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Tag Archives: I have a dream
The life, death and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 83 on Sunday, has been thoroughly chronicled, analyzed and celebrated.
From a national holiday to hundreds of streets in cities across the country to scores of books, people can learn about King, his message of nonviolent social change, and his epic declaration at the Washington Monument of his dream.
King’s courage in the service of his ideals and his soaring oration have garnered plenty of coverage. So, too, have his marital infidelity, and, to a lesser degree, his plagiarism on his doctoral dissertation.
Yet in all the coverage of King’s life, one quality of his has received comparatively little attention: his capacity to grow and to expand his vision.
King exhibited this ability from the time he was tapped to head the Montgomery Bus Boycott in large part because he had been in town less than a year and thus did not have deep ties to the various factions within the city’s black community.
The first request issued by the Montgomery Improvement Association he came to head in the struggle that launched him to national prominence did not call to overturn legal segregation.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Rather the group founded after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress trained in the discipline of nonviolence at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, asked the city to tell its bus drivers to treat them more kindly when asking them to move to the back of the vehicles.
Starting from there, King led a movement that eventually saw its cause vindicated by the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren.
After Montgomery, Ralph Abernathy, King and other clergyman founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Their focus expanded from a Southern city to the entire system of desgregation that was legally entrenched throughout the South.
This effort took years, saw King arrested dozens of times and ultimately led not only to the dismantling of the system that had gained official sanction in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, but also to the affirmation of voting rights in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before the Selma to Montgomery march that preceded then-president Lyndon Johnson’s signature of the landmark legislation. In his address to the Nobel Committee and the world, he used his prophetic voice to signal the ascendance of economic injustice and the devastating impacts of war.
He continued to follow the trajectory he articulated in that address during the less than four years before his assassination at a Memphis hotel in April 1968.
After the Southern campaigns, he moved north to Chicago, where he went up against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in a campaign to eliminate slum housing conditions.
Although there were some victories that came from that effort, including inspiring the lifelong commitment to social justice of a then-teenaged Michael Pfleger, it was largely deemed a failure by observers within and outside of the movement (Longtime strategist Bayard Rustin had one of the more colorful assessments.).
Be that as it may, the effort to address economic conditions showed a broader concern and deeper analysis of American society as a whole than the exclusive focus on gaining access to segregated facilities.
King maintained that focus until the end of his life.
King was killed a day after giving the Mountaintop speech that would serve as his eulogy. He died supporting the “I am a Man” campaign held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis and while planning a Poor People’s March that would converge in the nation’s capital.
He also started to speak out against the Vietnam War.
Starting at the Riverside Church exactly a year before his assassination, in an address called A Time to Break Silence, King disregarded the counsel of many of his top advisers and broke ranks with the administration that had been a staunch ally.
He did so, he said, because he could not segregate his outrage about what he saw as the needless destruction of Vietnamese life that, based on his religious convictions, he had come to see as equally as valuable as the American soldiers who also died in their service to their country.
This global perspective came from the capacity to reassess, evaluate and expand one’s vision.
King is not unique in that capacity, as fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Jane Addams and Nelson Mandela each demonstrated the same tendency.
Addams started pushing for improved sanitation services in Chicago wards and ended up being one of the world’s strongest voices for world peace. Mandela evolved from a homophobic firebrand to a leader of national reconciliation and an advocate of all people’s rights.
King’s capacity for growth is not diminished for being shared by other leaders. Rather it is an indicator that points us toward highlighting the importance of this ability in others who, like King, draw on their successes and failures to make a lost and global impact on the all too troubled world.
So, on the day when we pause to remember the Atlantan who strove mightily to improve life on the planet for millions of people during his less than four decades of life, we would do well to learn from, and seek to apply, this same quality of growth and expanded vision in our own lives.
Martin Luther King, Jr., by general consensus one of the greatest civil and human rights activists in American history, would have been 82 years old today.
