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Martin Luther King in Three Acts

March 29, 2014


(This is an excerpt from my book The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race.)

On November 2, 1983, Congress passed a bill that a reluctant Ronald Reagan signed to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. Judy and I were living in Denver when it was first celebrated on January 20, 1986. There had been much criticism leading up to that day about honoring a black rebel so fresh in the public mind. All I had ever known of King was that he had made a speech in which the line “I have a dream” was repeated to the roar of an assembled crowd in Washington D.C., and that, on being shot in 1968, there were riots throughout the country. Levittowners called him Martin Luther Coon, to which, as a kid, I made no objections. In Denver, there was a road called Martin Luther King Boulevard, the first one of many I was to see in the coming years, and it was in the vicinity of the bourgeois black neighborhood. This, along with echoes of the national debate, brought the man to my attention. The next step was to read his biography. In the aftermath of my Dickens death march, and close to the end of our year in Colorado, I was browsing in a bookstore and there it was – Let the Trumpet Sound – The Life of Martin Luther King. Jr. by Stephen Oates.

It was not to be the best study on King – that would go to David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross – but it was the smoothest in terms of narrative and the one that opened up to me a “brave” new world. I was introduced to key black historical figures of the twentieth century who, in the coming years, I would get to know in greater detail. Such people were Booker T. Washington, an Uncle Tom by militant standards, who advised the Negro flock to accept the segregationist policies as upheld in 1896 by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson; W.E.B. Du Bois, the self-appointed foe to Booker, a man of daunting intelligence and one of the founding members of the NAACP; Marcus Garvey, the West Indian native who in the 1920s walked the streets dressed like a mad dictator and encouraged blacks to say the hell with this racist bullshit and let’s all move back to Africa; A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who, twice, once against FDR and once against Truman, threatened to organize a mass rally in the capitol to protest discrimination – a threat that one day, with his help, came to pass as the 1963 March on Washington; and Thurgood Marshall, the future Justice of the Supreme Court, who initiated school desegregation by winning the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

This was all a prelude to the main story: the Civil Rights movement. It lasted ten years, from 1955 to 1965 and was a perfect three-act dramatic screenplay. It had obstacles, gains followed by setbacks, cartoon villains, brave men and women, death, the unquenchable human spirit and victory at the end, and, in the middle of it all, a tragic, complicated protagonist, a true American hero, Martin Luther King.

The epic starts on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. A forty-two-year-old seamstress, Rosa Parks, sits down in the front of a bus after a hard day on the job. The driver tells her to get up and stand so that a white person can take her seat. She says no. That one simple word, “No,” sets off a revolution. On our movie soundtrack, Twisted Sister declares that “We’re not gonna take it…anymore!” This is the sentiment running, like a brushfire, through the African-American community. They decide to boycott the bus company rather than continue being disrespected by overrated municipal petty dictators who order them to give their seat to any piece-of-shit white person entering a bus. But black Montgomery needs a leader among the clergy in a town notorious for bickering disorganization. None of the established leaders trust one another to take the helm. Thus there is only one option: they elect as leader the new twenty-six year old pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King. In his first speech, he sets the epic tone for what will follow:

“When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, ‘There lived a race of people – a black people – a people who had the marvelous courage to stand up for their rights, and thereby they injected new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.’ And we are going to do that. God grant that we will do it, before it is too late.”

We get our first taste of the white American patriot. He talks about freedom but goes to extreme measures to oppress other people’s freedom. He talks about the free market, but cries foul when black Montgomerians choose not to patronize the white-operated bus company. The whites even sue in state court that it is illegal for blacks to form their own transportation system. Yeah for capitalism! The American patriot beats his chest and calls himself brave, yet he never picks a fight unless backed by a mob, all of whom have had one too many beers. He only acts without mob support when he tosses a bomb at King’s house from a speeding car; or hides behind a judicial bench and indicts every black person connected to the boycott leadership, over a hundred people. The blacks answer by following the lead of E.D. Nixon, a Pullman-car porter whose home is also bombed, who strides right to the jail and asks a bloated policeman: “You looking for me? Here I am.”

This marks a drastic shift in the attitudes of Southern blacks. They know very well that bombings and jail time are just the tip of the white man’s iceberg of cruelty. It was only two years ago that a black teenager, Emmett Till, was beaten to death by three patriots and then tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River, all because he had looked at a white woman. There was also the case of the black Montgomery woman who was killed when patriots poured lighter fluid in her vagina and lit a match. At any time, the boycotters know that any one of them can experience the same kind of horrible death. But they are determined to make a stand, for they are the true American Freedom Fighters

For 382 days, the African-Americans of Montgomery stick to their guns and make huge personal sacrifices to help put a dent in this patriot regime. On December 20, 1956, the Federal Court overrides the local establishment and declares it illegal to impose bus segregation. The next morning, Martin Luther King and his friend, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who will be his loyal aide-de-camp to the bitter end, and other leaders, including the woman whose “No” had set the whole thing off, Rosa Parks, board a bus and sit right up front.

End of Act One.

