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The Dreams of Martin Luther King

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

by David J. Garrow
William Morrow, 800 pp., $19.95

Worthy causes are believed to deserve worthy histories, noble aspirations noble aspirants, and any crusade worth its salt surely requires appropriate heroes. Sometimes these felt needs are met by historians. But more commonly they are fabricated without the help of historians by the laity (or by their willing servant, the tube), eager to tidy or polish up the past, to make it inspiring or dramatic or relevant or reputable or simply more credible. It usually becomes the task of the historian to clear away these fabrications in order to construct something approximating the truth.

Since it does not take much time for myths to accumulate, the historian of the civil rights movement already has his task cut out for him. David J. Garrow does not, however, address his subject in a debunking spirit, but more in the spirit of plain-spoken, aggressive truth telling. He sets forth his findings beside the myths rather than on their ruins. While he is aware that history is not biography and biography risks hagiolatry, he nevertheless uses a biographical framework on which to hang a good deal of history.

In fairness, the subtitle for his book (the icon in the main title is not unknown to the genre) should be kept in mind—Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Taken literally, the limits thus defined would seem to spare the author much criticism. When neither King nor the SCLC was involved or when the events came before 1955 or after 1968, he can plausibly disclaim responsibility. Those events include the long struggle by many organizations including the NAACP for the Brown decision against public school segregation, which came before 1955. King and the SCLC were not involved in that or in the upheaval at Little Rock and many other civil rights battles that came afterward. They are consequently passed over briefly or omitted.

Nevertheless, the years from 1955 to 1968, when King was assassinated, are central to the history of the civil rights movement; the SCLC played a central role in that movement, and Martin King had a front and center place in the SCLC. Since the book takes a biographical form the figure of Martin King assumes monumental proportions in this account of the civil rights movement. This in spite of the author’s insistence that King was modest about his role and his abilities, and in spite of the author’s awareness of the importance of less publicized figures, as well as his acknowledgement that the movement made King rather than vice versa.

The bus boycott of Montgomery brought King to national prominence. He was then a youth of twenty-six, just out of theological school, and, according to a friend, looking “more like a boy than a man.” The brand new pastor of the “rich folks” all-black Baptist church on Dexter Avenue, King did not start the boycott.1 On being thrust into the role of its leader, he “became possessed by fear” and “obsessed by a feeling of inadequacy,” he later wrote. It was out of the bus boycott experience, which lasted thirteen months, that King began to shape his strategy of nonviolent resistance and out of which the SCLC eventually grew. Out of it also grew the mass demonstrations, arrests, indictments and jail sentences, shotgun and bombing attacks, and all the components of media attraction that helped to gain national attention, wide support, and ultimate victory. At the beginning King announced that the boycott “was not seeking to end segregation, just modify its terms,” and that there was no issue “that cannot be solved by negotiations between people of good will.”

In the way that the SCLC grew out of the bus boycott the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) grew out of the sit-in demonstrations, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in its activist phase came out of the freedom rides in the early Sixties. Each was shaped by its experience in the South. SCLC worked closely with preachers, professionals, and established leaders of the black South; SNCC formed closer ties with youth, with ordinary black families and local communities; CORE drew on northern and white support. Of earlier origins, with northern white ties, were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League.

Much of King’s energy went into keeping the peace and some measure of cooperation between these jealous organizations, and keeping their mutual suspicions and hostilities out of the public eye. It was the conviction of the NAACP that “we need only one national organization,” and Roy Wilkins stood ready “to show the young upstarts who was boss.” SNCC distrusted King’s personal commitment and neglect of locally based groups. All of the rivals were jealous of funds pouring into SCLC coffers through King’s efforts and they demanded a share for themselves. And within King’s own organization, even within his intimate circle, bitter rivalries come to the surface. Under the sheer excitement and danger in the initial stages of the movement, however, these problems were in large part kept submerged.

It is hard to imagine in the early demonstrations the feelings of these black southern youths who had grown up in a tightly and legally segregated world with “Whites Only” signs all around. Some had never dared look a white man in the eye, much less demand of him their legal rights, and few had ever openly defied the Jim Crow system. Suddenly here they were in the streets by the hundreds and thousands, defying all kinds of taboos and laws as well as violence at the hands of officers in uniform and Klansmen in disguise—police dogs, night sticks, fire hose, tear gas, gunfire, firebombs. And all this with unbroken adherence to the discipline of nonviolence, whatever the provocation. And, more than that, with an unsuspected courage and unity they were delirious to discover and a sure conviction that their cause was just. It is doubtful that any other Americans ever marched to drums more stirring.