King has been an enduring presence since I was in second or third grade and first heard his legendary “I have a dream” speech. As a senior at Stanford, I did my honors thesis on Dr. King in which I argued that his childhood experience formed the basis for his later non-violent philosophy and attitudes toward women.
While doing the research for that project, I had access to thousands of primary source documents that my adviser Clay Carson and his staff at the King Papers Project, now the King Institute, subsequently published in a series of volumes that continues until today.
Beleaguered Detroit has been capturing a lot of attention from national magazines recently.
Sports Illustrated used a recent Lee Jenkins cover story, “The Righteous Franchise,” to kick off a periodic series on the city. The news division of parent company Time Inc. even purchased a house over the summer to provide a physical space for journalists to set up and do their reporting.
Unsurprisingly, Time magazine is part of that project.
The publication began its year long focus on the Motor City with a cover package by native Daniel Okrent with an accompanying sidebar about former NBA great and current Mayor Dave Bing and a powerful graphic that shows just how many of the city’s properties are abandoned.
Among other causes for the city’s decline, Okrent writes about the riots of 1967 that he says accelerated white flight from the city.
I have, however, recently read Robert Shogan and Tom Craig’s The Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence, a slender book that suggests that the departure of white people began decades earlier than when Okrent asserts.
Published in 1964, the book is a bit dated-black people are referred to as “Negroes,” for example-and the authors do an effective job of establishing where the city and the nation stood when the riots occurred.
Shogan and Craig devote some time to talking about Detroit’s comparatively robust economy during the period that earned it the name from President Franklin Roosevelt The Arsenal of Democracy, the influx of people, many of whom were black Southerners, to the city, and the more assertive posture many black people adopted toward the nation that was fighting for democracy abroad and enforcing de jure and de facto segregation at home.
From there, they move to describing the events of the riot, the main elements of which bear a disturbing similarity to many others before and since: decades of pent up frustration manifesting itself in initial racially-based skirmishes involving black and white youth; community escalation; disproportionate law enforcement being meted out on the black community; state and even federal authorities being brought in to quell the violence; the damage primarily being confined to the black community; and half-hearted measures to address the underlying causes by those in authority after the carnage had been stopped.
To their credit, Shogan and Craig probe deeper than the elected officials in identifying the various elements of discrimination perpetuated by the city’s educational leaders, real estate authorities and elected officials in creating the conditions that contributed to such an impassioned and physical response.
Toward the end of the book they write about the restrictive covenants that real estate agents used to try to confine the surging black populations to specific neighborhoods. The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case of Shelley v. Kraemer made the enforcement of these covenants, if not the covenants themselves, unconstitutional.
This decision prompted much of the black movement than then triggered the white flight Okrent says began nearly 20 years later.
Shogan and Craig end the book by talking about the activism in the black community that led to demonstration and marches, and, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first uttering what two months later became his signature phrase, “I have a dream.”
As he did at the Lincoln Memorial, King concluded his speech, “Free at last, free at last, free at last.”
Close to half a century after he uttered those words, Detroit residents may be forgiven for considering King’s dream an elusive reality. But for those people wanting to go deeper than Time and Sports Illustrated’s take on the Motor City that is enduring enormously hard time, The Detroit Race Riot is a fine place to start.
Many civil rights histories have Martin Luther King, Jr. as their subject.
The electrifying orator first came to national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrilled the nation during his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and expanded his focus to economic issues when he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
As I wrote last month, King’s life and actions have been thoroughly chronicled, and deservedly so.
But there was another organizing pattern during the civil rights movement that did not focus on charismatic leaders, that was locally based, and that came out of a community tradition of struggle.
Charles Payne writes about this tradition, the people who forged it and the gains they made in what was arguably America’s most racially recalcitrant and dangerous state in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.
Payne starts the book by describing the conditions in Mississippi that activists confronted.
To say that there were daunting would be an understatement.
Efforts at white supremacy enforced by violence, terror and lynching were absolute, as was suppression of the black vote. The book first chapter is filled with generations of murder, intimidation and oppression of black people by white people in the state.
