Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

On Dr. Martin Luther King’s Struggles and Strength

The arrival of the annual King holiday prompts reflection on the state of the country relative to the lofty dream he articulated first in Detroit, and then most memorably on the Washington Mall in August 1963.

But it’s also an opportunity to consider the man and how he was able to persevere in the face of the consistently vicious opposition he encountered during the final third of his life.

One part of the key may lie in a speech he gave in Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1967, about a year after his campaign to bring about the “unconditional surrender” of slum housing conditions in what was then the nation’s second-largest city.

The experience he recounted happened late one night in the kitchen of his Montgomery home.

King, who had not originally sought out a church that would become the center of international activism, had emerged as a leader in the boycott sparked by seamstress, NAACP member and former Highlander Center alumnus Rosa Parks. (An interesting side note is that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same violation the year before Parks, but had not been considered a sufficiently appropriate face of the moment by the local black power structure.)

The decision came with heavy costs.

King’s house was bombed one night while he and his family were in it.

He received daily death threats for the following 13 years until his assassination in Memphis by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

It was at midnight, King told the Chicago audience, when he received the call. (You can hear King start to tell the story at 18:32 on the recording.)

The message was simple and laced with a racial epithet:

We’re tired of you and what you’re doing.

Get out of town in three days, or we’ll kill you and blow up your house.

Although he had encountered many similar such threats, this one jolted King.

He could not return to sleep.

He eventually went into his kitchen for a cup of coffee to calm his nerves.

He started thinking about the theology he had studied for years, about his beautiful little girl, about his dedicated and loving wife.

Nothing worked.

King then thought of reaching out to his father, a well-respected preacher, but he was 175 miles away in Atlanta.

He even considered contacting his mother.

Then he realized he needed to pray, to call on his profound belief and to ask for help from the god in which he believed so fervently.

With the crowd clapping and calling out its approval and support, King said that he bowed down over the cup of coffee and uttered the following prayer:

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

King’s voice rose as he told the crowd that he heard a voice telling him, “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”

It rose even further as he roared his belief:

“And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.”

Based on the strength he drew from the voice he heard, King gathered himself to continue the fight for justice and equality.

He fought from victories in Montgomery and Selma to setbacks in Albany, Georgia and here in Chicago.

He expanded his geographic focus from the southern part of the United States to the north to the entire world (The bombs dropped in Vietnam fall in American cities, he said in one address.)

Animated by his faith and the comfort he received by not being left alone, motivated by what he called the fierce urgency of now, King gathered himself and fought until he drew his final breath in Memphis.

He did so in the face of disappointment, and, as he told the church crowd, in spite of battles with discouragement:

“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. (All right) I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. (Yes, sir) Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. [applause] Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” God bless you.” [applause]

The message he delivered in our city, a place where he achieved decidedly mixed results, can help us arrive at a different understanding of the man than one often reads and hears about in history books.

That King is portrayed as a lofty dreamer, a towering giant who stands enshrined in a massive statue on the very mall where he delivered his most famous address.

But his Chicago sermon reveals an imperfect man who grappled with insecurity, yet who found through his faith, his circle of loved ones and his own inner resources, the strength and courage to continue to fight for a cause he believed in so deeply he gave his life to it.

We are grateful and better as a country for his sacrifice, and closer to him as a man for his having shared his inner struggle.

Why Obama’s statement is the key to understanding Egypt, technology and freedom

The departure of Hosni Mubarak sparked euphoria in Egypt yesterday.

UPDATE:  My father Ed Lowenstein had the following to say:

Yes, Jeff. But perhaps another problem that the Obama actions demonstrate is that depending upon 140 character messages, 30 second sound bites or 600 word articles rather than doing the work required to learn the past beliefs, behaviors, actions and effectiveness of candidates means that those we vote into office will actually govern completely differently than we expect. As you point out,this has certainly been true in many respects for our current president. And I suspect many Republicans who voted for George Bush did not expect the expansion of government or Social Security enhancement they got. An uninformed and disinterested electorate may be the greatest enemy of a successful democracy.

The scenes in Egypt yesterday were enormously uplifting and inspiring.

People’s unalloyed joy at the departure of dictator Hosni Mubarak after 30 years oppressive rule and 18 days of mass protest could not help but move anyone who supports the causes of freedom and justice in our undeniably imperfect world.

A solemn President Barack Obama quoted Dr. King about Ghana’s being the first African nation to earn its independence,  “Like Martin Luther King said in Ghana…’There’s something in the soul that cries for freedom.'”

