorable tradition of struggle and resistance.
Our task is to communicate the hopefulness that made the movement possible, the optimism that conferred heroism on a population history does not acknowledge. “Greater efforts and grander victories,” my grandfather would say.
That was his generation’s promise a century ago, an inheritance from the generation born as slaves. That is the modern movement’s promise to us now.
Julian Bond is Distinguished Adjunct Professor in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D. C., and a Lecturer in History at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He wishes to acknowledge Vincent Harding’s text Hope and History for the (un)conscious inspiration for the title of this article.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “New Wine,” Ebeneezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, January 1, 1966.
2. See Orlando Patterson, “Toward A Study Of Black America,” Dissent, Fall, 1989, New York, New York.
3. See David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, William Morrow Company, New York, 1986; Taylor Branch, Parting The Waters, Simon Schuster, New York, 1988.
4. Garrow, ibid, p. 264.
5. All listings taken by author from ledger sheets at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 Sixteenth Street North, Birmingham, Alabama, 35204. (205) 323-2276.
6. Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested, p. 25, George Putnam’s Sons, New York, (1977).