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An American Iliad

On the other hand, many of his allies in the religious movement, both white and black, both Christians and Jews, were calling for him to join them—against the war, against poverty, against segregation in Northern schools—as they had joined him in the South. The young NAACP lawyer Marian Wright (now Marian Wright Edelman), at the suggestion of Robert Kennedy, proposed a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, which aimed to get a $30 billion anti-poverty program from Congress and draw attention to the problems of the poor through large demonstrations. King had always proclaimed that his concerns could not stop at formal abolition of the color line. If so, what was desegregation all about? Activists in Chicago’s struggle against de facto school segregation called King to their city, where he held rallies through the summer of 1966. Though Mayor Daley in Chicago would prove a shrewder tactician than the Southern mayors and sheriffs he previously had come up against, it was necessary and inevitable that King should assert and prove that racism was not confined to the South. Actually, his choice of Chicago was not as dangerous as some other cities that were considered—Los Angeles, still radioactive after the Watts riot, or Boston, where later violence over busing would make the point dramatically.

But Branch sees the great theme running through all the apparent dissipation of energies at this time. King’s effort was not just about desegregation, or voting rights, or even racism. It was all and always about nonviolence. At a time when black militancy was growing, and white antiwar protesters in the SDS were veering toward bombing, he had to keep arguing that violence is self-defeating, just as he had in the earliest marches. And when the violence of Vietnam was tearing the nation apart, he would have been untrue to himself had he not spoken out against it. What he said has been validated by the ugly course of the war and its ignoble ending. Those who think he was not qualified to make a judgment on the war need only read what was being said and thought by the “experts” in the White House to see how totally in the dark were most of those who thought they had sound intelligence and political experience.

3.

LBJ

King’s most fraught relationship was with President Johnson—sometimes a source of strength for King, if an uncertain one; a puzzling absence at key points; a veiled if not bitter opponent by the end. It was mainly Vietnam that came between them. That is why some of King’s advisers thought he should stay away from what damaged his earlier good relations with the President. But Vietnam was destroying Johnson’s domestic program no matter what King said about it. The war devoured Johnson’s attention and tortured the strongest part of him, his political savvy. He knew that the war was bad for him politically, but could not do anything about that. On the very night of the tear gas and beatings at Pettus Bridge, Johnson discussed Vietnam with visitors at the White House: “I can’t get out. I can’t finish it with what I’ve got. So what the hell can I do?”

The parallel frustrations of King and Johnson make one very powerful strand running through Branch’s book. At the very moment when King was fluctuating over the march to Montgomery, Johnson was deciding whether to launch massive air strikes, though his own advisers said that it would just hold the line, not lead to victory. This problem made him resent what he saw as the intrusion of King’s problems. And at the very moment when King was deciding to go ahead with the march, he said, at Howard University, “The war is accomplishing nothing.” It is the very thing Johnson was being told, though he warned his conferees they could not breathe a word of that in public. Those who leaked news of the air strikes to The New York Times were, according to Johnson, “almost traitorous.”

King and Johnson were carried apart from each other despite the fact that they needed each other. At the best times, each made up for what the other lacked. The lack on either side was intensified as they were swept apart. Johnson wanted to prove that being a Southerner did not make him a racist, that he could actually use his Southern connections to advance civil rights. He saw himself as a Great Emancipator, and told guests at the White House, “The ghost of Lincoln is moving up and down the corridors rather regularly these days.” King, for his part, wanted to show that his non-violence was an appeal to law, not against it, that he could be responsible in confronting the past, that he could work with the highest authority in the land. Intermittently, these two men advanced each other’s agenda with skill on both sides. But they were communicating over accumulating obstacles, some of them piled up by J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover was infuriated by the way Johnson was (in his eyes) abetting King’s lawlessness. The King–Johnson relationship was always, in fact, a triangular one, with Hoover playing one off against the other. Hoover was at first able to get King to drop his association with his supposedly “Communist” white adviser, Stanley Levison. King did this to assuage any doubts Robert Kennedy might have as attorney general when Johnson was still the vice-president. Kennedy had authorized the wiretapping of King because Hoover said this would turn up Communist ties. King broke off his communications with Levison in order to keep working with the Kennedys. But Levison had given King a perspective in the heat of events he did not get from the squabbling aides around him. In time he felt ashamed of the way he had let himself be blackmailed by Hoover, and resumed his conferences with Levison while Johnson was president. Of course, these talks were bugged or wiretapped by the FBI. This defiance of Hoover’s veto on Levison, reversing one of the director’s victories with the White House, just focused more tightly Hoover’s hatred of King.