Just as in any screenplay, the second act is a long and complicated affair, the meat of the story. We must first flashback to what had led our protagonist, Martin Luther King, to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on the eve of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was born in 1929 in Atlanta and spent his childhood there on Auburn Avenue, the neighborhood of the black middle class. His father, Daddy King, was the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a man who took no shit from white people. When a cop called him boy in front of the young Martin, he, with wrath in his eyes, replied that his son was the boy and that he was a man. Martin had a good childhood, but, like all blacks, he, too, had to learn the facts of life in the segregated South. His best friend was a white kid until, at the age of six, he was informed by the kid’s parents that they could no longer be pals. Why? “Because we are white and you are colored.”

A precocious Martin skipped the ninth and eleventh grades in high school and, at fifteen, entered Morehouse College, where he earned a degree in sociology. Then he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. It was an integrated school and inspired Martin to excel as a scholar, if only to puncture the myth of black’s intellectual inferiority. There he was influenced by the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who espoused the idea that Christians should become social activists and thereby practice what they preach. It was also at Crozer that he first became acquainted with Gandhi and his call to nonviolent resistance that was to be the driving and philosophical force behind the Civil Rights Movement. He read all of Hegel, whose theme, as filtered through King’s young mind, was that only through the conflict of opposites, thesis and antithesis, between Southern black and white, can progress be made in order to reach a better synthesis. Martin graduated from Crozer number one in his class.

He won a scholarship to Boston University to pursue a Ph.D. in systematic theology, during which time he met the beautiful Coretta Scott, a music student at the New England Conservatory. She, too, had a proud father who refused to bow down to the patriot. He had told her as a kid: “If you look a white man in the eyes, he won’t harm you.” Martin and Coretta got married and relocated together to Montgomery, Alabama.

Following the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the game is now on with the ultimate goal being the right of African-Americans to vote in elections. Blacks begin facing down segregation throughout the South. In 1957, nine black teenagers enter the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, though the brave men of the Arkansas National Guard turn the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford away at the door. She wanders off surrounded by a rabid mob of patriots screaming every racial slur imaginable, while some call for a lynching. A famous photo is taken of a composed Elizabeth amidst this sea of ugly white faces. Who here is the true American hero?

On February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four students from the local A & T College sit down at the whites-only counter of a Woolworth and order food. They are told that coloreds cannot eat in this section, but the students refuse to budge. This is the start of the Sit-in Movement. All across the South, other kids take up the cause and infiltrate nearby segregated lunch counters. These same young people had followed the news of the Montgomery Bus Boycott four years earlier, and had been inspired by the example of its spokesman, Martin Luther King. Now they ask for their mentor’s support, which comes when King calls them together, instructs them in the techniques of nonviolent resistance, and thus is formed SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Its leaders will be at the forefront of many of the Civil Rights movement’s most harrowing battles. One of them, John Lewis, will hold the distinction of having given his head to the cause, for at every moment of crisis, he is clubbed by racist goons and policemen and then lives to tell the tale. Throughout the year, King scrambles from one hot spot to another, trying to rally the college troops. The patriots bellow that there must be a Communist plot behind black Americans wanting to be free from oppression, to which King responds: “If a man is standing on my neck, I don’t need Mr. Khruschev to come over from Russia to remind me someone’s standing on my neck.” At one point, he joins a sit-in in his hometown of Atlanta and is jailed for eight days in subhuman conditions that would do proud a Soviet Gulag.

In 1961, there are the Freedom Rides. The Civil Rights Act of 1956 mandates that the Justice Department has the power to enforce civil rights violations. The Supreme Court, by 1960, bans segregation on interstate travel, meaning on buses and trains and restrooms and eateries along the way. But it is an instance of the federal government writing down noble words and then winking while the South goes about its oppressive, sinister business. King asks the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, to do his job and tell the Dixiecrats to obey the laws of the United States, and is told that now is not a good time, to be patient, Martin, blah, blah, blah. James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), decides to force the issue and make the Feds put up or shut up. He organizes the Freedom Rides wherein an interracial group of disciplined nonviolent activists will board two buses in Washington D.C. on May 4 and travel throughout the South and reach New Orleans on May 17, where a rally will be held to celebrate the seventh anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. The trip is relatively peaceful until, on May 14, one of the buses drives into Anniston, Alabama and a mass of drunken patriots bomb and burn the bus. This will be another image that will live in infamy.

Enter Fred Shuttlesworth, a black minister from Birmingham so courageous as to be almost a crazy man. The atrocity in Anniston prompts him to go on the radio and announce: “I’m going to get my people. I’m a nonviolent man, but I’m going to get my people.” He leads fifteen cars of black men waving shotguns out the windows. They arrive at the scene and all the Klan members and police step away now that it will be a fair fight. Shuttlesworth brings the Freedom Riders back to Birmingham.

The same day, the other bus crosses the Alabama line where it is boarded by patriots carrying brass knuckles, blackjacks, chains and pistols. The bus next arrives in Birmingham, where the Freedom Riders are pushed into an alleyway and again pummeled senseless to an inch of their young lives.