Like the fortunes of the Confederates in the Civil War, those of recruits in the civil rights struggle come down to us in the names of places that have become symbols. For civil rights soldiers there was no Manassas and fortunately no Appomattox, but Montgomery and Albany and Selma and St. Augustine and Birmingham and Memphis have a new historical significance for their place in the later struggle. They not only stand for victories and losses with casualties and prisoners but also for milestones in the making of strategy, the mastery of the press, the forging of alliances, and the shaping of objectives. It was in the heat and sweat of those campaigns that leaders learned the recruiting of demonstrators, the uses and timing of demonstrations, the building and retaining of community solidarity, the limits of the law and the patience of its officers, and the art of producing martyrs with minimal bloodshed and maximum exposure to the cameras.

A blundering and manipulable enemy is an invaluable military asset, and no such asset was more treasured by his users than Police Commissioner Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor of Birmingham. The campaign at Albany, Georgia, had been less successful than it might have been for the restraint and moderation of white officers, and the lack of “photos of burning buses or beaten protesters.” To his lieutenant in Birmingham, Wyatt T. Walker King remarked, “Wyatt you’ve got to find some way to make Bull Connor tip his hand.” A day or two later Walker reached King by phone and reported excitedly, “I’ve got it. I’ve got it.” Connor had brought out his police dogs, a black bystander lunged at one with a knife, and that produced a melee of snarling dogs and swinging clubs over a prone black against a background of black onlookers. Young James Foreman of SNCC was shocked to see them “jumping up and down, elated” at SCLC headquarters. “They said over and over again, ‘We’ve got a movement. We’ve got a movement. We had some police brutality.’ ” To Foreman “it seemed very cold, cruel and calculating,” but the more seasoned campaigners had learned the price and worth of photographic opportunities.

Years of campaigning also taught hard truths of political action and maneuver. Leaders learned the hard way how far they could trust politicians and how they could use them. Eventually they discovered how they might sometimes play the US attorney general against the federal courts, the White House against Congress, Congress against the White House, and the electorate against them both. Marches and protests and jailings and threats of worse were sometimes coordinated and timed with congressional committee hearings and House and Senate votes on civil liberties, voting rights, and housing bills. Northern voters, sympathizers, and donors were the hope of the movement, and they had to be kept informed, sympathetic, and generous with their money. Mass movements are expensive.

Told through Martin King’s biography, as Garrow’s account mainly is, the story is one of human capacities strained beyond all reasonable limits. It is well that the protagonist acted out his part in the drama while he was still in his twenties and thirties. Back and forth across the South, across the country, across the Atlantic; back and forth between Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, California. In and out of jail. East Coast speech at noon, West Coast speech in evening. A speech to fifteen thousand in Philadelphia, and three more speeches in Newark and New York on a Sunday, two in St. Louis on Monday. Later on, twenty speeches in forty-eight hours. In and out of taxis, planes, hotels, sometimes two hours sleep, sometimes none at all. It was a pace that made the schedule of the average politician’s election campaign seem leisurely by comparison, and King’s campaign was not one of weeks or months, but on and on, year after year without significant interruption.

While Martin King was best known as an orator, and one of demonstrated effectiveness and international fame, his closest associates valued more his skills in conference and council, his instinct for the timely decision, and his gift for reconciling the apparently irreconcilable among allies and their conflicting principles, especially between his own unwavering commitment to nonviolence and tendencies in the opposite direction among his supporters. He worked under handicaps and vulnerabilities, knowing he had enemies who were dangerously well informed of his personal weaknesses.

Even his enemies had to acknowledge the physical courage he repeatedly and persistently revealed in the face of violent attacks. He was stabbed almost fatally by a mad woman and repeatedly assaulted by fanatics, once on a stage during a speech, once on a plane, once on a train, and in the streets twice he was struck in the head by rocks, not to mention tear gas and physical abuse by police, and the bombing and gunfire attacks on his home by unknown people. He repeatedly and publicly predicted his own assassination.

  1. 1

    David J. Garrow, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (The University of Tennessee Press, 1986).

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