King’s opposition to the Vietnam War gave Hoover greater leverage with Johnson, who was able to represent King’s opposition to the President on this point as treacherous, venal, and opportunistic. Characteristically, Hoover said King was just opposing the war to raise money for his civil rights organization, though in fact his position on the war dried up funds, especially after the launching of the Six-Day War, when Jewish contributors did not want to inhibit support for Israel’s war by opposing Johnson’s war. Wiretaps on King’s antiwar statements were excerpted by the FBI, interpreted as personal assaults on Johnson, and then channeled to the White House in a steady drip-drip of venom to poison Johnson’s mind on King. Hoover mounted the old charge that Communists, especially Stanley Levison, were using King to manipulate public opinion about the war in Vietnam. Hoover’s close associate Cartha “Deke” DeLoach would write in a memoir that Levison “aimed him [King] and pulled his trigger with apparent ease.”

4.

Vietnam

Of course, Branch had all but completed At Canaan’s Edge before the war in Iraq began. But no one reading his account now can fail to see resemblances between King’s protest against the war and those now criticizing (“almost traitorous”) what is going on in the Middle East. Even more striking are the defenses made for the present war and what was said to justify continuing the Vietnam struggle. In both cases, secrecy played a great part in making the war leaders unaccountable to the public. We can watch with a kind of fascinated horror what is going on today as it developed back then. When this volume begins, the American dead in Vietnam were only 402, but they mount inexorably as we read on. The very next year, the number would exceed 2,500—this after six years of combat. We have almost reached that number in Iraq after only three years of war.

The need to keep the American people from knowing what was going on was a constant concern. There were efforts to suppress or minimize the number of the dead—like the hiding of the caskets returned from Iraq. Johnson tried to obscure the first introduction of marines into Vietnam by calling them “MPs.” He used a quiet exercise of executive authority to expand the draft, to keep it out of Congress and the newspapers. When he authorized 100,000 new troops for Vietnam, he announced only 50,000. In Iraq, the government has kept the number and nature of contract agents secret, in order to understate our presence there.

Critics of the Vietnam War were timorous for a long time. Each began his criticism with the mantra that “we cannot withdraw instantly”—the same thing we hear now. It was said by Arthur Schlesinger, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and by King himself. But Johnson was soon lumping all his critics together as saboteurs of his good-faith efforts. He spurred Hoover on to find Communist ties in the peace movement. He fumed at the academic teach-ins with their type of professor, “the man with the beard…with no responsibility” talking to “the little shits on the campuses.” He complained to King that people “got the impression…that you’re against me in Vietnam…[but] I want peace as much as you do, and more so, because I’m the fellow that had to wake up this morning with fifty Marines killed.”

Though Johnson knew and resented the fact that he had been forced down a no-win road, he used every device he could to hide that fact, even drawing from his pocket a soldier’s letter, written to his “Mom,” praising the war effort. (Sound familiar?) This encouraged the many people who were ready to say that all the critics were undermining the troops. King was accused on CBS’s Face the Nation of encouraging the enemy. Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut issued a rebuke: “It is nothing short of arrogance when Dr. King takes it upon himself to thus undermine the policies of the President.” Citizens must just shut up and follow their betters. James Reston wrote in The New York Times that war critics “are not promoting peace but postponing it”—while Johnson was postponing a recognition of the reality in Vietnam with palliatives and delusive cures (interdiction, search-and-destroy, model villages, shield areas—many of the same tactics used or recommended in Iraq).