Now the Nashville branch of SNCC, led by John Lewis, asks to carry on the mission. James Farmer answers with a question: “You realize it might be suicidal?” Of course, but that’s what SNCC is all about. The bus enters Montgomery. John Lewis later describes the scene: “That bus station had become a ghost town, that whole area. It was an eerie feeling…Complete silence…We stepped off the bus and…people started pouring out of the station, out of buildings, from all over the place. White people…” The carnage is terrible. Lewis not only gets his head smashed in, as usual, but the mob opens his suitcase and uses the contents for a satanic bonfire.

The next night, the students repair to the First Baptist Church where King mounts the pulpit. Meanwhile, a torch-wielding mob of patriots surround the church. Again, here comes Shuttlesworth, with James Farmer in tow, telling the mob, “Out of the way. Go on. Out of the way.” The crowd opens up and the two men enter the church. Then the mob grows to army-like dimensions and is intent on killing every African-American taking holy sanctuary. RFK has no other option than to send in U.S. marshals, who succeed in restoring order.

The Attorney General asks if the Freedom Rides could please stop these protests, that they are embarrassing him and his brother, the President. Ralph Abernathy offers this response: “Doesn’t the Attorney General know that we’ve been embarrassed all our lives?” Then how about a cooling-off period? To which James Farmer says: “We have been cooling off for a hundred years. If we got any cooler we’d be in a deep freeze.” To Kennedy’s credit, by end of summer, he begins to crack down on interstate segregation and in two years it will be an evil relic of the past.

The highlight of 1962 is James Meredith, an Air Force veteran, becoming the first black to matriculate at the University of Mississippi. He approaches the registration office flanked by U.S. marshals, only to be repulsed by Governor Ross Barnett and a gang of state troopers. The rednecks retreat while waving the Confederate flag and entertaining Meredith with “Glory, Glory, segregation…” Meredith and the marshals return to the college’s administration building and are attacked by a horde of segregation loyalists. Two people are killed, 375 wounded, and, to look at the film footage, one would think that the whole campus was burned to the ground. But Meredith is an odd bird. He comes back again, this time with 23,000 U.S. troops – that is, with superior numbers – and is admitted to the school. He spends the next four years sitting alone in, and outside, his classes. He celebrates his graduation in 1966 by undertaking a one-man “march against fear” through the state of Mississippi. On the second day, he is shot by a patriot, but being Meredith, he survives his injuries, while other blacks decide to continue the march. One of the participants is Stokely Carmichael, who uses the occasion to give his “Black Power” speech, thus introducing the now famous term into the African-American stream-of-consciousness and, moreover, into the nightmares of White America.

At this juncture in our story, not all is well with our protagonist, Martin Luther King. It has been a long, strange trip indeed. He has had his house bombed by the usual suspect, the white patriot/coward; been stabbed by a deranged black woman in a New York City department store in 1958; and been beaten, jailed, harassed by state and federal governments. Now he is being criticized by his own people, especially SNCC, who have been taking most of the risks and initiatives over the past few years. To add insult to injury, they have nicknamed him “Da Lawd.” Yet he never singles out anyone for insult, such is his superhuman self-discipline and lack of pettiness. Instead, he travels to Albany, Georgia at the request of the black people there, SNCC in particular, who are trying to start a movement. The movement is an absolute failure and King is saddled with all the blame. This is his darkest hour, but one in which he looks deep into his soul and examines how he and his people can emerge into a greater light. He decides it is time to go straight into the jaws of the lion, Birmingham, Alabama.

Much of the South in 1963 still bears traces of paternalism left over from the antebellum era, whereas Birmingham lacks even that to help offset, however little, the plight of blacks. This is because it was not founded until after the Civil War and then by steel and coal magnates. Frustrated working class males, rather than direct their anger at their true enemy, the factory owners, joined the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. When ruthless industrialists hell-bent on profits were teamed up with these violent racist drones, the life of blacks in the area became more hellish than the surrounding smoke-spewing factories. In 1937, the most brutal and ignorant racist of all time became the town’s Commissioner of Public Safety. His name was Theophilus G. “Bull” Connor. He and the Klan terrorized the city to the point where, now in 1963, the word “feudal” in describing the town has gone from rhetorical to dead-on accurate.

But Bull Connor is just the cartoon villain necessary if King and his organization are to wage a successful campaign. The reason the movement in Albany, Georgia disintegrated to nothing was that the Police Chief Laurie Pritchett trained his men to be courteous when arresting demonstrators. That way, TV crews could not film another instance of Southern whites committing more atrocities on nonviolent African-Americans and thereby tilting national public opinion against the segregationists, as had happened with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Elizabeth Eckford in Little Rock, the student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and James Meredith. King is counting on Bull Connor to be his usual unrestrained self in front of the cameras to be broadcast to every living room in America.

Crazy Fred Shuttlesworth, a pastor at Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church, knows all about Bull Connor and the local Klan. Shuttlesworth had done the unthinkable when, in 1956, he had led an attack against these very people and their defense of Jim Crow. Since then, his house has been bombed, with him in it, and his church detonated to ashes. He has been throttled to an inch of his life by mobs using chains and brass knuckles; has watched the city auction off all his personal property; and been jailed eight times. But he is like that guy in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who, with all his limbs shorn off, still insists that the fight continue to the bitter end. Shuttlesworth tells Martin Luther King, Come on down to Birmingham, and let’s really have some fun.