Yet, despite this climate, in the early 60s, a band of dedicated volunteers worked with local residents to boost the number of voters in places like Greenwood, Mississippi-and succeeded. Payne writes that by 1964, “Black Greenwood was so much behind the movement that it could have slept a small army of civil rights workers (and did).”
The background to, people involved in, and philosophy behind, this success is the subject of Payne’s book.
He argues that the Mississippi movement, in contrast with the campaigns led by Dr. King, reflected a tradition of “community organizing, a tradition with a different sense of what freedom means and therefore a greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership of ordinary men and women.”
I’ve Got the Light of Freedom explore the tradition and the people who forged it in the decades before the 1960s. Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry all receive extensive attention from Payne. Each worked tirelessly with the community, each placed themselves in grave physical danger, and each helped establish a foothold for later workers to use.
Payne also talks in-depth about the role of the Highlander Center, founded by Myles Horton and where Septima Clark taught citizenship classes for many years. Many of the attendees, including Rosa Parks and Dr. King, went on to play significant roles in the movement.
Payne explains that the tradition was not just rooted in trendsetting men or in supportive external institutions, though. Rather he writes how the organization tradition came out of a feisty, and not always non-violent, commitment to struggling for justice.
In one of the book’s more entertaining sections, Payne writes about Mrs. Laura McGhee, a small, soft-spoken and determined woman who punched out a cop, grabbed a nightstick away from another officer and raised three sons fearlessly dedicated to the movement.
Payne quotes a civil rights worker who say that McGhee’s sons “out SNCC-ed SNCC.” The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committe and its grassroots and long-term approach to social change also receive a lot of attention from Payne, with movement “mother” Ella Baker and legendary organizer Bob Moses being people on whom he focuses in particular.
Still, Payne’s overarching focus is on Mississippi natives who worked with these organizers-people like Hollis Watkins, who I had the honor to meet in South Africa in 1996, and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose speech at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City remains a movement highlight.
Together, these people changed the landscape of politics and society in Mississippi. While the movement did lose steam in the mid-60s-at one point Bob Moses compared SNCC to a boat that simultaneously needed both to be in the water to be effective and to be out of the water to be repaired. The issue of white people’s role in the movement and the relationship between northern and southern black people both became contentious.
Still, the courage, accomplishments and approach of the people in the Mississippi movement all deserve recognition and gratitude from the rest of us, who have benefited from their efforts.
Payne’s book is a significant step in that important direction.
The civil rights movement produced a series of iconic images.
The 43-year-old Rosa Parks sitting alone in a bus in Montgomery. Elizabeth Eckford surrounded by an angry mob in Little Rock, Arkansas. The valiant James Merideth writhing on the ground after being shot on a Mississippi highway. Buses ridden by an interracial group of riders being attacked and lit in flames in Alabama. Waterhoses blasting hundreds of protesters in Birmingham. The attack of peaceful demonstators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
And, of course, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered before a crowd of 250,000 at the Washington Mall.
These images, and the courage of the people who placed their lives in harm’s way, changed the nation.
The story of the modern civil rights movement has been told and retold in many different forms.
A less-told story, though, is the role of the media in the movement that riveted the nation, led to the dismantling of segregation and the passage of landmark voting and civil rights legislation.
Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell that story and do it considerable justice in The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and The Awakening of a Nation.
The book is largely chronological, and follows the movement from the post World War II period through the unanimous Brown v. Board decision that overturned decades of legal segregation officially sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and continuing through the major civil rights battles and setbacks in the South.
The book takes at its climax the moment of Bloody Sunday, with a brief coda that mentions John Lewis’ election to the U.S. House of Representatives as evidence that the problems Myrdal identified had been resolved to some degree.
This arc has been traced many times before, but never in such depth this way.
Roberts and Klibanoff show how for years the black press had almost exclusive access to civil rights stories because white newspapers did not consider the story worth covering. Once the issue got wider attention from mainstream media publications, journalists from black publications were often pushed aside while their counterparts from bigger newspapers got more and better access.
