Nature’s fairest hope marred by history’s foulest crime. That’s how Herman Melville characterized slavery in putatively egalitarian America. A timely epigraph for this Black History Month, in the shadow of resurfacing racism from Howard Beach in the North to Cummings, Georgia, in the South.
When an NPR reporter asked a Stars-and-Bars-brandishing loco yokel where the blacks ought to go—“Back to hanging from trees, like in the old days.” Lovely. And Arizona’s G.O.P. governor rescinds the outgoing Dem’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, for starters.
What good does a King holiday do for U.S. and, especially, for them. That thought hovered over my head as I read David J. Garrow’s monumental new biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, $19.95).
An epilogue warns the reader about the dangers of secular idolatry. His Morehouse classmate, Charles Willie: “By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity—his personal and public struggles—that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”
This formidable work of scholarship, alas, not only demystifies and demythologizes King, it also disillusioned me, not a little.
I’m crestfallen to learn that his books were mainly ghostwritten. And though I always dismissed contemptuously the Commie talk as cracker McCarthyism, there’s absolutely no denying his dependence for ideas and strategic advice on one Stanley Levison, the Communist functionary who rates half a column in the index, but of whom I had never even heard a word.
The book raises other issues in my mind that simply never occurred to me before. The infighting among black groups must have been terribly costly. The NAACP feared, rightly, that SCLC might drain off its liberal do-gooder donations. And SNCC came along to despise SCLC as closet Uncle Toms.
The Urban League and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters added to the turf wars. It’s amazing that so much got done, given all this beige, black and brown backbiting. (Yes, Virginia, Southern black churches were color conscious—the lighter the holier, and the more upper class.)
Then there’s the macho side of King. He expected Coretta to manage the kids while he was frantically jetting about. Coretta was outraged that he didn’t let her join LBJ’s after-party the night of the March on Washington. His intimates agree that the couple were on the brink of divorce when he was assassinated.
But what really surprised me was to compare the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, with the Garrow biography. Take the Montgomery boycott. In the book, it’s a record of organizing car pools, litigation against ten-cent fares, empty buses. On TV, we see hordes of cleaing ladies footing it to work.
And you’d never guess E.D. Nixon and Fred Shuttlesworth had longstanding grudges against King from the warm nostalgia of their TV interviews. Burying the hatchet is one thing, but rewriting history on camera is another.
Sometimes the TV supplements the book powerfully. Alabama State English professor Jo Ann Robinson is luminous on the tube—but just a foot soldier stealing time on her college’s mimeo machines in the book.
While the book diminishes my valuation of King, TV gives me new heroes. Moses Wright, the grandfather of Emmet Till, the murdered 14-year-old from Chicago, is just splendid in court, pointing a fearful but unintimidatable finger at his grandson’s assassin. “Thar he!” two words that will ring down the ages as long as we detest injustice.
The trouble with King Day is that it detracts from the masses whose character has made civil rights a reality. I have the suspicion as well that the King adulation is a guilty white establishment’s final scam. The lousiest bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis is named after him—it leads to that city’s Camden, East St. Louis, a more bedraggled ghetto you can’t imagine.
The onomastic frenzy that followed King’s KKK killing (Kennedy / King / Kennedy) is a cheap way to quiet down the surliest of blacks. Notice, we don’t have W.E.B. DuBois Squares or Malcolm X Boulevards. It was King’s message to the black community to keep turning the other cheek that the white community found reassuring. DuBois was too brilliantly implacable to appeal to the Man, Malcolm too bitterly near the edge to be revered by Whitey.
I used to think Kinging things was a way out of our racist maze. I went to Atlanta for the opening of the MLK Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change in January, 1982. I had checked into the Peachtree Plaza, and early next morning I went to the Sun Dial revolving restaurant atop the hotel to ogle.
Around the perimeter, everything over three feet in height was marked. I was surprised to find a young black man with binoculars up there. It turned out he had just graduated from the Medill School of Journalism, and his first job was to scout traffic for his radio station. I asked him where the King Center was. He pointed southeast. And the black Atlanta University? He waved southwest.
“Neither made the cut, I see,” pointing to all the perimeter landmarks. He laughed cynically. “What’d you expect? It’s still Atlanta.”
At the inaugural press conference, I recounted this experience. If looks could kill honkies, Jesse Jackson would have murdered me on the spot. After a painful pause, Mrs. King replied: “I’m glad you brought that up, because I complained to the assistant manager six weeks ago.”
When I got back to Philly, I wrote the head of the Westin hotel chain, saying I didn’t think it was very first-class not to mention those two black landmarks. He assured me he’d take care of it. Having a sundowner six months later, I eagerly eyed the rim for changes. No Atlanta U. No King Center.
Wait! E-B-E-N-E-Z-E-R C-H-U-R-C-H slowly hove into view. Phooey. No cracker expensive-account aristocrat was going to be upset by that moniker.
That’s when I dedicated that the naming game was not as significant as stiffening the backbones of the Moses Wrights of this country. Two years ago, I went to a jazz festival in Peabody Park in Atlanta. It was agreeably integrated. They were sharing a common joy, not demanding an equal-time holiday. Better to patronize some good jazz performers than be patronizing a man with a holiday half resented.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 4, 1987