Martin Luther King

Fifty years af­ter his death, five his­to­ri­ans tackle the most press­ing ques­tions on the civil rights ac­tivist’s life and legacy

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

What shaped Martin Luther King’s world view? Did he ex­pe­ri­ence racism as a child? Vicki Craw­ford: Although the King fam­ily were rel­a­tively eco­nom­i­cally priv­i­leged, this did not fully shield him from the ex­pe­ri­ence of racial prej­u­dice when he was young – he was, af­ter all, born in 1929, dur­ing an era of le­gal se­gre­ga­tion. A piv­otal ex­pe­ri­ence oc­curred in 1944 as he re­turned to At­lanta from an or­a­tor­i­cal con­test in Dublin, Ge­or­gia. He and his teacher were forced to stand on an over­crowded bus so whites could have the avail­able seats. This left an in­deli­ble im­print on the young King, who had just de­liv­ered per­haps his first im­por­tant pub­lic speech, on ‘The Ne­gro and the Con­sti­tu­tion’. Clive Webb: King’s home city of At­lanta was racially pro­gres­sive by the stan­dards of the Amer­i­can South. He would have suf­fered less ex­po­sure to white racism than did many other black chil­dren, but that didn’t stop his ex­pe­ri­ences of dis­crim­i­na­tion in­form­ing his un­der­stand­ing of in­jus­tice. Los­ing his white play­mates when he and they had to at­tend sep­a­rate schools pro­vided an early les­son in the in­equities of in­sti­tu­tion­alised racism. To what ex­tent was King’s ac­tivism fired by his religious be­liefs? VC: King was greatly in­spired by a con­flu­ence of fac­tors, the fore­most be­ing the AfricanAmer­i­can church. His phi­los­o­phy and prac­tice of non­vi­o­lence was also in­flu­enced by his time as a stu­dent at More­house Col­lege in At­lanta from 1944 to 1948. Its pres­i­dent de­liv­ered weekly chapel talks in which he of­ten spoke about so­cial jus­tice is­sues and the world lead­ers who were ad­dress­ing them, in­clud­ing Mo­han­das Gandhi. In 1959, King would travel to In­dia with his wife, Coretta Scott King, to learn more about the Gand­hian prac­tice of non­vi­o­lence.

Fi­nally, King’s study of the works of western philoso­phers and the­olo­gians framed his think­ing about non­vi­o­lence. Ul­ti­mately, he syn­the­sised these in­flu­ences – the black church, Gandhi, western phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­ogy – to cre­ate his own, unique ex­pres­sion of non­vi­o­lence as ev­i­denced in the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment. Britta Wald­schmidt-Nel­son: King’s faith was at the very core of his com­mit­ment to the strug­gle for black equal­ity. As he put it: “Christ fur­nished the spirit and mo­ti­va­tion while Gandhi fur­nished the method.” Zoe Col­ley: Non­vi­o­lent protest was un­doubt­edly con­nected to King’s Chris­tian faith and a tra­di­tion of re­demp­tive suf­fer­ing. How­ever, the use of non­vi­o­lence within the move­ment pre­dates King’s rise to promi­nence: the boy­cott of seg­re­gated trans­port by black com­mu­ni­ties, for in­stance, can be dated back to the late 19th cen­tury. The 1955/56 Mont­gomery bus boy­cott [in which lead­ing civil rights fig­ures, in­clud­ing King, protested against the se­gre­ga­tion of Alabama’s pub­lic trans­port] was part of a longer his­tory of non­vi­o­lent protest in black com­mu­ni­ties.

Non­vi­o­lence also served a tac­ti­cal role for the move­ment. By con­trast­ing the non­vi­o­lence of protesters with the law­less­ness and bru­tal­ity of white su­prem­a­cists, King was able to present an im­age of re­spectabil­ity and thereby se­cure sup­port from white lib­er­als. How did the rise of the tele­vi­sion age help King’s cause? CW: King’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer co­in­cided with the com­mu­ni­ca­tion rev­o­lu­tion that oc­curred through the mass own­er­ship of TVs. Sud­denly, the black free­dom strug­gle was be­ing beamed right into peo­ple’s homes. News footage of racist po­lice of­fi­cers bru­tally as­sault­ing peace­ful black protesters mo­bilised pub­lic sup­port for the civil rights cause. This in turn pres­surised the fed­eral govern­ment to take in­ter­ven­tion­ist ac­tion.