This replication of power relations within media coverage is just one of many praiseworthy aspects of the book.
Roberts and Klibanoff have a keen feel for the southern media landscape, which included giants like Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Ralph McGill, whose views evolved with the movement, and right-winger James Kilpatrick, whose writing about the doctrine of interposition gave desegregation opponents intellectual ammunition.
Roberts and Klibanoff effectively show the interplay between events, and the coverage of them, in the gradual broadening of attention given to the movement, and in the impact the movement had on the nation’s conscience.
Neither progressed in a straight line.
Roberts and Klibanoff do not hesitate either to show moments where the movement sustained defeats, like in Albany, Georgia, where Chief Laurie Pritchettavoided the kind of newsmaking scenes that garnered headlines, stirred consciences and forced legislative action. Similarly, they take venerable publications like The New York Times to task for missing the story’s significance for years before assigning Southern-born Claude Sitton to the area.
In addition to tracing the movement’s growth and the role the media played in it, The Race Beat is a story of engaging individuals living through an era when the world as they had known it was undergoing decisive shifts and changes.
The authors devote extensive time to journalistic legends like McGill, but also to lesser-known people like Harry Ashmore, editor of Little Rock’s largest paper, or Joe Azbell of the Montgomery Advertiser, or Gene Patterson, the Journal-Constitution editor who wrote a haunting piece after a bomb blast killed four little girls in a Birmingham church.
Patterson’s essay was remarkable for its imagery-it returned over and over to a shoe held by one of the mothers-but also for its assumption of collective responsibility by white Southerners, rather than simply the extremists who bombed the church.
“We hold that shoe with her. Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson wrote.
The juxtaposition of the hearbreaking reminder of the girl’s innocence, her brutal death and the role bystanding Southerners had played in the murder was groundbreaking and, as with McGill, represented an evolution on Patterson’s part. Walter Cronkite later asked Patterson to read the entire column on his newscast, and thousands of viewers responded to Patterson’s moral outrage.
The authors do not only focus on white journalists; black journalists like the late photographer Ernest Withers, James Hicks of the Amsterdam News and L.C. Bates all receive treatment. Roberts and Klibanoff show neatly how for many of these journalists, the issue was more than one of professional concern, but was part of a mission of community uplift.
Above all, The Race Beat is the story of a time of wrenching, painful and often bloody change in the nation, but also an evocation of a bygone era in journalism.
During this time television had not completely ascended and editorials, decisions made by daily editors and coverage by their correspondents shaped public perception to a far greater degree than today, when an increasing number of readers get their information throughout the day via the Internet.
The stakes were high, the stories were raw and waiting to be told, and daily print journalism truly was “the first draft of history.” The beauty of The Race Beat lies in how Roberts and Klibanoff depict both so vividly.
The book is not perfect.
The civil rights movement in the north gets scant attention, and then only in the context of Dr. King’s struggle in Chicago. The later electoral gains of the 70s and 80s are similarly ignored. And the degree to which racism has been vanquished is a subject that is up for legitimate debate.
Still, in a time in which we have seen the initial presidential actions by America’s first black president, and during a month in which we honor the contributions of African Americans to the nation, it is fitting to reflect on the modern civil rights movement and the role that hundreds, if not thousands, of people played in documenting that valiant effort to close the gap between the nation’s lofty promises and its often sordid reality.
The Race Beat does so, and do so with honesty, elegance, and, at times, even grace. I recommend it highly.
Had he lived, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 80 years old today.
Undoubtedly, he would be preparing joyfully to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
Obama received his nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president 45 years to the day after King ended the March on Washington with his iconic “I have a dream” phrase that has been endlessly repeated since.
Unfortunately, though, King will not be joining the Obamas, but people wanting to learning about his life and work have plenty of materials from which to choose.
Since being felled at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel by a bullet fired by assassin James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, in addition to being the source of about 800 streets throughout America and, since 1986, a national holiday, King has also been the subject of scores of books.