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Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King on civil disobedience and the rule of law.

Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall shared a fraternity, but differed on tactics to bring about social change.

Thurgood Marshall and Dr. King were unquestionably two titans of the modern civil rights movement, yet they had profound differences in their views of civil disobedience and the role of law.

For more than two decades before King emerged as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, Marshall risked his life and gradually chipped away at the “separate but equal” doctrine articulated in the notorious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case and quickly codified from practice into law in large parts of the country.

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On difference maker Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King would have been 82 years old today.

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.

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An Unlikely Airport Connection.


I made a surprising connection during a moment like this.

Being recognized by an airport security guard generally means bad news, but for me today it was the start of a surprising connection.


The four hours of sleep last night,  my sweat from having run from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2-who knew that the United flight to Montreal checked in at the Air Canada Jazz counter-and my not yet having purchased a grande mocha frappuccino from Starbucks had me feeling, well, less than exuberant as I was walking through the security line.

Then the voice came.

“I remember you,” the female security guard said.  “You gave a presentation about racism in Chicago.”

The woman in question was a part-time Chicago Public Schools Special Education teacher/part-time security worker at O’Hare.  The workshop was a Facing History session I did about the Chicago Freedom Movement at the Irving Park library branch for a Facing History and Ourselves workshop about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The presentation was based on a four-part series I did for The Chicago Reporter about Dr. King’s work in Chicago in the 60s and where the city stands now on many of the same issues.

Although I couldn’t see it, I’m pretty confident that my jaw opened pretty wide.

We had a brief chat about her work and the state of education in Chicago before I retrieved my computer, thanked her for greeting me and headed toward the Starbucks.

I didn’t really need the caffeine, though, as I had already received a jolt of energy from a highly unlikely source.

Of course, this came after the cab ride with a Christian Armenian refugee from Iran who speaks five languages and could be the subject of my project for the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.   It also came before I met fellow board members Miles Moffeit and Julia Lieblich in the airport.

But those are stories for future posts.

In short, the adventure has begun.

Martin Luther King’s birthday, books by him.

A picture from one of the many times Dr. King was arrested while advocating for social change.

Although Dr. King would have turned 81 on Friday, we as a nation like to have Mondays off, so are celebrating his birthday today.

Here in Chicago, and throughout the country, people are marking the birth of this remarkable man whose actions inspired millions and helped the nation move closer to its lofty promises.

In addition to being one of the most talented orators the nation has ever seen, King was also a prolific writer.  He wrote four books and countless sermons.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Written on toilet paper and the margins of newspapers while he was imprisoned in Bull Connor’s jail, this letter draws on the prophetic tradition, Martin Buber and personal experiences to respond to clergy who chastised King for agitating for civil rights.  In the letter, King defends non violence and urges the clergy to join him in the struggle.

2. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Published in 1967, this book shows the increasing polarization that King had to contend with and the resolve and vision he brought to them.  In this work, he speaks out both against violence in the name of social change and the rioting that devastated many American cities and the war in Vietnam.  His commitment to a beloved community is firm throughout: he calls a riot the language of the unheard and asserts that the bombs that drop in Vietnam fall at home.

3.  Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Delivered at New York’s Riverside Church exactly one year before he was killed, this speech marked King’s first public and detailed rebuke of the war in Vietnam. It cost him favor with the Johnson White House, which had been comparatively supportive of civil rights legislation, and King felt, as he said, that at a certain point silence is betrayal.

4. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech.  According to some, this 1964 speech charted the prophetic path King would follow during the remaining years of his life. During this time his focused expanded from dismantling segregation to combatting the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism.

5.Stride Toward Freedom.  This book is King’s account of the fabled Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched him into national, and ultimately, international, prominence.

What are your favorite King writings? Is the I Have a Dream speech among them?

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address, book connections.

President Barack Obama spoke about the aspiration for peace and the necessity of war in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech today.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech today in Norway today, President Barack Obama spoke about the aspiration for peace and the necessity of war.

Obama opened his speech with the frank acknowledgment that his accomplishments are “slight” compared with others like Albert Schweitzer who have come before him before moving into a strong defense of the need, at times, for war.

Former warriors turned peacemakers like Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin have been awarded this honor before, but few so early in their tenure in public life and with so small a history of peacemaking behind.

In The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela discusses the need for armed struggle in South Africa and the formation in the early 1960s of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation, to carry out those actions. 

For his part, Obama asserted the importance of a clear-eyed assessment of reality.