Tele­vi­sion also en­abled King to reach an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. Thanks to a Tel­star satel­lite, Bri­tish au­di­ences were able to watch live the end of the March on Washington in 1963 at which King de­liv­ered his ‘I Have a Dream’ ora­tion. BWN: While only 9 per cent of Amer­i­can house­holds owned a TV in 1950, 93 per cent did so in 1966. This contributed sig­nif­i­cantly to the suc­cess of King’s move­ment. It also helped cat­a­pult the charis­matic King into the spot­light of global at­ten­tion. Peter Ling: King once de­clared that he would com­pel seg­re­ga­tion­ists to do their evil in the spot­light of tele­vi­sion and that this would make the world see their crimes. His protest cam­paigns in the Alabama towns of Birm­ing­ham in 1963 and Selma

two years later were moral spec­ta­cles that made it hard for or­di­nary Amer­i­cans to feel com­fort­able with what was hap­pen­ing. What was his re­la­tion­ship like with US po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, par­tic­u­larly those in the White House? PL: Race was a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue that most lead­ers in the United States wanted to avoid, which meant that King was usu­ally seen as a prob­lem rather than an ally. He met three pres­i­dents dur­ing his life­time. Dwight D Eisen­hower largely ig­nored him; John F Kennedy, typ­i­cally via his brother Bobby, tried to con­trol him (the Kennedys be­lieved that King should be grate­ful for their at­tempts to help him); and Lyn­don B John­son wanted King to act in ways that sup­ported him, and felt be­trayed by King’s out­spo­ken stance on Viet­nam. FBI di­rec­tor J Edgar Hoover also told Kennedy and John­son that King was dan­ger­ous and prob­a­bly con­trolled by the com­mu­nists. So King was sus­pect. CW: At­tor­ney Gen­eral Robert Kennedy’s au­tho­ri­sa­tion of FBI wire­taps on King’s home and of­fice in 1963 re­veals how the White House mis­trusted King and at­tempted to con­trol and ma­nip­u­late him. Fed­eral author­i­ties were also more re­ac­tive than proac­tive on civil rights, mean­ing that King had to force their hand – as was the case in 1963, when first his cam­paign in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama and then the March on Washington pres­sured the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion into push­ing for the en­act- mentt off whatht even­tu­al­lytll be­came the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sim­i­larly, with­out the demon­stra­tions that King led in Selma, Alabama, Lyn­don B John­son would not have pushed so hard for pass­ing the other out­stand­ing leg­isla­tive achieve­ment of the civil rights move­ment – the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965. How much per­sonal credit should we give King for the wider achieve­ments of the civil rights move­ment? BWN: While many other peo­ple de­serve more credit than they are usu­ally given for their role in the civil rights move­ment, King was and re­mains its most fa­mous rep­re­sen­ta­tive. When the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott started, King was the right man in the right place at the right time. His charisma and rhetor­i­cal bril­liance, phi­los­o­phy of non­vi­o­lent di­rect ac­tion, and abil­ity to both forge coali­tions of dif­fer­ent groups of ac­tivists and ob­tain me­dia at­ten­tion were es­sen­tial to the move­ment’s achieve­ments. He also de­serves credit for his amaz­ing faith, courage and will­ing­ness for per­sonal sac­ri­fice, which in­spired mil­lions of peo­ple to fight for so­cial and racial jus­tice through­out the world. ZC: There is no doubt that King played a cru­cial role in shap­ing the move­ment and its vic­to­ries dur­ing the 1960s. By 1965, he had se­cured ma­jor fed­eral leg­is­la­tion that or­dered de­seg­re­ga­tion in the South and pro­tected African-Amer­i­can vot­ing rights. How­ever, to para­phrase civil rights ac­tivist Ella Baker: “King did not make the move­ment; the move­ment made King.” His suc­cesses were built upon the work of ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of ac­tivists: peo­ple such as Harry T Moore in Florida, who, along with his wife, was killed in 1951 when a bomb blew their house apart. These peo­ple cre­ated the foun­da­tion for King’s lead­er­ship of the 1960s, and the move­ment could not have hap­pened with­out their sac­ri­fices. VC: While King was in­dis­putably one of the most sig­nif­i­cant lead­ers of the 20th cen­tury, credit should be given to the many men and women who were the sup­port be­hind his lead­er­ship. Lo­cal peo­ple were not small play­ers, but im­por­tant ac­tors in bring­ing about change, and many have been for­got­ten or marginalised in the pages of his­tory.