For a long time in the Iraq war, almost every doubt about it was prefaced with the assurance that “this is no Vietnam.” But it always was. The resemblances are all too clear. We were lied into both wars (the Tonkin Gulf attack, the WMD threat), with the expectation that we would be there a short time, welcomed as liberators, staving off a world threat (communism, terrorism). We went into Vietnam without understanding the culture, the national history, the relation of our puppets (largely Catholic Vietnamese) to the hated French colonizers. We thought we would be seen as different from the colonizers since we had what Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American calls “clean hands.” We went into Iraq not understanding the relation of the religious groups to Saddam’s secular government, or the relation of Iraq to Muslim powers.

One resemblance between the two wars, admittedly, is a kind of inverse one. In Vietnam we thought we could create two countries out of one, with two different cultural bases—Catholic in the South, Communist in the North. In Iraq we thought we could create one country out of what is in fact three. The Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites had only been held together by Saddam’s despotism. Remove that, and the three revert to their uncoerced differences. If we do not get a three-way war between them with oil at stake and terrorists from other countries joining it, the best we can hope for is a new despotism, of Shiites over the two minorities, but with this difference: Saddam’s was a secular despotism, the Shiites’ will be an Islamic fundamentalism. Our staying there does not thwart these results, any more than our staying in Vietnam thwarted the takeover by the North—it just makes the probable outcome all the more likely and more costly.

5.

Secrecy

But the great and overarching resemblance between Vietnam and Iraq is the way they were wrapped in unaccountability and secrecy. Johnson had a great exemplar of secrecy in J. Edgar Hoover. Branch admires the mature objectivity of the SCLC activist Diane Nash (to whom this volume is dedicated): asked whether she resented Hoover’s efforts against the movement, she said that, no, “I blame us.” The American people gave Hoover unchecked power, based on secrecy, for almost half a century. What can anyone expect but the misuse of that power? Since Hoover controlled the secrets, he could use or withhold the secrets, or feign what he had learned but “could not reveal.” He was at liberty to roam anywhere, rolling over citizens’ rights. After getting authority to tap King’s phones, he was forbidden to plant bugs in his rooms—but he did so anyway. His excuse? The same that President Bush uses for unauthorized NSA surveillance—there was not time to get authorization.

One of the first and most common uses of secrecy is to cover up one’s own misdeeds or mistakes. Hoover was embarrassed that one of his Ku Klux Klan “plants” was in the car with the man who murdered Viola Liuzzo. He hid this fact as long as he could, and then misrepresented the man’s role. He spread a series of lies to change the subject. He not only told Johnson that Liuzzo was in a high-speed “necking party,” but claimed that she “had indications of needle marks in her arms where she had been taking dope” (the only punctures were from the car’s shattered glass). Hoover tried to prevent the President from talking to Liuzzo’s husband (who could contradict his lies) by saying that he was a pretty bad man, “one of the Teamsters’ strong arm,” as if that were reason not to talk to a man who has lost his wife, the mother of his five children. Blackening reputations was an automatic reflex with Hoover.

One of the marvels of King’s life is that he stood up to probably the most intense and sustained of Hoover’s campaigns of character assassination. Hoover had King tapped (legally), bugged (illegally), deprived of advisers, vilified in planted stories, left unprotected in danger. He quietly undermined him in every available forum. He had colleges cancel honorary degrees, senators cancel honorary dinners. He tried to block the Ford Foundation from giving his program a grant. To prevent King’s receiving the Nobel Prize, he tried to provoke him into committing suicide before leaving for Oslo.3 He refused to inform King of death threats the FBI knew about, something the organization regularly did for others. Hoover had reached such a berserk extreme that he was hoping for an assassination. King was this crazed Ahab’s Great Black Whale.