Come on down he does, accompanied by his best people: Wyatt Walker, who draws up the battle plan; Andrew Young, the cool-headed thirty-one-year-old minister and future mayor of Atlanta; and James Bevel, the fiery orator and expert grassroots organizer – to name just a few. The goals as outlined by Walker are to desegregate all public accommodations and to pressure businesses into hiring minorities. The first days of the campaign are mild, as few black residents of Birmingham are willing to man the front lines. Those that do are treated like dignitaries by Bull Connor. Sure he would love to pound these uppity nigger Commie bastards into the sidewalk, but he is practicing uncharacteristic restraint, for he has grasped the effectiveness of Laurie Pritchett’s strategy from the previous year. Soon it appears that the movement will go the way of Albany.

Something drastic must be done if they are to attract the media attention always crucial to winning Civil Rights battle. Connor’s saintly behavior is not good ratings. It is imperative that King go to jail. The only problem is that his group’s bailout fund is depleted and only King can raise money and that is hard to do behind bars. Plus, the city has passed an injunction against all demonstrations and, believe it or not, King has never disobeyed a court order. Gloom sets in among his lieutenants. King goes alone into another room to ponder the situation. He emerges dressed in jeans and a gray work shirt, his prison clothes. All that is missing is a cowboy hat to tip while saying: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” His real words are: “I’ve got to march.” It is Good Friday. As he heads off to meet his punishment, someone remarks: “There he goes. Just like Jesus.”

He ends up in solitary confinement. Later he will describe the experience: “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” His lawyers drop off to him a copy of the Birmingham News in which eight white ministers denounce King and the Civil Rights workers as mere lawbreakers and praise the cops for defending segregation, the law. In answer, King composes the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. He writes that “there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that an ‘unjust law is no law at all.’” Two paragraphs later, he expands on this aphorism: “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” In layman terms: You white ministers are outright hypocrites to expect other people to live in a way that would cause you and your milky congregations to sob in your corn whiskey. Litigation and negotiation has failed to bring down Jim Crow, and so the only option left is protest. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” He warns that if white people “dismiss as ‘rabble rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’ those of us who are working through the channels of nonviolent direct action, and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.” This is a nice way of saying that the choice is between King and Malcolm X. He laments that the white ministers have not “commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes…They will be old battered women…high school and college students…young ministers of the gospel…One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.”

King emerges from jail eight days later to find the movement slowed almost to a standstill, and a week later it is at a standstill. The adult residents have lost their enthusiasm and are also fearful of losing their menial jobs, since the next step is pauperism. This is a bigger crisis than the last one, for King has already exhausted his own symbolic capital. But the movement has an ace up its sleeve. Before the campaign had begun and through to the present, James Bevel and his grassroots soldiers have been talking to high school students and training many of them in the techniques of nonviolent resistance. During these sessions, the teenagers have brought along their little brothers and sisters, many in grade school. But it devolves to King to make the risky decision to unleash these children onto the streets to confront Bull Connor and his S.S. Storm Troopers. After an agonizing night of no sleep, he gives this last ditch idea the nod. It will be called the Children’s Crusade.

On May 2, one thousand kids pour out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and head for the streets singing and chanting songs of freedom. Connor has all of them arrested and put in jail. It is obvious that there is a slight crack in Connor’s new persona as the cop who practices self-control. The next day, King ratchets up the pressure and sends every kid in town out to do battle. Now we are made to understand why the Commissioner of Public Safety is nicknamed “Bull;” it is short for bully. He forgets the example of Laurie Pritchett and loses his cool and orders all cops and firemen and any other patriot to attack the black children. The children are beaten with clubs, mauled by police dogs and sent smashing into walls and down sidewalks from the impact of skin-peeling fire hoses. The great Bull Connor revels in the pain, as he says: “Look at those niggers run.” Now the black adults are back in the game united against these patriots who feel no qualms about trying to kill their children. In fact, most of the nation, black and white and any other color with a sense of decency, is sickened by these images as broadcast on network TV. This is the crisis that King has been aiming at. Over the next four days, protesters of all ages keep coming in wave after wave of sacrificial flesh and bone. A fire hose slams crazy Fred Shuttlesworth into a brick wall and knocks him out cold, whereupon he is taken away in an ambulance. Bull Connor quips that it should have been a hearse. In the end, the town’s white leaders relent and come to the negotiating table. JFK sums it up best: “…the civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”

This victory segues right into the March on Washington. In excess of a hundred thousand people from all over the country are in attendance. One guy roller-skates in from Chicago. The gathering and the speeches are criticized as too much fantasy and not enough reality about what is to be done to ensure racial equality. Malcolm X calls it the Farce on Washington. But the Civil Rights workers who have been in the trenches going on eight years can be forgiven their one day of celebration, especially in lieu of the fact that since the Birmingham victory, the Klan has planted two bombs in attempts to kill both King and his brother, A.D., while, in Mississippi, they have shot dead Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader. A little catharsis is in order, and at the end of the day it is delivered by King:

“…So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania…But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountaintop, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”

He falls back into the arms of his aides, who hug and shout out in elation, as do the sea of people extending outward from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Sure it is pure sentimentality and wishful thinking, but only a corpse or a Klan member – but I repeat myself – would not be moved by the scene. The soldiers of World War II and the Korean War had Bob Hope; now the soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement have this day and Martin Luther King. And like those overseas veterans, after the show, it is back to the war.

