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A Tale of Three Leaders

An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

by Andrew Young
HarperCollins, 560 pp., $27.50

Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation

by Arthur J. Magida
BasicBooks, 264 pp., $25.00

In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam

by Mattias Gardell
Duke University Press, 520 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

by Marshall Frady
Random House, 552 pp., $28.50

Despite their boyish appearance, Andrew Young and Louis Farrakhan are now in their sixties (sixty-four and sixty-three respectively). Jesse Jackson is younger (fifty-five), but all three are transition figures, brought up before that great divide, the 1960s civil rights movement, and surviving after many of their contemporaries in the black leadership have been killed or gone dissolute or faded from memory. Too young to serve in World War II, all three were exempted by religious ministry from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Their war has been the black struggle for justice.

They seem, at first glance, to represent fundamentally different ways of waging that war. Young has been a tactful assimilationist, earning office as a congressman, ambassador, and mayor. Farrakhan is a separatist divided even from other Black Muslim factions. Jackson has been footloose, his highest office and title nothing but his own proper name. There are many ways of being black in America; but they are all ways of being, inescapably, black—as certain similarities in these careers should remind us.

Though born into the segregated era—in some degree, because born then—the three men’s early memories are of a warm and supporting community. A friend of the young Farrakhan, who grew up with him in Boston, remembers: “It was one big extended family. We used to sit on the steps and name all the families for five blocks around. So how much bad could you do if you even tried to do something wrong?”

Andrew Young, small for his age, knew the network that would protect him:

The key to safe passage in any hostile neighborhood was the existence of a blood relative who lived there and the quick presentation of his or her name and address. Even a distant blood relative, like a second cousin, would do the trick. If the person who was checking you out actually knew your relative, his attitude would abruptly change to one of warm friendship, as if both of you were blood relatives.

Jackson is, as usual, the most eloquent:

Mother, grandmother here—teacher over here—and church over here. Within that love triangle, I was protected, got a sense of security and worth. Even mean ole segregation couldn’t break in on me and steal my soul.

Given today’s plaints over black family life, these memories can sound almost idyllic. But ghettoization often increases communal solidarity. Jewish and Catholic children from the same era have somewhat similar memories. That does not justify the ghettoization of human beings by a society not willing to welcome them as equals.

Besides, these three were comparatively privileged—urban youths with the means to go to college and enter a respected ministry nearly at the top. Young was twenty-five when he was made director of youth activities for the National Conference of Churches (NCC). Farrakhan, who had attended good schools (Boston Latin and English High), was twenty-four when he became the minister of the Muslims’ Boston temple. Jackson was twenty-five when Dr. King put him in charge of Operation Breadbasket, the Chicago effort to get more and better jobs for blacks. Dr. King, it should be remembered, was just twenty-six when he led the Birmingham boycott. The civil rights protestors were products of an old culture, but it took young energy to launch them beyond that.

The three youths under discussion all had talents recognized early. A high sense of his own identity was instilled in each by relatives and teachers. As boys they had talked their way out of fights that took up much of their contemporaries’ energies. Yet all three were good at sports—track for Young and Farrakhan, football for Jackson. Each had religious experiences bordering on the mystic, deepening their sense of vocation. Only such magic combinations carried them through the buffetings that destroyed people less blessed by luck, skill, and strong helpers.

1.

For all these common traits, the men come from very different places—New Orleans, Boston, and Greenville, South Carolina, and from even more distant social settings. While Farrakhan and Jackson were the illegitimate sons of absent fathers, Young’s family background was exaggeratedly respectable. His father, a graduate of Howard University, became a dentist. At first only poor blacks who could not pay sought his services. But a Huey Long program for care of rural blacks’ teeth gave Andrew Young, Sr., a source of steady income. Later, with a measure of hard-won prosperity, Young found some white patients coming to him.

Father and mother taught the young Andrew that education, professional skills, white favor, and governmental programs were the sources of safety and improvement. He was sent to a private black grade school whose whole aim was assimilationist—to impress whites with how sober, polite, grammatical, and deferential its students could be. Young’s parents kept him apart from the lustier aspects of black culture. Though he does not mention this in his book, he told me once that he, a native of New Orleans, was not allowed to listen to jazz or the blues—he had to catch up with that side of culture later on, when he was in New York. For “Negro music” he was taken to classical concerts sung by Roland Hayes or Marian Anderson.