“Race was an is­sue that most US lead­ers wanted to avoid, which meant that King was usu­ally seen as a prob­lem” PETER LING

The civil rights move­ment was in­cred­i­bly di­verse – as the im­por­tant role played by women and young peo­ple proves. A more ac­cu­rate un­der­stand­ing of the 1950s and 1960s strug­gle for civil and hu­man rights should re­flect upon the fact that the move­ment was long, wide and deep. What does King’s mur­der by the white su­prem­a­cist James Earl Ray tell us about Amer­ica in 1968? PL: King’s life was threat­ened vir­tu­ally daily through­out his pub­lic ca­reer. Dur­ing the early 1960s, racist groups paid boun­ties for his mur­der, and by 1968 King was an out­spo­ken rad­i­cal whom the FBI and the Mem­phis Po­lice Depart­ment did not re­ally want to pro­tect. So when he was mur­dered in Mem­phis on 4 April it was not un­ex­pected – in­deed, some be­lieve there was a de­gree of of­fi­cial col­lu­sion. ZC: You could ar­gue that it was no co­in­ci­dence that King was killed as he was de­vel­op­ing a more rad­i­cal cri­tique of US racism. By the year of his death, he was call­ing for a ma­jor re­dis­tri­bu­tion of Amer­ica’s wealth as the only way that racism could be over­come. Pop­u­lar mem­ory presents an im­age of King as a na­tional hero, but that was not the case in 1968. His move to­wards a so­cial­ist stance was per­ceived by many white peo­ple as unAmer­i­can and a threat to tra­di­tional val­ues. CW: Whether you ac­cept that Ray acted alone in as­sas­si­nat­ing King or wish to en­gage in any num­ber of con­spir­acy the­o­ries, what is more im­por­tant is what his death tells us about the state of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. It may have been a fa­nat­i­cal white su­prem­a­cist who pulled the trig­ger, but there were many oth­ers who wel­comed his death. The FBI branded King the “most dan­ger­ous Ne­gro of the fu­ture in this na­tion”. It also sent him a tape-record­ing sup­pos­edly of him hav­ing sex with a woman other than his wife. The tape was ac­com­pa­nied by a let­ter that King in­ter­preted as en­cour­ag­ing him to kill him­self.

In death, King has be­come a univer­sal icon, but dur­ing his life he was hated and hounded by a large seg­ment of white so­ci­ety. The nos­tal­gic sheen that sur­rounds King ob­scures the op­po­si­tion he faced and fought so hard to over­come. By por­tray­ing him as a mod­ern saint, have we lost sight of the real man? ZC: Yes. The idea that King was some­how pre­or­dained to lead the move­ment ig­nores the ex­tent to which he re­lied upon other ac­tivists to sup­port his cam­paigns, and how much he strug­gled to se­cure change in the South. He made mis­takes along the way, and con­tin­u­ally faced crit­i­cism from within the move­ment. By pre­sent­ing King as a saintly fig­ure, we lose sight off his hu­man­ity and how hor­ren­dous the sit­u­a­tion was in the South in the 1950s and 60s. CW: Stand out­side the west en­trance of West­min­ster Abbey and you will see how King has been el­e­vated to the sta­tus of saint­hood. Carved into the niches are stat­ues of 10 great Chris­tian mar­tyrs of the 20th cen­tury, in­clud­ing one of King with a child at his feet look­ing rev­er­ently up to­wards him.

The real King was none­the­less made of flesh and blood rather than carved from stone. He had many per­sonal flaws, in­clud­ing ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs and ex­ces­sive drink­ing and smok­ing fu­elled by doubt and de­pres­sion. Yet his achieve­ments seem all the greater when we recog­nise how he suc­ceeded, de­spite his frail­ties, in with­stand­ing enor­mous po­lit­i­cal pres­sures – con­tin­ued threats on his life, sur­veil­lance by the FBI, gov­ern­men­tal re­sis­tance, me­dia crit­i­cism – to lead the great­est grass­roots rev­o­lu­tion in the 20th-cen­tury United States. VC: In re­cent times, and de­spite the es­tab­lish­ment of Martin Luther King Jr Day on the third Mon­day of Jan­uary each year, we have

“You could ar­gue it was no co­in­ci­dence that King died at the mo­ment he was de­vel­op­ing amore rad­i­cal cri­tique of US racism” ZOE COL­LEY

some­how lost the great sig­nif­i­cance of what King stood for and the causes he cham­pi­oned. In far too many in­stances, me­dia and pop­u­lar cul­ture have nar­rowed his life and legacy and re­duced his many speeches down to short takes and sound­bites, freez­ing King in time. PL: I’d agree that, iron­i­cally, se­cur­ing the na­tional hol­i­day has been da­m­ag­ing to King’s legacy. It has strength­ened the tendency to see him as the hero in a Hol­ly­wood-style nar­ra­tive that has a happy end­ing. Seen as sub­ver­sive in his life­time, he is now put on a pedestal and made safe. Is it fair to say that his legacy has been dis­torted? CW: Com­pet­ing po­lit­i­cal fac­tions in the present-day US have at­tempted to mould King’s legacy to fur­ther their own agenda. Con­ser­va­tives, for in­stance, have claimed that King’s vi­sion of a colour-blind so­ci­ety would have made him a staunch op­po­nent of pro­grammes such as af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion which, they ar­gue, pro­vide pref­er­en­tial treat­ment for mi­nori­ties.

