Conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that black men are created unequal, the United States has attempted to come to terms with its longue durée of white supremacy only twice in its history. The first effort, made by black and white abolitionists in the period of nationalist expansion, and caught up in the conflict between slave and free labour modes of production, brought hereditary legal servitude to an end. Its national hero, Abraham Lincoln, announced at Gettysburg that a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ had experienced ‘a new birth of freedom’ in civil war. But with the defeat of Reconstruction a decade after Lincoln’s assassination, the 14th Amendment that was supposed to guarantee former slave ‘persons’ equality before the law came instead to insulate corporations, designated ‘artificial persons’, from popular political control. Deprived of the right to vote throughout the former Confederacy, freedmen and women were forced to work in repressive systems of labour, on farms, in mines and in chain-gangs; subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and debt peonage; terrorised, brutalised and murdered in the thousands of lynchings often advertised in advance as public entertainments; confined to Jim Crow schools, public accommodation, restaurants and hotels (where any were available at all); made involuntary participants in sterilisation and other medical experiments; and confronted with residential apartheid and job discrimination as they moved North. A falsification that held more universal sway among whites than did any Stalinist rewriting of history in the Soviet Union transformed black Americans in the post-bellum South from victims of re-subjugation into political and sexual predators.
A century after the Civil War, a massive, non-violent black revolution brought three centuries of legally enshrined, lethally enforced white supremacy to an end. Its national hero is Martin Luther King Jr. Far from giving way in the face of moral example and legal right, racial injustice rose to fever pitch during the 1960s. The third and deadliest Ku Klux Klan (succeeding the Southern Klan of the late 1860s and the national Klan of the 1920s) dynamited churches where members of the black freedom struggle met. Klansmen beat and murdered civil rights workers and Southern blacks who tried to register to vote; the identity of the bombers and killers was rarely a secret, but Southern juries were loath to convict. Southern law enforcement officers, even when they were not themselves Klan supporters, jailed and assaulted thousands of civil rights campaigners for exercising their Constitutional rights. Southern judges and elected officials harassed, outlawed and imprisoned those participating in the freedom struggle. The four political assassinations that define the 1960s – those of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and King – stand in for the very large numbers (almost all black and lost to national public memory) martyred to racial justice.
It is now a commonplace that, instead of protecting Southern civil rights workers, the FBI (with the collusion of the Kennedy brothers) conducted a campaign to discredit King. The organisation’s assistant director, William Sullivan, compiled from the Bureau’s wiretaps and bugs a tape of the noises of the civil rights leader’s extramarital activities. He sent it to King with a letter threatening to expose him; purporting to be a ‘Negro’, the letter-writer proposed suicide as King’s only way out.
It is also a commonplace that the hysterical brew of racist, anti-Communist and sexual fantasies which reached its climax in the King years drove not just the average, representative American psyche, but the politically untouchable figure who headed the national police for forty years. Nonetheless, in 1983 it was King, not J. Edgar Hoover, who became the third American to be honoured with his own national holiday. As Washington presided over the national birth of the United States and Lincoln over its rebirth in civil war, so the line from Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr places slavery and racial equality at the centre of American national identity. Elevating King to the pantheon of founding fathers, however, has served as a ritual of national self-congratulation that obliterates the radical movement in which King lived, breathed and died. For the parallel between the 1860s and the 1960s extends beyond victory to counter-revolution. The assassinations of Lincoln and King transformed these figures in national memory from trouble-makers into healers, as Michael Eric Dyson puts it in I May Not Get there with You, an attempt to bring King back to political life. But while Lincoln turned in his last months from racial justice to national reconciliation, King had been moving in the opposite direction at the time of his death. Dyson’s book enters the fray over who gets to speak for the icon of Martin Luther King.