Young’s church was not Southern Baptist but New England Congregational—founded by nineteenth century missionaries to blacks in the South. For families like Jesse Jackson’s, becoming a preacher was a step up in respectability; but Young’s father considered it a step down. Whites did not admire black preachers—even of the educated sort trained by Congregationalists. The father wanted his son to have the one real form of protection for a black, economic independence. The way to get that was to pursue and solidify the family’s dentistry business—as Young’s brother did.

Young went to his father’s alma mater, Howard, where he starred at track and took the pre-med courses needed for dentist’s school; but he felt deeper cavities in him than a dentist’s life could fill. His break with his father on this was an emotionally trying one, but Young struggled free to enter Hartford Theological Seminary. There he acquired the old missionary mentality, and asked to take the gospel to Africa. Visa problems at his graduation delayed his departure—temporarily, he thought; luckily, as it turned out. Work in Africa would have deprived him of the great experience of his generation in America. Yet this interest in Africa leapfrogged him over a generation, to put him in touch with younger American blacks who would soon be turning to Africa as a source of identity.

Assigned to a small parish in Thomasville, Georgia, Young for the first time lived with and for poor blacks. There was culture shock on both sides. Young could not learn to go to the back door of whites’ houses. His informal seminary ways from Hartford did not sit well with rural blacks, who did not want to call their young minister by his first name or to see his wife in shorts.

Offered the NCC’s national youth ministry, Young took that mandate to mean teaching literacy skills as part of voter drives in the South. With his NCC salary and a grant from the Field Foundation, he joined pioneers of the teaching movement like Septima Clark and Dorothy Cotton, who were working in harmony with Dr. King’s SCLC.

Young had learned his father’s lessons, even while taking a different path. With his independent financial base, Young could pick and choose what efforts to support. He had great tactical skills, and he was not afraid to negotiate with whites. In moderating some of the wilder schemes advanced by SCLC hotheads, he came under suspicion as a spy or subverter of the movement. Did his own money come from the FBI? King valued Young for his cool way of weighing the risks, possible gains, and necessary costs of any course of action. The same gifts made others suspect or resent him.

Young’s book has been long delayed, as have other works by veterans of Dr. King’s movement. Jackson has been working with publishers and possible co-authors for decades. When Ralph Abernathy rushed into print with a book admitting some of Dr. King’s failings, he was bitterly criticized by his old comrades. There has been a notable reluctance to describe the civil rights leadership in all its messy, confused, and debilitating complexity. There is a myth of solidarity behind one moral vision, Dr. King’s, that people are reluctant to give up.

All this is understandable. There is no nobler sequence of events in America’s modern history than the marches and sermons and jailings that brought about the end of Jim Crow laws in the South. Men, women, and children, blacks and whites together, ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns joined hands for a moment to protest without violence. Their stunning challenge to society was this: “We have more will to go on being beaten than you have will to keep beating us.” They backed up that defiance with patient suffering, enduring jeers, spittle, dogs, blows, hoses, jails, and death. There were heroes everywhere, as Pope’s Iliad says.

But like all large efforts, this one did not escape internal doubts, hesitations, bitter clashes, envy, suspicion, hysteria, and blunders. Dr. King was especially good at keeping factions together and presenting a dignified front to the world. But that just led to charges that he was promoting himself, stealing credit from older and wiser heads (like those of the NAACP and the Urban League) or from bolder young voices (like those of SNCC or the Muslims).

Young has for years avoided telling this tale. He refused to talk with Taylor Branch for his brilliant first volume on Dr. King (Parting the Waters).1 He cooperated with an authorized biographer, trying to detach his own story from that of others he did not want to criticize. When that did not work, he wrote a small spiritual diary of what the movement had meant to him as a matter of theology. Put out by a religious publisher, that book got no notice at all.2

Finally, in this book, he takes us inside the movement. He presents King as torn in various directions by those on his staff. Jim Bevel, for instance, was a soaringly eloquent young preacher from Mississippi who married his equal as a firebrand in the movement, the beautiful Diane Nash from Chicago. He wanted monthly equivalents of the March on Washington, and he treated Young as a traitor when the latter brought up logistical objections.

Hosea Williams yearned toward apocalyptic showdowns. “Fill the jails,” he would say. When Young said there was not enough bail to get the young people out, he was called an Uncle Tom.

Ralph Abernathy was fawningly attached to King, yet deeply jealous of him. When his feelings were wounded, he would withdraw to his church, where he remained pastor throughout the SCLC campaign.

  1. 1

    Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 (Touchstone Books, 1989).

  2. 2

    Andrew Young, A Way Out of No Way: The Spiritual Memoirs of Andrew Young (Thomas Nelson, 1994).

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