Con­versely, some lib­er­als evoke King in sup­port of causes such as gay rights and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, about which he of­fered lit­tle opin­ion. In at­tempt­ing to re­make him in their own im­age, these po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists and ide­o­logues ob­scure our un­der­stand­ing of King’s ac­tual life and legacy. Why is King’s story par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant now, in 2018? BWN: King called for so­cial jus­tice and full in­clu­sion of AfricanAmer­i­cans, and there has been much progress in black po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, in­come and so­cial ac­cep­tance. Yet 50 years af­ter his death, his hope for racial har­mony in the US re­mains un­ful­filled. De­spite some progress, in­clud­ing suc­cesses of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in rais­ing aware­ness of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the re­moval of stat­ues honour­ing Con­fed­er­ate Civil War heroes, deep-rooted racism con­tin­ues to ex­ist.

In­deed, bru­tal hate crimes, KKK ral­lies and anti-black demon­stra­tions seem to sug­gest that white su­prem­a­cists may be more em­bold­ened, bet­ter or­gan­ised and more ac­tive since the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump to the pres­i­dency than they have been for decades. The need to keep the mem­ory and spirit of King and his move­ment alive is there­fore par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant. VC: Dur­ing the fi­nal five years of his life, King’s hu­man rights agenda stretched to in­clude more em­pha­sis on the struc­tural as­pects of in­jus­tice and the erad­i­ca­tion of what he called the ‘triple evils’ of racism, poverty and mil­i­tarism. He ar­gued that un­less we tackle these, hu­man­ity will be un­able to live to­gether in world­wide fel­low­ship. We must en­gage with King’s un­fin­ished work around the world, and delve deeper into his thought and ac­tion, far be­yond me­dia por­tray­als of King and sim­plis­tic no­tions about who he was and his role in the civil rights move­ment.

King’s life and legacy is com­plex: he was a min­is­ter of the so­cial gospel, a global leader for civil and hu­man rights, a scholar and thinker who read and wrote ex­ten­sively, and a hus­band and fa­ther. The vast cor­pus of ser­mons, speeches and writ­ings that King left be­hind are a gift to us. Many of these ma­te­ri­als are con­tained in More­house Col­lege’s Martin Luther King Jr Col­lec­tion, which is freely avail­able for peo­ple to come and study as we wres­tle with con­tin­u­ing in­jus­tices in our 21st-cen­tury world. PL: In our age of war, ter­ror and eco­log­i­cal de­struc­tion, King’s de­nun­ci­a­tion of mil­i­tarism, ma­te­ri­al­ism, and what he some­times re­ferred to as ‘thingi­fi­ca­tion’ (the treat­ment of peo­ple as things), needs hear­ing. CW: Race re­mains one of the most se­ri­ous fault­lines in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. The po­lice shoot­ings and racial pro­fil­ing of AfricanAmer­i­can cit­i­zens that have sparked the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, the dis­pro­por­tion­ately large num­ber of black prison in­mates and the per­sis­tence of eco­nomic in­equal­ity all point to a coun­try still far from ful­fill­ing King’s dream. In these racially fraught times, his un­timely death is a po­tent sym­bol of the United States’ fail­ure to en­sure equal rights and op­por­tu­ni­ties for all its cit­i­zens, but his in­spi­ra­tional life still shows the way to achiev­ing a bet­ter fu­ture. In­ter­views by Matt El­ton

“Fifty years af­ter King’s vi­o­lent death, his hope for racial har­mony in the US re­mains un­ful­filled” BRITTA WALD­SCHMIDT-NEL­SON

Res­i­dents of Selma watch one of the huge civil rights marches that started in the city in March 1965. For all King’s fame, says Vicki Craw­ford, “lo­cal peo­ple were not small play­ers, but im­por­tant ac­tors in bring­ing about change”

A del­e­ga­tion of civil rights ac­tivists – in­clud­ing Martin Luther King (sec­ond left) – dis­cuss the March on Washington with Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy (fourth right) in the Oval Of­fice, Au­gust 1963

King at More­house Col­lege in the late 1940s. It was here that he was first ex­posed to Gandhi’s phi­los­o­phy of non­vi­o­lence

Martin Luther King de­liv­ers his fa­mous ‘ ‘I I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lin­coln Memo­rial, Washington DC, 28 Au­gust 1963

King ad­dresses fol­low­ers dur­ing one of the Selma to Mont­gomery marches. The United States is a “coun­try still far from ful­fill­ing King’s dream”, ar­gues Clive Webb

A carv­ing of King among 10 mar­tyrs of the 20th cen­tury at West­min­ster Abbey

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