6.

Heroism

How did King survive all this? He would not have, if he had ever stooped to returning hate for hate with Hoover. That would have tripped him up without fail. King said, “I refuse to hate,” and repeatedly told his allies that love was their only real weapon. That is the profound lesson in the power of nonviolence. Hate and violence are self-destructive. Whatever his other faults, fidelity to nonviolence was King’s one towering virtue. He frequently expressed disappointment with others—with Johnson, with Hoover, with many of his own followers or putative friends, with the white power structure. But he did not poison himself with enmity. Even his depressions were self-punitive rather than accusatory. That is the astounding record of the man. He lived with constant threats to his life, subject to vicious racist calumnies, ridiculed by former allies, stalked by Hoover’s agents, denounced by high government officials—yet he never lashed back with anger or violence.

His achievement can be measured against the honorable but less steady case of Stokely Carmichael, a leader in SNCC and its chairman during 1966 and 1967, whom Branch admires a great deal. Carmichael showed tremendous courage in the crucible of Lowndes County, registering voters in conditions of the greatest danger. For about six years he followed the nonviolent discipline officially mandated by SNCC and SCLC, though he was beaten and jailed. In time, the stress wore him down (he had earlier had a kind of nervous breakdown in Selma), and he began to proclaim “black power” in violent terms. He is remembered for his later excesses, not his earlier heroism.

Though Branch admires King’s greatness, this is no great man history. It is, rather, a great men and women history. And the greatest were often the least. Branch knows that King could have done nothing if poor and excluded blacks had not had the courage to shake off their servitude. The ones who joined the boycotts, the marches, the registration drives, did it at risk to their jobs, their property, their lives. Lowndes County, with a majority of black residents, did not have a single black voter when the SCLC went in to encourage people to take up their freedom. The outnumbered whites had kept them under by fear and reprisals. It took great pride in themselves for the blacks to defy generations of repression. I remember what a farmer marching to Montgomery told one of the SCLC people. Asked whether he thought the marchers would be able to win in Montgomery, he said “We won when we started.”

Having read through all of Branch’s volumes, I went back to view again the wonderful TV documentary series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize. Many of the people just briefly glimpsed in those TV shows seem like old friends after one has followed their stories through Branch’s books, which are as stuffed with vivid characters as a Russian novel. It was especially stirring to see the diminutive John Lewis bobbing up again and again wherever trouble was threatened. He was there through it all—sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, beatings, jailings. How astonished the cops manhandling him would have been could they have known that this calmly determined man would end up in the Congress of the United States.

In the TV series we experience again many of the murders inflicted on the blacks and their friends—the four children in the bombed church, as well as Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels. But Branch reminds us of many others killed in the struggle, most of them not often remembered—people like Samuel Younge, a SNCC organizer shot during an argument with a white gas station attendant who wouldn’t let him use the “whites only” bathroom; Vernon Dahmer, whose house was firebombed after he announced on the radio that he would be collecting voter registration forms and supplying poll tax loans to fellow Negroes; Ben Chester White, a sixty-five-year-old farm caretaker randomly picked up by a car full of Klan members under the pretext that they were hiring him to do chores, and shot nineteen times in the back seat of their car. With this roll of martyrs in mind, it seems almost miraculous to watch a film of the nameless poor, heartbreakingly turned out in their best clothes, marching into danger, being hosed and herded and beaten—and, incredibly, coming back for more. It reminds me of the end of Chesterton’s fantasy The Man Who Was Thursday, in which a band of revolutionaries discover that they were all recruited, unbeknownst to each other, by a benevolent man who foresaw their dangerous struggles. One of them asks if that man did not consider their actions ridiculous. He tells them what he saw: “Iliad after Iliad.”

Letters

Correction May 11, 2006

  1. 3

    Branch, Pillar of Fire, pp. 528–529, 556–557.

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