Esteemed historian David Levering Lewis wrote the first academic biography of King, while David Garrow wrote about King’s being wiretapped by the FBI in his first book and made King basis for his later biography, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., And The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Taylor Branch spent a quarter century working on his epic trilogy, Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge, each of which bear the subtitle: America in the King Years.
Scholar and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson has written two books about King: I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. and April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America, while others like Middlebury University History Professor James Ralph concentrated on King and the Chicago Freedom Movement’s 1966 campaign to end slum conditions in Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement.
King is also the subject of children’s books and a central figure in documentaries like Eyes on the Prize , At The River I Stand and Citizen King, among others. Clayborne Carson, my undergraduate thesis advisor, has spent the past 20 years of his career overseeing the publication of the King papers; thus far the center has produced 10 books of King’s speeches, sermons and a King encyclopedia.
With such a plethora of sources-reader Dan Prusaitis said he did a search recently and found more than 131 books about the slain civil rights leader-one can hardly be faulted for greeting the arrival with yet another book about King with unbated breath.
But Barnard University sociologist Jonathan Rieder does indeed break new ground in The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., a captivating analysis of King’s varied rhetorical styles, their meaning and what they reveal about the man and his impact on the nation.
The King that emerges in Rieder’s work is not the saintly figure that one sees during annual celebrations of his birthday. That King is frozen in time proclaiming his dream at the March on Washington.
Through his examination of King’s words and the settings in which they occurred, Rieder paints a far richer, more complex portrait of the man.
The King of The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is all flesh and blood, at different times playing the “dozens” with members of his inner circle, many of whom were preachers, a pastor who combines raw emotion and refined knowledge in his sermons to black audiences and an advocate for peace who consciously emphasize for white audiences the importance of striving for the “beloved community.”
Rieder ultimately argues that King is a crossover artist and code switcher who consciously used different phrases and messages to black and white audiences. Indeed, part of the significance of the March on Washington speech is not King’s articulation of his dream, according to Rieder, but that he choose to abandon his set text and started “as exultant a display of blackness before the nation as once could imagine at the time” while helping to form one of America’s most profound moments.
Rieder divides the work into four sections. The first part looks at how King spoke with his colleagues, with whom he was highly earthy, while the second examines the tension between raw and refined elements in King’s preaching. The third part tackles King’s oratory in mass meetings, and the final section looks at how King crossed over to white audiences with appeals to “amazing universalism.”
Rieder delineates his scope from the outset:
“This book is not biography, history or theology. It is mainly an interpretive effort to understand a complex man-not the deep thinker or the inspiring doer, but the fluent speaker who did inspiring things with his words.”
Rieder maintains this focus throughout the book, continually supplying examples of King’s words, the context in which they occurred, the audience’s response and the consequence of the interaction. Rieder’s description of the Mountaintop speech, given the night before King died, is notable for how it captures the emotion the speech elicited.
But so, too, is his explanation of how King would not confine himself rigidly to one persona for black audiences-he would be likely to discuss the three words for love in Greek-eros, phylia and agape, for example-but instead could flow between black and white groups. The language he used, and the faith and empathy underpinning the words, was central to that effort.
Rieder’s skill in drawing King’s varied forms of expressions and the audiences that heard them to make a persuasive argument about the King’s faith, language and impact is its most impressive aspect. Still, his convincing explanation that, while he referred to Mohandas Gandhi in Stride Toward Freedom, King was at base a Christian thinker whose deep and abiding faith contributed mightily to the success of his moral and universal appeal to the nation is significant, too.
In short, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is a mesmerizing and original look at one of America’s most important historical figures.
Obama is another such figure.
That King will not be around to see Obama sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts is the reminder of a wound that still hurts, even though than 40 years have passed since it initially was sustained.
That there are works like Jonathan Rieder’s to help us understand the man who worked with so many others to end legal apartheid and pave the way for the enormously important occasion helps to cushion the blow.