Eighteen days later, in Birmingham, an explosive is tossed from a speeding car at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the same building which launched the Children’s Crusade. Four young girls die in the blast. They are Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. Time magazine names King 1963 “Man of the Year.”

Thus ends the second act.

The third act begins on July 2, 1964 when Martin Luther King is at the White House to witness President Johnson sign the latest Civil Right bill, this one ending desegregation in public facilities, restaurants, libraries and interstate transportation. But as cranium-scarred John Lewis points out, it does not make provisions for the federal government to make it safe for blacks to vote at the polls. Without the franchise, there is no “civil” in civil rights. Our hero, MLK, thanks the President for this valuable legislation but vows that the fight must go on until African-Americans are allowed to participate in the democratic process.

This final push to victory is already under way. King’s people, led by James Bevel, are implementing the Alabama Project. In Mississippi, CORE and SNCC, with Bob Moses at the helm, has Freedom Summer going at full speed. Students from all around the nation are canvassing every swamp and back road trying to educate blacks as to electoral protocol. Meanwhile, the Klan is reminding these same blacks about the pain in store for them if they dare approach the polls. They terrorize the Freedom Summer operatives. James Chaney (black), Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (both Jewish) are shot to death and buried under an earthen dam. In the end, Stephen Oates writes, there are six people killed, “eighty beaten, two wounded by gunfire, more than a thousand arrested, and thirty-seven Negro churches and thirty-one Negro houses burned or dynamited…” John Lewis receives a few more knocks on the head. Blacks can still not vote in the Deep South. Never has there been a more blatant oxymoron than Freedom Summer.

In December, King becomes the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The cash reward is $54,000, and though his wife asks that some of it to go to their kid’s education, he donates the entire amount to the movement. He accepts the award in the name of those who have marched and protested for American Civil Rights.

A month later comes the Armageddon of the Civil Rights drama: Selma, Alabama. The Antichrist is the county sheriff, Jim Clark. This oaf weighs 220 pounds and enjoys nothing better than stomping on the downtrodden, especially when the badge on his chest renders his victims unwilling to retaliate in kind. If Connor puts the “bull” in bully, then Clark adds the “y.” He wears a ridiculous military outfit that only enhances his already cartoonish demeanor. At Jim Clark’s side is another super patriot, George Lincoln Rockwell, chairman of the American Nazi party. The forces of darkness have gathered for one last stand before Judgment Day.

On January 18, 1965, King and John Lewis lead aspiring voters to the Selma courthouse. They are turned back. The next day, fifty more blacks try again to register as official democrat participants. Big Jim Clark has them all arrested and sent to the jailhouse, and then, in a display of sheer heroism, he grabs hold of a lady named Amelia Boynton and kicks her, like a can, the length of a city block. Soon there happens an unprecedented event. The black teachers leave school and join in the campaign. Undertakers and beauticians follow their example and march as groups. Every last available soldier is on the frontlines. Either their lives or this long night of slavery will end on this one battlefield.

On January 25, Jim Clark stalks through another throng of protesters giving them the evil eye. Annie Lee Cooper is a big black woman who looks at him, and scoffs: “There ain’t nobody scared around here.” Clark goes ballistic and shoves the formidable lady, who, in turn, slugs him till he falls to his knees. He gets up, woozy, and she knocks him back down, the bully at a loss at what to do in a fair fight. Three deputies wrestle with Mrs. Cooper. She breaks free for an instant, just enough time to send Clark once more reeling on his ass. At last, she is tackled and pinned down while the big bad Sheriff – really an unmasked pussy — batters her with a club. Cameras record the whole episode and soon the nation is a witness.

Governor George Wallace is the closest thing King has to a steady arch nemesis. He had ascended to ruler of Alabama two years earlier promising to “draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say, Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” To Wallace, tyranny is someone black who wants to ride a bus or take a shit in peace. He now sends in the state National Guard, which is commanded by Colonel Al Lingo, a name for a villain that would provoke the envy of a comic book writer. This hackneyed army races around town with Confederate flags blazing and aching for the chance to bust some African heads. On the morning of February 1, King marches at the front of 250 demonstrators right into the heart of downtown, where they are all arrested and packed tight into the county jails. On the fourth day of King’s incarceration and at the eleventh hour of the Civil Rights Movement, like some estranged brother who has stayed away too long, there comes riding into town no other than Malcolm X. He is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse unto himself. He mounts the pulpit at Brown Chapel and tells the audience that they should use any means necessary to obtain the right to vote. Then he gallops off into the night, but not before saying to Coretta King: “Will you tell Dr. King that I had planned to visit with him in jail? I won’t get the chance now because I’ve got to catch a plane for London…I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

Andrew Young takes over the campaign and soon the jails are overflowing with 3000 demonstrators. The pressure becomes so intense that a congressional delegation arrives on February 5 to survey the crisis. That morning King publishes his “Letter from a Selma Jail.” It ends:

“…Why are we in jail? Have you ever been required to answer 100 questions on government, some abstruse even to a political-science specialist, merely to vote? Have you ever stood in line with over a hundred others and after waiting an entire day seen less than ten given the qualifying test?