Ronald Reagan, who had opposed not only the civil rights movement but also the national legislation ending legal discrimination and guaranteeing the black right to vote, was the President who signed the Bill declaring King’s birthday a national holiday. There were two reasons for this historical irony. First, King was being celebrated as ‘poster boy’ (Dyson’s term) for the achievement of formal legal equality by those claiming that the struggle for racial justice had been won. Second, Reagan was paying back the debt he owed King, since the entry of racial conflict into national politics overthrew the FDR/Johnson New Deal coalition and put the former actor in the White House. Although Marx had written that labour in white skins could never be free so long as labour in black skins was enslaved, he more famously showed how the struggle for legal equality stigmatised the state as the source of coercion and apotheosised the marketplace as if it were free – an analysis now twice borne out by the history of the United States. When in the peroration to his ‘I have a dream’ address in 1963, King called for freedom to ring out even from Georgia’s Stone Mountain (the founding site of the second Ku Klux Klan – the national Klan of the 1920s), he did not expect that thirty years later the Congressman from Stone Mountain, Newt Gingrich, would promulgate his ‘contract with America’ and preside over the Republican take-over of Congress. No Democratic Presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has received a majority of the white vote, and the proportion of white male Republican voters typically reaches landslide proportions, as it did for George W. Bush. Before Johnson the only Southern Democrat to have been elected President since the Civil War was Woodrow Wilson, who had built his political career in New Jersey; since Johnson, no non-Southern Democrat has gone to the White House. Losing its virulent Jim Crow edge at home, the white South has acceded to national power.
Conservatives who once opposed the end of legal segregation on the grounds that laws could not change hearts now pretend to believe that formal equality has wiped out the social inequalities built up over centuries. Their slogan of colour-blindness masks the massive, enduring racially-marked inequalities in net worth, economic opportunity, schooling and treatment by the criminal justice system in the US. It also ignores the continuing history of residential apartheid and cultural fantasy. Conservatives claim that since African Americans now have equality of opportunity, supporters of affirmative action and similar programmes are insisting on equality of results. So the black neo-conservative Shelby Steele borrowed from King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech the title of his best-selling book, The Content of our Character, as if King (who himself supported affirmative action) thought that we had already reached the promised land where black people’s life chances were not hostage to the colour of their skin. Most recently, in the coup d’état that put Bush in the White House, the Supreme Court conservative majority used the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to disenfranchise black voters, by stopping the Florida ballot recount in disproportionately black counties. The Court claimed that recounting ballots only in poorer counties that used unreliable punch card machines denied voters in counties with optical scan machines the equal protection of the law – as if, in this reversion to late-19th-century perversions of the 14th Amendment, the two racially-marked voting methods were separate but equal. The Court had the further effrontery to invoke as precedent the Supreme Court decision invalidating Southern state poll taxes under the equal protection clause – a decision that effectively disenfranchised African Americans.
Liberal whites (mostly men) also claim King’s mantle. Distressed both by the rightward turn in American politics and by the growing political importance of non-white issues and interests, they wish they could make the race question go away, and blame its continuing presence more on multicultural ‘balkanisation’ (the term belongs to Arthur Schlesinger Jr) than on the white resentment which they, in some measure, share. Or in time-honoured minstrel tradition, new Democrats black up political programmes with African American cultural identification: programmes directed against the inner cities, in which welfare abolition and the intensification of death and other criminal penalties take the place of national health insurance and economic protection. Here, President Clinton is Dyson’s prime exhibit.
King and Clinton shared the sexual adventurism that became – for one in private, the other in public – the focus of efforts to destroy them; perhaps it was with King in mind that Toni Morrison declared Clinton to be our first black President. Believing that a profane King can speak to contemporary black youth as a holy one cannot, Dyson devotes whole chapters to his hero’s sexual life and shows a great interest in the plagiarism that marked not only his sermons and speeches but also his college papers and divinity school dissertation. But whatever pressures gave rise to King’s sexual promiscuity (and, indeed, his literary promiscuity), Dyson’s attention to the private King simply feeds the prurient interest in the secret lives of public figures that typifies our current celebrity culture. Whether he is criticising male marital infidelity or seeing King’s plagiarism as a precedent for hip-hop record ‘sampling’, Dyson sounds in this register morally intrusive and historically strained.
One can speculate about King’s entanglement in those opposites of African American culture, the church and the juke joint, God and the devil, sacred demands and profane liberation. But the private King remains, in spite of all the biographies now devoted to him, a mystery. And that is in keeping with his doctrine. For against the force of ‘eros’, King proposed ‘agape’, in which the ‘expulsive power of something good’ drove out ‘sensuality’. Eros was inevitably selfish and mundane, King preached in the thick of the marches whose participants filled the Birmingham jails. ‘When you rise to love’ – on the level of agape – ‘you love those who don’t move you. You love those that you don’t like . . . You love everyman because God loves him!’ Sinful private individuals were reborn through agape as members of a ‘beloved community’, the civil rights movement, the mystic body of Christ.
