Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Martin Luther King Jr. A Life" by Marshall Frady (2002)

Dr. King is one of your heroes. He is one of everyone's heroes. You tell your kids stories about him to inspire them to care for others and stand up for the oppressed. But, truth be told, you don't know as much about him as you want. Plus, you have realized when people who remember the Civil Rights era talk about it, or when you read about it in passing, you aren't sure exactly how all the pieces fit together, what the chronology of events is. And God, that is annoying. So you got a book about the man who championed the movement.

"Martin Luther King Jr. A Life" is written by a reporter who covered the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded. Like many journalists, he thinks he is a better writer than he really is. If your multitudinous readers are necessitated to use google to decipher your syntax, they are under threat to lose the train of the sentence, which is tortured enough in the first place, and then, for the sake of example, they are lost in a sweltering sea; adrift in the vain hopes of surety as to where the subject, let alone the author, intended to go...  Translation: Sometimes his writing was a bit pretentious.

Still, it was a perfectly succinct chronicling of Dr. King's life and a great way for you to jump deeper into the history of the movement which has inspired you and millions of others. Frady clearly worships Dr. King s a hero but he knows the man is human and he is honest about his faults. Frady does not shy away from King's many sexual affairs, although he does tend to excuse them due to some of the qualities he find most enviable within his hero.

Frady sets the stage quickly, moving the young Martin through his childhood and into college in a dozen pages. Martin's adolescence in Atlanta was characterized by his hyper emotionality, his prodigious vocabulary, his deep capacity to feel guilt, and his aversion to following his in father's footsteps as a commanding and charismatic preacher. After one year at college Martin surprisingly changed his trajectory and entered Crozer Theological Seminary determined to both serve humanity in a great cause and to become a pastor who was known for his logical and well reasoned messages.

After graduation Martin did not take a co-pastor position in his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. Instead he married Coretta Scott and in August of 1954, the same year the Supreme Court declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, Dr. King took over the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama (and the original capital of the Confederacy).

A little over one year later, Rosa Parks, while riding home after work on a Montgomery city bus, refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was promptly arrested and the black community of Montgomery responded with a bus boycott. At first, Dr. King had no interest in becoming involved with the bus boycott. He begrudgingly joined the movement. His charisma and his intelligence, and his insistence that the boycott be characterized by a tactic of nonviolence, inspired the people coordinating the boycott to thrust him into a leadership role, and therefore into the national spotlight. As it turned out, Martin liked the role. It made him not only famous, but powerful and important, it made him a greater man than his father had ever dreamed of being.

After his second arrest for participating in a organized car pool to get black folks to work without using the city buses, a crowd gathered outside the jail and their fervent protests inspired the chief jailer to free Dr. King on his own recognizance. He wasn't allowed to sleep that night because his phone kept ringing with death threats and racial epithets. In a night filled with his own self doubt and cowardice, despondent and terrified, he prayed to God. "Lord," he said out loud, "I am down here trying to do what is right... but Lord, I'm faltering, I'm losing my courage." And in that moment, the empirical and logical preacher who had eschewed his father's brand of overly emotional preaching, the man who had never heard any clear calling from his God, heard a voice answering him in his moment of doubt and fear. "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world." King would never be the same again. It would be his Road to Damascus moment, the event that would sustain him through all of the Herculean challenges he would face in the next decade of his life.

The Montgomery bus boycott went on for over a year and it was here that Dr. King developed his ethos of nonviolence. Even so, the bus boycott, which was aimed at changing the attitudes of the white ruling class of Montgomery, was only successful because of the US Supreme Court. Even as Dr. King was in a court room awaiting a verdict in his car pooling case, an aide entered the room and announced the Supreme Court's ruling. All the public buses throughout Alabama would be integrated and Dr. King walked free.

Exhilarated by his success in Montgomery and his sudden fame, Dr. King formed several committees, gathered a team of committed personal allies, and began a nationwide movement. Eventually, he and his wife moved back to his home in Atlanta where he finally gave in and became co-pastor of his father's church. For years King searched for the same kind of dramatic moment like back in Montgomery, but to no avail. Student protesters, inspired by King's actions and rhetoric, had begun desegregated "freedom rides" on buses running throughout the South, but there was no stage to draw the eye of the American people, no defining offensive.

In the winter of '61, he thought he had found just such a decisive battlefield in the city of Albany, Georgia. But the police chief of Albany, Chief Pritchett, discovered the perfect foil for Dr. King's favorite tactic of nonviolence. Rather than meeting the protesters with extraordinary violence as had happened in Montgomery, Chief Pritchett calmly arrested all protesters with little fanfare and almost no violence. As his jails filled with King's acolytes, the chief simply made room by transferring his prisoners to neighboring counties, counties where the authorities had no compunctions about violence and torture. Dr. King soon realized that Pritchett had discovered a way to defeat him. Without an uproar in the press, without a spectacle, there would be no progress made in Albany, no action. And King knew that without action even the most inspiring rhetoric falls dead. Just six years after being thrust into the national spotlight, he was now at risk of becoming just a footnote in the history books, a charming throwback to the hazy promise of the 1950's. Nonviolence was failing.