“I face the world as it is,” he said, perhaps unintentionally echoing the first and cardinal rule of community organizing articulated by Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals: Deal with the world as it is, not as it should be.

For Obama, that means confronting the reality both that non-violence, as valuable as it is, would neither have defeated Hitler’s armies nor defeated Al-Qaeda, and that violent conflict is not likely to end in our lifetime.

The president conceded that his recent decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, and, more generally, that war in general means two inescapable outcomes: “Some will kill. Some will be killed.”

Later in the address, he added that,  “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

At the recommendation of Dart Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Dockser Marcus, I just read David Finkel’s harrowing book, The Good Soldiers.  A Washington Post editor, Finkel spent close to a year with a division of Rangers in Iraq during the period of the surge to combat the counterinsurgency there.

I will devote a whole post to this book later, and for now will say that it provides indelible confirmation of Obama’s assertions about Afghanistan and war in general.  It makes for gripping reading.

Dr. King’s presence was significant through Obama’s address.

He mentioned King as a giant of history and as a proponent and practitioner of non-violent direct action.  Obama also quoted directly from King’s 1964  Nobel Peace Prize address

People who want to learn more about King and his speeches would be well advised to look at James Washington’s A Testament of Hope, a collection of many of King’s major addresses throughout the years. 

Clayborne Carson, my undergraduate thesis advisor and director of the King Institute at Stanford University, has overseen the publication of a number of books of King speeches, too.  Taylor Branch talks about what the global recognition of the prize meant to King in the second and third books in his outstanding trilogy about the civil rights leader that took 25 years to complete.

Obama closed his address by talking about alternatives to war, and about acknowledging the reality of war while striving peace.   “We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”

 The New York Times had  a fascinating piece earlier this week about how Obama arrived at his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.  As with nearly all things, time will tell if that decision, and the doctrine he articulated today in Oslo, prove to be a wise one. 

What we can say for sure is that his tendency to avoid conventional formulations and to accept dichotomies-he has often talked about individual and government responsibility, for example-were on full display for the world to see and her.

Detroit’s National Profile, the Race Riots of 1943


These scenes of violence were common during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943.  Robert Shogan and Tom Craig's book looks at the events before and after the riot.

These scenes of violence were common during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943. Robert Shogan and Tom Craig's book looks at the events before and after the riot.

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 not yet read John Hersey’s account of those tumultuous and bloody days, but look forward to doing. 

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.

Obama’s campaign and Bob Moses’ Radical Equations-Algebra as the Next Frontier for Civil Rights.


Bob Moses talks about his organizing in Mississippi and the Algebra Project.

Bob Moses talks about his organizing in Mississippi and the Algebra Project.

Community organizing received a lot of attention last election season.

A host of speakers, from keynoter and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Vice Presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, derided then- Democratic candidate Barack Obama’scredentials to lead the United States since one of his formative work experiences was organizing on Chicago South’s Side (Obama featured this time prominently in campaign commercials and wrote about it in his first book, Dreams From My Father.).

The philosophy of tapping communal strength and drawing contributions from the ground up and the strategic use of available technology led to several distinctive features of Obama’s campaign whose revolutionary dimensions are still being absorbed.

To begin, his web site, based on social media applications, made it remarkably easy for people to get involved in the campaign in any number of ways best suited and most convenient for them.  This contributed to Obama’s phenomenal and unprecedented fund raising success, which included literally hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from people who gave  amounts as low as $5, $10, or $20.  

This tapping of what Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson has called “The Long Tail,” led not only to financial contributions, but, arguably, to greater participation in Obama’s ultimately successful campaign. 

As a community organizer, Obama was building on a tradition that is a deep and historic part of American history.  

University of Chicago historian Charles Payne brings out some of the tradition’s origins in Mississippi in I’ve Got The Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. 

Nearly all accounts of the modern civil rights movements, especially those that center on Mississippi, at some point include legendary organizer Bob Moses.

The soft-spoken Harlem native inspired legions of residents and workers with his selfless, unflinchingly brave and persistent efforts at voter registration, community empowerment and dismantling legal segregation in what was according to many the worst resistant state in the country.

The first act of Moses’ public life culminated in the mid-60s, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of which he had been such a major part, started to be divided both on the issue of whether white members should be allowed and whether nonviolent struggle was a legitimate method to achieve meaningful social change.

Weary and disillusioned, Moses left SNCC and later moved to Tanzania, where he taught for a number of years and started to raise his four children. 