One hears little talk of private individual rights in the sermons and speeches of King and the other ministers and divinity students at the movement’s core. They sound less like Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and more like the early New England Puritans – those children of Israel in the New World – only they plead the case for inclusion rather than exclusion. ‘All Christians are of one body in Christ,’ John Winthrop preached on board the Arbella before it ever reached Massachusetts Bay and ‘the ligaments of this body which knit together are love.’ ‘Love is the central motif of non-violence,’ the Rev. James Lawson told the founding meeting of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greensboro, North Carolina on 15 April 1960. ‘It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.’ With whatever coded reference to his personal life, King sometimes imagined that agape achieved some of its force from the sublimation of eros, or, alternatively, that public witness compensated for private sin. More important, he preached the inversion of the ‘unearned suffering’ that defined the black presence in the United States from a condition of passive submission to one of active choice. By the transformation of ‘suffering into a creative force’ – Dyson quoting King – non-violent resistance entered the world as an embodied, communal conversion experience, a new source of power.
‘Conquering Self-Centredness’, the sermon that King delivered in 1957 in his Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, contains a prayer which Claybourne Carson has chosen as the epigraph to Volume IV of The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr:
Help me, O God, to see that I’m just a symbol of a movement . . . O God, help me to see that where I stand today, I stand because others have helped me to stand there and because the forces of history projected me there. And this movement would have come in history even if M.L. King had never been born.
King acquired his symbolic status thanks to the Montgomery bus boycott, the first sustained African American mass action in the history of the United States. The effect of saying no to the back of the bus – ‘to refuse allegiance . . . to withdraw’, as Thoreau had put it in his anti-slavery essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’ a century earlier – was to dismantle the entire state-mandated structure of African American degradation. The popular mobilisation in Montgomery, which lasted for more than a year, was carried forward in church meeting after church meeting, in the exertion of walking for miles day after day and in the organisation of alternative rides, in the courageous endurance of arrests, bombings and harassments carried out in the name of the law. By criminalising not only blacks and whites who sat next to one another on buses but also the very protest against Jim Crow, the city of Montgomery was doing nothing unusual; much worse would follow. What was new was the overwhelming popular resistance, which caught up almost the entire black population of the city.
As he well knew, King had nothing to do with the origins of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks was not the first woman to be arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. She was a member of the Montgomery Woman’s Political Committee, which had been looking for the right moment. With the support of E.D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), these women now proposed a boycott. After Nixon shamed the Montgomery ministers into public support of the mass action, the young, well-educated, well-spoken recent arrival to the city – his father was a prominent Atlanta preacher – was nominated to head the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. King’s first sermon electrified the black community – ‘his oratory had just made him for ever a public person,’ Taylor Branch has written in his monumental study, America in the King Years – and his official position soon made him Montgomery’s spokesman to the nation. Martin Luther King had found his voice.
Yet the movement of which King had become the symbol was dormant from 1957 to 1958, the period covered by the fourth volume of the admirable project on which Carson and his assistants have embarked. The two most uneventful years in what remained of King’s short life begin in the wake of victory, with the bombing of four black churches and two ministers’ homes (this time, unlike a year earlier, the dynamite on King’s front porch failed to explode); they continue through the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (still little more than an organisation on paper with no real direction and nothing to do) and include King’s first trip to Africa. (The importance he gave to colonial liberation explodes the distinction now typically drawn between a supposedly American-centred early civil rights movement – good – and later Black Power ‘third-worldism’: bad.) King is arrested, roughed up and jailed (for the third time), he makes the cover of Time, and, as he preaches civil rights around the country, a madwoman stabs him in the chest in Harlem. (The famous photo of the letter-opener handle protruding from his chest appears in this volume of the papers.) John Lewis, aspiring divinity student from the backwoods of Alabama – subsequently head of SNCC and now a Congressman from Georgia – makes his first appearance in King’s world. And Ezell Blair Jr, a high-school youth from Greensboro, North Carolina writes to tell King that the minister’s call for an escalation of non-violent protests has brought him to tears. Two years later Blair will join three friends to sit in at a segregated Greensboro lunch counter, thereby initiating the chain of protests which evolved into the freedom struggle of the 1960s and changed the United States for ever. King was a symbol without a movement in 1957: within a few years, the student movement that had threatened to displace him (along with his generation of more cautious religious leaders) had made him a prophet.