Dr. King had come to his passion for nonviolence through the Gospel of Jesus, but soon after the bus boycott in Montgomery, he began studying the history of Mahatma Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence from Britain earlier in the century. People have compared the two movements ever since. Our culture tends to think of Dr. King as the American Mahatma Gandhi, and so did you before reading this book. But you were intigued by Frady's assertion that Dr. King had the greater challenge by far of these two great men. The Indian people outnumbered their British oppressors by a factor of  many thousands to one, whereas black people in the Jim Crow South were the minority. Gandhi was combating an alien colonial presence, but King was facing a power structure that had been in place long enough to bring his own ancestors to the continent in chains and enslave them. And Gandhi's struggle for independence had taken several decades. It is no wonder that there were moments when Dr. King's movement faltered and flirted with failure. But he was convinced that he could win if only he could find the right tactically advantageous moment.

What the Civil Rights movement wanted was an end to injustice. But what they needed in order to achieve that goal was glaring, unforgivable, and undeniable injustice that would draw huge amounts of publicity. Only then could the world see the stark contrast between the dignity and the sacrifice of King's nonviolent movement and the inhuman violence inherent in the system of segregation.

But the genius of King's movement ( and Mahatma Gandhi's) was more than a matter of simple tactics, the genius was in its genuine regard for human dignity. The violence inherent in the segregated Jim Crow South was predicated (as violence so often is) on the oppressors seeing their victims as something less than human. Dr. King's tactics, which he borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi in order to fulfill the goals he believed were set by Jesus Christ, challenged that dehumanization. He and his followers were able to take the beatings they were given, able to literally turn the other cheek, because they were motivated not solely by a sense of their own injustice, but by a love for their oppressors. Only a human being can do that. The activists who followed Dr. King were not only concerned that they were living under an unjust system themselves, they were concerned for what enforcing that system was doing to the souls of their oppressors! In being able to do that, to refuse to dehumanize their enemies, they were able to short-circuit the endless cycle of violence and revenge that only led to greater oppression. They were able to show the world the way to help bend the moral arc of history towards justice. We can only do that by seeing our adversaries not as enemies but as our brothers and sisters.

Moving on from Albany, King found one of those perfect battlefields he was looking for. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was a bustling industry town with an almost 40% black population. Rather than targeting the politicians of the Birmingham, as he had in Albany and Montgomery, King targeted the people who had even more influence. He targeted the businesses. King and his allies organized boycotts of all segregated businesses in downtown Birmingham. The boycotts nemesis in Birmingham (a city so steeped in cross burnings, lynchings, and the dynamiting of black churches it was referred to as "Bombingham") was not the calculating and calm Chief Pritchett as in Albany. Here the adversary was long time public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. He was exactly what the movement needed in order to draw the eyes of the nation. He was hateful, bombastic, arrogant, and unapologetically racist. He was the perfect reactionary villain to bring about the overreaction needed for King's movement to draw the attention of the American people.

King was arrested during these protests too, but here he was subjected to particularly harsh treatment. After a few days of stewing, he began writing an open letter which has come to be known as "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." As so many before him King's writings from jail proved more inspirational than any he had penned before. The letter became his manifesto of sorts. In it he insisted that the, "Question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be." he clarified by saying, "I would agree with Saint Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all," claiming that, "Anyone who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly," accepting violence and imprisonment in order, "To rouse the conscience of the community over it's injustices." An act, "In reality expressing the very highest respect for the law." Assertions like that were sure to draw the public's eye toward Birmingham. As the spring turned in to summer, King's letter began to spread in a way that we today would call viral.

As the stockpiles of adult protesters began dwindling and fewer people were showing up for the marches and the sit-ins, just as the attention of the world was being drawn to Birmingham, King took a desperate and morally questionable step. He enlisted the city's young citizens, draining the community's high schools and evangelizing to the black teenagers, inspiring them to take to the streets. Bull Connor turned his sadistically high-powered fire hoses and his ravenous dogs on the children of his own city... and the press finally noticed. TV was just coming of age and the images coming from Birmingham every night on the news broadcasts constituted a public crisis with shocking imagery. Now the city's adults were galvanized to reenlist in the movement and march alongside their sons and daughters. The marches soon outnumbered the police lines and barricades and broke through into the downtown district. After that, even white folks stayed away from the shops, making the boycott a total one.