“Apart from voting rights, merely to be a black person in Selma is not easy. When reporters asked Sheriff Clark if a woman defendant was married, he replied ‘She’s a nigger woman and she hasn’t got a Miss or Mrs. in front of her name.’

“This is the U.S.A. in 1965. We are in jail simply because we cannot tolerate these conditions for ourselves or our nation.

“We need the help of all decent Americans…”

He is released from jail and spends the next four days pestering, first, the visiting congressional delegation and, then, in Washington, the President and anyone else he can buttonhole to listen to his harrowing tale of Selma. Johnson blows him off because King is presumptuous as to think he can just fly into town and have an unannounced chat with the leader of the free world. All right, pal, thinks King, don’t say I never gave you a chance. He goes back to Selma determined to now take it balls to the wall.

On February 10, Clark and his heroic band of ranch hands corral a group of black kids and force them to run beyond the outskirts of town. This is done with the aid of cattle prods. Whenever a kid slows down, he or she gets a shock. This lasts for over a mile until the exhausted human livestock, in tears and vomiting, fall into ditches.

Now it is on! King and 2800 raging African-Americans converge on the courthouse. Again Jim Clark and his goons wade into the mass swinging clubs. But the Sheriff is afterwards hospitalized for chest pains, saying: “The niggers are givin’ me a heart attack.”

The marches expand into neighboring precincts. On February 18, in Marion County, Al Lingo and his Knights of Darkness – i.e., the Alabama National Guard – fall upon demonstrators. A young black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson tries to protect his mother and grandfather and, as a reward, is shot in the stomach. Al Lingo charges HIM with “assault and battery with intent to kill a police officer.” No matter that Jackson is bleeding to death, and no matter to Al Lingo when, two days later, he bleeds all the way to death.

Now King and his army decide to take the fight right to Satan himself, George Wallace, in Montgomery. The plan is to trek there from Selma, some fifty miles, and present their grievances at the state capitol and once the capitol of the Confederacy. Talk about epic symbolism. It is planned for Sunday, March 7, but, in the interim, King must travel to Washington and then to his home in Atlanta, and so postpones the journey till the following week. But on the morning of the originally scheduled date, one of his newer aides, Hosea Williams, informs him that five hundred people are there in Brown Chapel ready to get it on.

Williams is in the mold of crazy Fred Shuttlesworth as opposed to the even-tempered, conciliatory King. He had grown up dirt poor on a Jim Crow plantation, was almost lynched by the customary white trash mob. Afterward he fought and was wounded in World War II, and then, returning on crutches, was beaten by cracker patriots for using the “whites only” drinking fountain. A prickly man, he willed himself into becoming a chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When his sons endured abuse as students in the sit-in movement, he joined them in the fight.

Williams is burning to lead the five hundred assembled demonstrators, ready with sleeping bags, and, over the phone, talks King into giving him permission. He and John Lewis begin the final showdown. They trudge out to Edmund Pettus Bridge on Jefferson Davis Highway (more symbolism), where Al Lingo and the mended Jim Clark and hundreds of their closest armed associates – all wearing gas masks — block the procession and tell them to return to the church. Hosea Williams says, I don’t think so. Thus begins the most horrific day in the whole Civil Rights Movement, which will go down in history as Bloody Sunday. The patriots employ clubs, tear gas, bullwhips and “rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire.” John Lewis’s always reliable head is cracked open, but still he and Williams manage to lead the retreat back to Brown Chapel.

King is overwhelmed with guilt, and says later: “I shall never forget my agony of conscience for not being there when I heard of the dastardly acts perpetuated against nonviolent demonstrators that Sunday.” But he shakes it off; this is no time for introspection. The film footage of the Edmund Pettus Bridge massacre plays over the TV networks. King calls on everyone throughout the land with any semblance of decency to rally around this most fundamental of American causes – the freedom to assemble and vote. Spontaneous demonstrations erupt in Detroit, Union, New Jersey, Toronto, Canada and hundreds of other cities. “Four hundred ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns, students and lay leaders” of varying colors from all parts of the Republic hurry down to Selma to align themselves on the side of good and face down George Wallace and his league of devils. In a kind of memorial/token march, King and these new soldiers and the usual complement of battle tested Selma natives go out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where again every redneck cop is itching to add glory to their resume by smashing defenseless people. King leads the marchers in prayer and then back to Brown Chapel. The SNCC workers have always been impetuous and semi-resentful of King’s authority and are now beside themselves that “De Lawd” had not barreled right into the awaiting arms of Clark and Lingo and right on through to Montgomery, still the ultimate destination. In protest against the protest, they defect to the sidelines – only John Lewis remains to see it through to the end.