Montgomery withdrew from the lists of white supremacy; the ‘sit-down’ at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch-counter in Greensboro – and the sit-ins, freedom rides and voter registration campaigns that followed – disrupted it directly. ‘From the Montgomery bus boycott to the confrontations of the sit-ins, then on to the mass jail-ins,’ Taylor Branch writes, ‘there was a “movement” in both senses of the word – a moving spiritual experience and a steady expansion of scope.’ There was an obvious tension between the burgeoning of the movement and the narrowing of the public focus on King. ‘When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters’, as King put it in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, and the sustained mass actions of the 1960s revived, expanded, and radicalised Montgomery, he seemed always to be at the centre of things: King, being released from prison after phone calls from the Kennedy brothers (Jack’s quickly became legendary – thanks to the black vote – for putting him in the White House); King in the Birmingham jail; King delivering the climactic address at the 1963 March on Washington (two decades after A. Philip Randolph first proposed the idea); King winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize; King orchestrating the marches of Selma children (James Bevel’s idea, not his), whose beatings and mass jailings electrified the country.
King may have encouraged all the publicity and acclaim at the expense of other national figures, local organisers and grass roots heroes: that was the view of the SNCC activists, who mocked what they saw as his mixture of pomposity and submissiveness by dubbing him ‘De Lawd’. He certainly had difficulty with the authoritative women like Ella Baker who were so central to the struggle, and he underplayed their contribution. Still, as Baker said after he died, he understood that there would have been a movement without King but no King without the movement. His is nonetheless the most inclusive vantage point and that is why Branch calls his projected trilogy (two volumes have so far appeared) America in the King Years. But it is because they re-create the movement in all its drama and particularity, with any number of actors who receive as much honour as King, that Branch’s Parting the Waters (1988) and Pillar of Fire (1998) comprise the greatest work of narrative history ever written about the United States.
The civil rights movement cohered not around King the Lone Ranger (Dyson’s term), but around a version of liberation theology. Just as Christianity had provided the ground for black anti-slavery – against its own established Protestant Churches – in abolitionist activism and slave spirituals, so in their synthesis of Christian witness and Gandhian non-violence, civil rights ministers and divinity students discovered a source of power. This politics of love bound movement members together and prevented them from being tied to their enemies in an endless cycle of resentment and revenge. The physical presence of members of the mass movement, on the streets, in formerly segregated spaces and in jail, constituted an embodied sacrality at the furthest remove from King’s current sarcophagal status.
King had chosen the ministry for reasons of family pressure and vocational opportunity as much as religious calling. He developed in divinity school a synthesis of the outward-looking, meliorist gospel and the rich internal emphasis derived from the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr on the presence of social sin. Unlike so many other black ministers, he was prepared to challenge Jim Crow. His future wife, Coretta Scott, had attended the 1948 Progressive Party Convention that nominated Henry Wallace for President (grist for J. Edgar Hoover’s mill). But beginning with Montgomery, the movement continually radicalised King, and the first step in that process was religious. Questioning his commitment in the face of threats to himself and his family, King – he later called it the most important night of his life – underwent a personal conversion. Like Martin Luther in the privy, his namesake in the kitchen heard the ‘inner voice’ that would sustain him in the struggle for the rest of his life. Himself a Baptist minister, moved as a nine-year-old Detroit youth beyond his own comprehension by seeing King’s Memphis sermon replayed on television after the assassination, Dyson wants to remind the secular white Left of black religious radicalism.
Religion now drives the Christian Right in American politics by way of right to life, school prayer and creationism. Words from Winthrop’s sermon on the Arbella decorate the Reagan Library not the King Museum, and the promiscuous God-talk of both parties during the recent Presidential campaign substituted family values for King’s vision of social reconstruction. Althoug Dyson wants to deprive the Hard Right of its self-serving civil rights genealogy, his religious revivalism sits at cross purposes with his political agenda. For Dyson’s central project is to recover the King radicalised in the three years before he was killed. King had counted on Christian love not only to mobilise his own community but also to reach into the divided hearts of whites. He believed that white supremacy, as Gunnar Myrdal had put it in An American Dilemma, contradicted ‘the American creed’. Like the Biblical prophets his sermons invoked, he preached a revolution to restore the United States to its origins; his revolutionary New Testament love relied on the support of Old Testament law. King saw the third period in American race relations, after slavery and legal emancipation/Jim Crow, as beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional. Montgomery, which followed hard on Brown, was the first of the mobilisations to be endorsed in law, when the federal courts, ruling against the city, finally outlawed Jim Crow public transport. Birmingham and the March on Washington produced, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the first significant national civil rights legislation; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed the Selma march. King could well believe that he had come not to overturn the law but to fulfil it.
