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. On being thrust into the role of its leader, he “became possessed by fear” and “obsessed by a feeling of …