Of the new ministers now on the scene, one is a white man named James Reeb. He is clubbed to death by four brave pieces of white trash. Now national public opinion is truly turned against the segregationists. Killing the black Jimmie Lee Jackson is one thing, but snuffing out a Northern white man is a whole different story, all of which underlines the latent racism within antiracist white liberals. President Johnson calls and sends flowers to Mrs. Reeb and even has her flown home on Air Force One. Yes, Johnson is hypocritical to bestow such attention on a white protester, but in the end he does stick out his neck for African-Americans when on March 15 he appears before Congress and national TV and denounces racism and proposes that it is time to redress 350 years of wrong by passing a strong voting bill. He closes with a line straight from the Civil Rights Movement: “And we shall overcome!”

At long last, the way is cleared for the three-day pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery where thousands will be waiting to take part in the rally at the state capitol. On the morning of March 21, 3200 people are gathered outside of Brown Chapel ready to start the trip. Ralph Abernathy, who has been at King’s side throughout all the major battles, says: “Wallace, it’s all over now.” Only three hundred from this army are permitted to cover the entire route. But during the first day and night, once broken old African-Americans now straighten their spines and gain a renewed bounce in their step. They know that this is it — that their savior, Martin Luther King, is still with them and is going to finish the job. All of them will succeed in registering to vote for the first time in their long, sorrowful lives.

On the day King and Abernathy lead the invasion into Montgomery, it begins to downpour, one last obstacle before entering the Lost Temple. Hey, Martin, what’s getting beat by a little rain compared to what we’ve been through? Nothing, Ralph. The two old warriors lower their heads and march on through the slanting deluge. Then, once in the business district, the rain stops and the sun bursts through the sky. Glory, glory hallelujah. That night ten thousand people are joined by Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein and Peter, Paul and Mary.

“What do you want?” shouts King


“When do you want it?”


The next day, the crowd swells to 25,000 and it is this army that surges through the very heart of Dixie, the town where Jefferson Davis once commanded the Confederate government. For King and Abernathy, there is the added poignancy of remembering that it was ten years ago on these same streets when, as young men, they kicked off the whole epic drama of Civil Rights with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and here they are now ready to put the last nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. They arrive at the state capitol, where in front is a statue of Jefferson Davis, as if ready to be rebuked in effigy. George Wallace is in the building hiding behind the curtains of his office, knowing that, contrary to his famous declaration, segregation will not be forever, and, in fact, it will end today. King mounts a flatbed truck and turns to address the multitude:

They told us we wouldn’t get here…And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘we ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around’ …So I stand before you today with the conviction that segregation is on its death bed, and the only thing certain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral…

“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. That will be the day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. How long will it take? I come to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on…Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory hallelujah

Glory, glory hallelujah

Glory, glory hallelujah.

And that was the night they drove ole Dixie down. Four months later, on August 6, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became federal law. The final credits roll down the screen.

What does it mean to be a man? To struggle and to win.


The last three years of Martin Luther King’s life were anticlimactic. History had no further use for him. He made a few valiant attempts to carry the fight in other directions. He was one of the first vocal opponents of the Vietnam War when this was an unpopular stance, even among fellow black leaders. In 1966, he organized a movement in Chicago that was a miserable failure in that racism in the North was not government sanctioned, nor did it have an identifiable face, a George Wallace, Bull Connor, Jim Clark and Al Lingo. His last quixotic fight was in Memphis to help black sanitation workers who were getting shorted on hours so that white garbage-men could get their full forty hours a week. There on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, on the morning of April 4, 1968, he was shot dead, with Ralph Abernathy at his side to the end.

The night before he had given a fitting speech. He talked about the issues confronting those of us living in the latter half of the twentieth century and how what we did at this crucial epoch would seal our future fate. As for himself, he was tired and had done all he could and was leaving this world with no regrets, but joy – joy at having survived, ten years ago, the stabbing he had suffered in New York City, because the extra ten years had enabled him to witness all that was best in the Civil Rights Movement. He gave a brief synopsis of those great events – the student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma and the March on Washington. “Now,” he continued in the mellow tone of someone who will soon be relieved of all the inter-organizational bickering and the relentless fund-raising tours, “it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter what happens now…We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anyone I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Then he closed with the text from his most famous speech: “I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality. With this faith, I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope from a mountain of despair…With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day, when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!”

And the next day, Martin Luther King was free at last.

I read Let the Trumpet Sound with increasing shame and anger and finished it a changed man. Sure, I had once viewed Roots, which made me sympathize with the slaves, and, yes, I was aware that in the Sixties blacks had somehow been mistreated by white authority, but my personal experience with African-Americans had always precluded any serious depth on the subject. Now I had been given a broader historical context, a story line outside – and much bigger than — my own petty grievances.

I thought back to Miss Wilson, my third grade teacher, and for the first time placed this young, energetic and intelligent black woman within the events of that year, 1967-68. In what manner did she regard King’s death and the riots that had ensued at Delhaas and in a hundred different cities and that had lasted for five days and in which forty-three people died? Was that why she left our lily-white grade school after just one year?