Eventually, his passion recharged, and Moses returned to the United States, where he earned a doctorate degree and began what would become the second major stage of his civil rights struggle-teaching children of color algebra.

Moses writes about the Algebra Project he founded with the goal of helping black people, other people of color and poor people gain economic access in Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, a gripping read that embodies the ‘small d’ democratic philosophy it espouses. 

The work is divided into two parts.  

The first is largely autobiographical and covers Moses’ gaining a stronger sense of his own black identity by becoming involved in the civil rights struggle and organizing activity in Mississippi.  The influence of SNCC supporter and civil rights dynamo Ella Baker is palpable.  Moses clearly feels indebted to the woman who refused to bend to the patriarchal expectations of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and who repeatedly encouraged the young people to forge their own path. 

The title echoes Baker’s influence, as Moses twice includes a quote from her about believing in radical change-by that, she meant getting to problems’ root causes.  

The first section also includes vivid if straightforward accounts of civil rights stalwarts like Fannie Lou Hamer, Hollis Watkins, Amzie Moore and others.   He shows the movement’s gradually expanding focus from voter registration to political power and concludes it with the dramatic action at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s efforts to be seated at the Democratic National Convention.  

The second section covers Moses’ creation of the Algebra Project, including his attempts to spread the curricular approach to helping his students learn.

Although the subjects of the two efforts appear different, they are linked in several fundamental ways-by their commitment to full equality for all people in the United States, by their belief in the power and dignity of ordinary people, and by their use of community organizing and experiential learning as a means to achieve the movement’s goals.

In one of the chapters, Pedagogy, Moses explains the five-step curricular process he developed for his students after learning about the work of philosopher Willard Quine at Harvard. They are physical events like a ride on the Boston subway, or “T”, pictorial representation, intuitive language or “people palk”, structured language or “feature Talk,” and symbolic representation.   He includes an appendix that takes the reader through the process in detail and in the context of an actual problem.

The second part is distinctive in several regards.  

To begin, Moses shows his continuing commitment to participatory democracy through his inclusion in italics of the words of students, administrators, friends and family members who comment on the point he has just made.  He also shows how his son Taba, with whom he had frequently clashed and who had had a number of problems with authority, including run-ins with the police, was able to connect with the students by relating to them on their level.

He also returns South to Ella Baker’s home area in North Carolina and to Mississippi.  While Moses talks about the return largely in terms of the movement, one can sense that there is healing in returning to the region that gave him such a strong sense of identity and continuing to help its residents develop and reach their potential.  

Radical Equations is a clearly written account of the personal and professional journey of a remarkable  and humble American who has made seminal contributions to the nation’s development.  Moses and the work of all of the thousands of people in the modern civil rights tradition played a major role in advancing the community organizing tradition on which President Obama drew on his way to a triumphant campaign to the White House.

Is Obama the governing he campaigned?

Is Bob Moses right that economic access is the next civil rights frontier?

Is the Algebra Project an effective teaching method?

R.I.P., John Hope Franklin

The late John Hope Franklin lived a remarkable full of accomplishment and social commitment.

The late John Hope Franklin lived a remarkable full of accomplishment and social commitment.

On Wednesday, groundbreaking historian John Hope Franklin took his last breath.

On January 15, a birthday he shared with legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King,  Jr., he had turned 94 years old.

Franklin tells the story of his remarkable  life, albeit in a typically understated fashion, in Mirror To America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

This clearly written and insightful book starts with Franklin’s humble beginnings in an all-black community in Oklahoma, where he endured humiliating experiences because of his race.  Mirror to America continues hrough his education at Fisk University, his doctoral work at Harvard University and his long, distinguished and acclaimed career as an historian.

Mirror to America makes it clear that Franklin took seriously his role as historian and saw as part of his professional responsibility the importance of including the history of black people in America as a central, rather than peripheral part of the American story.

From Slavery to Freedom is his most well known and widely circulated book. 

First published in 1947, the work was repeatedly updated in the following six decades.  By some estimates it had sold at least three million copies.  The book helped contribute to the ultimately successful efforts of Thurgood Marshall and the rest of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn segregation through the collection of cases known as Brown v. Board of Education.

In addition to his scholarship, Franklin broke color barriers as an adminstrator, too.   He was the first black department chair at predominantly white Brooklyn College-a fact which inspired one of his mentees, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis-and the first black president of the American Historical Association

He remained civically engaged until his final days, endorsing Barack Obama for President in 2008. 

Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 1995.  The nation is diminished by his loss but greatly enhanced by his socially committed and committed life.