But Selma and the voting Bill were the last big civil rights victories. As King turned his attention to poverty in the Northern ghetto, residential apartheid and the war in Vietnam, as he faced Northern white hostility, urban violence and black power, he discovered a historical depth of inequality that operated outside the law and which the end of legalised Jim Crow had done nothing to change. Where King had once counted on the nation, he now discovered empire. (‘I know that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own Government,’ he said in an early speech against the Vietnam War.) Where he had once confined his attention to ‘the racist caste order of America’, he now saw its ‘radical refurbishing’ through what he called ‘our vicious class systems’. Where he had once thought that white supremacy contradicted the principles of equality on which the United States was founded, he now believed that few whites really favoured ‘genuine equality for Negroes’. (‘We deceive ourselves,’ he wrote, if we believe ‘that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm’.) The Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) saw the movement ‘carrying the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers’. Five years later, King remarked that the Declaration of Independence ‘has never had real meaning in terms of implementation in our lives’. He now believed that the progress that was achieved from 1955 to 1965 ‘misled us’, because ‘everyone underestimated the amount of rage Negroes were suppressing, and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.’ He was now proposing massive non-violent dislocation in Northern cities as an alternative to the riots. Although he never lost faith in non-violence, he began to doubt that the redemptive power of unearned black suffering was sufficient to transform whites. Instead of believing ‘that bigotry flows from an unconverted heart’, as Dyson puts it, King now saw it ‘shaped by deeply entrenched ways of life’. Losing faith in the synthesis of love and the law, he began to argue that ‘the whole structure of American life must be changed.’ He was calling himself a democratic socialist.
But the more discerning King became, the more depressed and directionless he grew, the less faith he had in his original animating vision. He had been a master at taking in and reconciling conflicting points of view without losing his own integrity. Now, instead of serving as a force of cohesion, King himself was being pulled apart. By the late 1960s he stood to the side, no longer the central galvanising figure, no longer the symbol of the movement – because the movement had exploded around him. More and more he imagined his own death (as Lincoln had), even delivering his own funeral oration in Memphis in April 1968, the day before he was killed. It was in Memphis that King took on the Moses persona, preaching that he’d been to the mountain top and ‘seen the promised land. I may not get there with you,’ he told the crowd in the speech which the young Dyson saw on television and later used as his title. The irony that haunts I May Not Get there with You is that Dyson has brought King back to life at the moment not just of his martyrdom, but of his defeat.
Writing about 1848 in France, Marx distinguished the beautiful revolution of fraternal dreams in February from the ugly revolution of class conflict in June. Although the parallel strongly understates the radical impact of King’s beloved community, by 1968 there had been the same shift of emphasis from citizen to social being, from formal equality to manifest inequality, from what King was now calling ‘surface’ to ‘substantive’ changes, from poetry to prose, from the sacred to the profane, from fraternity to fratricide – and from victory to ruin. When the Rev. James Lawson, in whose Nashville non-violence workshops Greensboro had been born, invited King to Memphis, it was not to march against formal legal inequality but to support the strike of the city’s garbage workers, a mostly black proletariat. King was sacrificed not to the beautiful but to the ugly revolution.
How does one do justice to the historical King and yet bridge the gap between his death and our life? How might we incorporate him into a usable past in the wake of the women’s and gay liberation movements which, however much King might have learned from them, are so alien to his sensibility? Is it the case that by choosing to respond to injustice with New Testament agape, African Americans take on the sins of white people, continuing to carry the burden that Harriet Beecher Stowe placed on her Uncle Tom? (Negroes should stop being therapists for white Americans, the SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael insisted in the early days of Black Power.) And how are we to imagine the alternative history that might have emerged after 1968 so that we can foster new social movements rather than falling back on Lone Ranger rescue fantasies? Although it does not answer these questions, I May Not Get there with You restores King to his proper place – as the exemplar of an unfinished revolution.