I reconsidered the blacks from Delhaas. On that first morning, thirteen years ago, when I entered the school and walked up B-hall through a gauntlet of muscular black kids with their belts unfastened to be used as make-shift whips – the reality was that they had not just materialized from the ether as I and my white Levittown friends had assumed in our ignorant self-absorption. They all had parents or grandparents or great grandparents that had relocated to Philadelphia from the South when that region teemed with thousands of Bull Connors, Jim Clarks and Al Lingos, to say nothing of the millions of beer drinking white goons who had carte blanche to hang a nigger on the slightest pretext. Most of these migrations happened during the First and Second World Wars when agents had gone below the Mason-Dixon Line to recruit blacks to fill the void at the many Northern factories. Then once the white soldiers returned to their assembly-line posts, the blacks were booted out the door and left to fend for themselves in a town that, like Birmingham and Montgomery, did not want no niggrahs around. This was not a past stretching, in the abstract, back to 1850, as in Roots, but one that these hostile kids heard about firsthand from their beloved elders. No wonder they had no mercy on white kids now that the playing field was more level. They knew that these same Caucasians, with the law restored on their side and some additional numbers, would have taken my nemesis, Herman, and hung him by his exposed member and celebrated with a cross burning.

I recalled my dispute with Slice about America attacking Omar Khadafi and Libya. I was ready to join the Army, while he was not, and he issued a quick reason as to why: that’s a white man’s war. Now I saw his point. I had to look no further than the example of Hosea Williams, who won a Purple Heart for his country overseas, only to get the shit knocked out of him stateside for taking a sip from a lousy drinking fountain. And nothing had changed twenty years later, in 1966, when one of Martin Luther King’s arguments against the Vietnam War was that the government was “taking the black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” In 1983, Reagan, to enhance his prestige, wanted to slaughter more people of color in Libya, and Slice knew that it would be him, not Reagan, who would die over there in some godforsaken desert.

Martin Luther King prompted me to think hard about what constitutes an American hero. Up until then, I had assumed it involved waving a flag, singing the national anthem (which my brother and I had done on stage only a year and a half ago in Provincetown), bragging that we were the best and that we were free and then drinking a ton of beer. If one met all these conditions, then one was an American hero, though nowhere near the exalted level of George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Now I focused on the word most identified with American patriotism – Freedom. The American hero, in theory, is supposed to be someone who defends freedom, which sounded good to me. Therefore, who fit this description better, the popular white icon, JFK, who only moved, and then just a little, on Civil Rights when the TV images of the Freedom Rides and Birmingham left him no choice? The World War II draft-dodging Ronald Reagan? Or Martin Luther King, who for thirteen years sacrificed body and soul and then his life, making unpopular stands and calling on his government to live up to all its boasts as the land of the free? In other words, which one talked the talk and which one walked the walk? I could think of no greater American hero than Martin Luther King.

I realized now why the debate on a national holiday honoring King had been so controversial: He did not fit the bill of an American patriot. He had not destroyed an enemy state; nor did he wear a wig or a black suit made in 1864; and, oh yeah, nor was he a white man. The debate would not be settled until 1998 when South Carolina became the last state to officially recognize Martin Luther King Day, and only so long as a Confederate Memorial Day was also put on the state calendar.

What shamed me most was that I had been no different from those Southern whites who had promoted the doctrine of black inferiority. King had such a high level of intelligence and self-discipline as to make me and every other white person to have ever used the term “Martin Luther Coon” look like a dolt. This was the same guy who, for kicks, read Hegel cover to cover and then went out and used the dialectic as intellectual ballast for the Movement. The thesis was segregation, the antithesis the civil rights workers, and then, following a ten year collision, the synthesis emerged as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that opened up the democratic process and enabled blacks to be elected to office. (Andrew Young became mayor of Atlanta and John Lewis, once his cranium was sown back together, became a U.S. Congressman.) King had three college degrees. This in contrast to my having graduated from the remedial Delhaas High School, or to the years following when I studied the lyrics to I am the Walrus as if they were a profound text; or to my being too lazy and scatterbrained to find the precise name (the white man) for the anti-authoritarian rage that I had felt during my hitchhiking career. I was only now realizing the scope of my past ignorance.

King had the ironclad will to practice Christianity by turning the other cheek and, most astonishing of all, never – not once – insult another individual, much less inflict physical hurt. This is what the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov meant by The Elect. Only a few chosen ones are capable of adhering steadfast to a religious or moral creed. Most Christians, including my dad, the former drill sergeant, said: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” – and saw nothing contradictory in this statement. King looked to the actual Christ, not his televangelist representatives, as a role model. Hence the nickname “Black Jesus,” for only Jesus could still love us stupid, ignorant and out of control white blowhards. I had not been worthy of that love.

The seed was now planted for the next phase of my education — the study of African-American history and literature. Another seed planted was the one in Judy’s womb. We decided that it was time to return to Boston. Our kid would have to grow up, not in friendly Colorado, but back in the hostile Northeastern Corridor.

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