Tag Archives: David Levering Lewis

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.


Our New First Lady



A Biography.

Liza Mundy explores future First Lady Michelle Obama's roots in Michelle: A Biography.

In addition to being a board member for Facing History and Ourselves, the non-profit organization my wife works for,  Michelle Obama will become tomorrow the first black First Lady in American history.

She is an impressive woman-tall, intelligent, confident, attractive, and free-speaking-and someone her husband calls the rock of the Obama family

The rock was forged on Chicago’s South Side.

Born and raised in a two-parent home, the then-Michelle Robinson attended Whitney Young High SchoolPrinceton University and Harvard Law School before returning to her hometown practice law at corporate firm Sidley Austin.

While there, she met her future husband and later helped start Public Allies, an organization that provides young people opportunities for service.

Many Americans first became familiar with Obama during her husband’s succesful campaign for president; for many, the impression was less than positive. 

During that effort, Obama drew fire for her comment, repeated endlessly on You Tube, that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of being an American. 

Others expressed concern about how she talked openly about some of her husband’s failings.  Fox News speculated that the fist bump she and her husband exchanged when he clinched the  nomination was a terrorist sign-the bump was part of a highly controversial New Yorker magazine cover.

Obama and her husband’s campaign readjusted her public presence, emphasizing her partnership with Barack,  having her go on the television show The View and talk about  her domestic life-she did the fist bump with all of the cast members, including the conserative Elizabeth Hasslebeck-and having her explain her husband, and his worthiness of people’s votes, to the public.

Obama’s image appeared to improve-People Magazine named her one of its 10 Best Dressed Women, citing her ‘classic and confident’ look-yet, for many, she still remains a somewhat unknown figure.

Liza Mundy fills in many of those gaps with Michelle:  A Biography.  The Washington Post author, like Obama, a Princeton graduate, provides lots of information into Obama’s background, the sources of strength and occasional strains she experienced during her marriage with Obama, her significance in Obama’s decision to run for president and the recalibration of her public persona during the campaign. 

The book is nothing like an epic biography on the scale of Robert Caro’s trilogy about Lyndon Baines Johnson or David Levering Lewis’ two-volume account of W.E.B. DuBois. But it is a servicable and well-researched primer on Obama, her early influences, her strong personality and her powerful, loving and effective partnership and marriage with her imminently inaugurated husband. 

Mundy shows that the marriage had its share of strains, particularly during the early years of parenting, when Obama was a state senator(Readers of The Audacity of Hope will recall Michelle’s striking line that she felt like a single parent.). 

Mundy also talks about how distressed Obama was during his time at Springfield with senators who would openly cheat on their wives and makes it clear that he would do the same to Michelle due to a combination largely of respect but also of fear (One friend is quoted as saying he knows Michelle would kill him.).

Mundy does an adequate job of placing the future First Lady’s childhood and community in historical context and depicting the complicated dance of career, family and motherhood that she and many other professional women have to face.  The book also talks about Michelle’s hesitancy for her husband to enter politics, both because of her concern for him and because of her awareness of the consequences of political life for their future family life.

The book ends during the early stages of Obama’s presidential campaign and touches on the shift away from Obama pointing out her husband’s domestic failings to someone who helped tell his story and continue to introduce him to the American public.

The effort worked, and, as anyone who has not been living under a proverbial rock knows, tomorrow her husband will assume the presidency.

Quick, breezy and well-researched, Michelle: A Biography helps shed light on the woman who will stand beside Obama as he places his hand on the same bible that his fellow Illionoisan, Abraham Lincoln, touched nearly 150 years ago and takes the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts. 

Mundy’s book will almost certainly not be on the short list of Pulitzer nominees when they are announced this spring, but it is a useful source of information for people wanting to get a better understanding of our new First Lady’s roots, personality and values.

The Variety of Martin Luther King’s Words

Jonathan Rieder captures the range and variety of Dr. King's rhetoric.

Jonathan Rieder explores the range and variety of Dr. King's rhetoric.

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.