The city council buckled under the economic and social pressure and acquiesced to Dr. King's demands, and seven weeks after the boycott had begun (only one week after the children were thrown in) the city of Birmingham announced the end of segregated public facilities. The city's dressing rooms, water fountains, lunch counters, and restrooms would be open to everyone now, and black clerks would be hired at downtown businesses. No Supreme Court ruling had brought it about, and no major outbreak of violence had been necessary. Dr. King's vision was coming true. Within weeks President Kennedy gave a televised address urging Congress to pass a Public Accommodations Bill abolishing separate facilities throughout the country. Three months later thousands took part in the March on Washington and King's most famous speech was aired live on all three TV networks.

As the nonviolent movement gained critical victories, it was beset by terrible acts of violence and calls for revenge. Assassinations of nonviolent activists, black and white, were followed by church bombings that killed children. Lynchings and Klan rallies increased. And shadowing Dr. King's ascension was the rise of another black leader who preached not nonviolence, but revenge. Malcolm X spoke of white Americans not as brothers and sisters who could be redeemed through love, but as monsters and dogs, pale parodies of human beings who could never be trusted and who had not earned the right to be redeemed. Malcolm had grown up as a poor inner city hustler and he reflects the same blind rage and bloodlust that could be heard at those Klan rallies. The rise of Malcolm X was not so much an indictment of the man himself as it was an indictment of a society that could produce such a man, as with Nat Turner or John Brown a century before. It was not revolutionary to preach meeting violence with violence. And when Malcolm X was assassinated after beginning to soften on his hard line, it came as little surprise his killers were not white segregationists but black extremists who were outraged that he had begun to turn his back on their violent and vengeful ideals.

The next big fight for the Civil Rights movement was in Selma. A peaceful march was planned from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to protest for the right to vote. The marchers, in their Sunday best, were met one Sunday afternoon in March of 1965 on Edmund Petiss bridge, by riot police. For a brief moment the two sides paused and regarded one another in silence. Then the police, in their gas masks and riot shields, charged. They mowed down the peaceful protesters, beating them with nightsticks and gassing them with grenades. A few seconds later the mounted police surged into the fray in what looks very much like a cavalry charge... against unarmed people marching for their right to vote... in America... in the 20th century... and the footage was on the news that very night.

It was more than the public could bear. Within two weeks, President Johnson gave a televised address announcing a Voting Rights Act. In his Texas drawl, he even quoted the movement and stated that it was not only black Americans who must combat our legacy of bigotry and racism, but that it was up to all of us and "We shall overcome." Dr. King's aides say that this moment was the only time they ever saw him cry.

King realized that the nonviolent movement had to move into northern cities too and it had to address the roots of injustice. He launched a campaign in Chicago and began preaching that poverty was the root of much of the racism he fought against. His campaign in Chicago failed. He had trusted the politicians who promised him sweeping change and they let him down.

Dr. King was motivated by his convictions more than any strategy, often to the point of folly. Seeing dead Vietnamese children in the paper, children who had been killed by American bombs, he came out against the war there. At the time public opinion still backed Johnson's war and King speaking out against it effectively ended his communication and influence with the White House. Eventually he began to question the morality of capitalism itself, coming close to advocating (but never expressly calling) for a true revolution. Nevertheless, even when it made him unpopular and inspired hatred in so many of his fellow citizens, King stayed true to his own preachings and his convictions.

But the 1960's were SO violent that King's message of nonviolence seems almost inevitable. Extremes often create their own counterparts in the universe. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Martin Luther King Jr was Newton's 3rd Law in the form of a person. And he didn't live to see the end of that violent decade. An assassin's bullet found him in Memphis in the spring of 1968. Most of us say the phrase "it's my cross to bear," as if it means to take on a great burden. But Dr. King knew that when Jesus told us to "take up your cross and follow me," he meant that he was asking us to sacrifice ourselves, he was warning us that it might kill us.

Maybe it all wasn't worth it. Maybe the world we live in today, the America we made for ourselves, is not good enough to have required the sacrifice of someone as extraordinary as Martin Luther King Jr. But this book reminded you that, however great the cost, the world you live in now is a damn sight better than the one your parents grew up in.

On to the next book!

P.S. It is remarkable how great a part Christianity played in the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King was a minister and so were many of his closest allies. Before mass actions, when he knew it was going get really ugly, he would remind his followers that they were to act in love for those who would be attacking them because God loves those folk too and anyone who could do the things these white folks were about to do needed God's love more than most. The protesters who were sent out by King were inspired to live out the creed that when someone strikes you, you should turn the other cheek. Dr. King once preached that, "We will make the God of love in the white man triumphant over the Satan of segregation that is in him. The struggle is not between black and white... But between good and evil."