In response to:
Prophet with Honor from the October 27, 1983 issue
To the Editors:
I would like to respond to Marshall Frady’s review of Let the Trumpet Soundin the October 27 issue of The New York Review of Books. I believe that the review presents a distorted view of Dr. King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and leaves the erroneous impression that charismatic leadership is the key to understanding struggles for racial and economic justice in the South during the Sixties.
On page 81 Frady says “…King was brought into history largely by accident—late on a December afternoon in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, the aching corns of a weary black seamstress led her to refuse a bus driver’s demand that she surrender her seat to a white man. King was then a young pastor…still delivering to his congregations sermons improbably freighted with allusions to Aquinas, Freud, Carlyle, and Alfred the Great. Then as Rosa Parks’ stubborn refusal was rapidly magnified into a boycott of the city’s segregated buses…King quickly emerged as the great folk apotheosis of that movement, bringing now his carefully compiled precepts from Thoreau, Niebuhr, Gandhi, into what would become…perhaps the nation’s highest moral struggle since the Civil War.”
Let’s begin with the “weary black seamstress,” Mrs. Rosa Parks. Frady does not mention that for ten years prior to that day in December Mrs. Parks was the Executive Secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, nor that she and her husband had been involved in struggles to overcome racism for over twenty years prior to the boycott. They for example had raised money for the defense in the Scottsboro Boys trial and had risked their own lives sneaking food into jail for the defendants. Mrs. Parks was weary when she refused to move to the back of the bus but she was neither naive nor unwilling to take on the Montgomery white establishment.
The Director of the Montgomery NAACP at that time was E.D.Nixon, a leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He knew about unions, strikes, boycotts and other strategies that working people used to force concession from their bosses. He and Mrs. Parks had been looking for an occasion to confront the white establishment in Birmingham for quite a while, had developed mechanisms of communication within the black community and were quite prepared to mount a boycott when the proper moment arrived. Contrary to the belief implicit in Frady’s review, the boycott was not a spontaneous uprising by poor uneducated people that found their intellectual leader in King. It was a planned deliberate strategy of confrontation based on the confidence of black community leaders that Mrs. Parks would have the strength to take the risks involved in being the focal point of white anger.
Behind the boycott are other events that led to a readiness on the part of many blacks in the South to risk their lives in the 1960s. One of them was the effect of the Citizenship Schools which under the sponsorship of the Highlander Folkschool and the leadership of Mrs. Septima Clarke taught over 50,000 black adults to read and register to vote, a feat never before accomplished in the United States. It is no accident that many of the people who became leaders in the South during the Civil Rights Movement had either been teachers at a Citizenship School or learned to read and registered to vote because of attending them. It is also no accident that Mrs. Parks had attended a workshop at Highlander on the United Nations and world government the summer before the Montgomery bus boycott.
Martin Luther King, Jr., by the way also attended educational workshops at Highlander and anyone who was in the South during the Civil Rights Movement will remember billboard posters declaring: “Martin Luther King, Jr., attends Communist Training School.” The posters showed Dr. King at a Highlander workshop. King never denied that he did go to Highlander often, though despite the wishes of Hoover and the KKK Highlander was not communist. It was and still is progressive and antiracist and never denied it.
King then arrived in a Birmingham that was ready to support a boycott and defy the white community. It was organized through years of very risky work by many people. These people had ideas and ideals. When E.D. Nixon decided that Rosa Parks’ arrest was the occasion to mobilize people he decided to call a meeting at King’s church. From some accounts King was reluctant to go along with Nixon’s plan but he did finally agree to let his church be used for the meeting.
This does not take away from King’s greatness but does provide a shift of focus that is necessary to understand what went on in the South in the Sixties and will hopefully happen again throughout the nation. King’s teachers may have been Thoreau, Niebuhr and Gandhi but they were also E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, Septima Clarke, Miles Horton and many many people whose lives touched him. His martyrdom was as much if not more a consequence of that part of him that responded to the people who had prepared the struggle as to the books he had read or the professors he had studied with. It is no accident that Mrs. Clarke and the Citizenship School and voter registration projects moved to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after Highlander’s property was confiscated by the state of Tennessee. Nor is it incidental that King was killed during his first public attempt to show solidarity with a labor union and talk about the need for economic as well as social justice.
I believe that Frady has himself taken Carlyle too seriously and turned King into the great man who created a movement and led it all by himself. That is simply not true and it does a disservice to all of those people mostly black who risked their lives to make the Civil Rights Movement possible. King was a leader but he learned from the people he led, and though his death is usually referred to as symbolic of the end of the Civil Rights Movement the movement didn’t die. It just became less fashionable for most whites to think and write about racial justice and easier for the FBI to work actively to destroy groups and discredit individuals. I believe that the lessons we can best learn come not from the life of Dr. King, as extraordinary as he was, but from the many people and organizations that made it possible for there to be people to march behind King in the first place.
Marshall Frady replies:
Most of Mr. Kohl’s points seem to me obvious, and I am unhappy he has deduced that I imagine King “the great man who created a movement and led it all by himself.” Without people like those he mentions—Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Miles Horton, so many others—King would have been striving emptily in wind, of course. Dramatic popular historical surges like the civil rights movement of the Sixties are almost always a symbiosis—in this case, between the many partisans of that movement and its great galvanic folk figure, King. Each, in different senses, fulfilled the other. I should have thought that elementary.