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By DAVID LEVERING LEWIS
University of Illinois Press
Copyright © 2013 David L. Lewis
All right reserved.
Chapter One Doctor, Lawyer—Preacher?
No other offense has ever been visited with such severe penalties as seeking to help the oppressed. Clarence Darrow
In Montgomery, people now point out with awe the place where Rosa Parks was put off the bus and into custody, often remarking, "That's where it all began." By "all" they mean not only the Montgomery bus boycott but the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born "a Negro" in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. Hindsight now suggests that his emergence as a civil rights leader, locally and then nationally, was inevitable in that place at that time. Yet Dr. King himself, when he passed that bus stop years later, marveled at what a different course the whole Rosa Parks incident might have taken and also, therefore, his own life. Part of him, the private man, was impressed by the pattern of coincidences and accidental good timing common to the lives of all famous men, and the other part of him was full of wonderment at what he saw as the Lord's work.
The decision to become a minister like his father had required years of deliberation. The ministry itself he had once dismissed as too unintellectual, even too archaic, to speak effectively on contemporary problems. Medicine and certainly the law had been more congenial and meaningful pursuits. And yet, finally, he had come round to deciding that it should be the ministry after all, and eventually he was even reasonably confident that he wanted a Southern pastorate. And so he had come to Montgomery.
In retrospect, these doubts seem unlikely, as if he must have been blind to the inevitable course of his life. The most casual acquaintance of the King family would probably have predicted that "Mike" King (he would become "Martin Luther" and "Dr. King" later) was destined from birth for the cloth. His maternal grandfather, the Reverend Alfred Daniel Williams, had founded Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Mike's father, Martin, Sr., had made it one of the largest and most prestigious Baptist churches in Atlanta. Mike's upbringing was pious and deeply influenced by the immensely varied activities arising out of his father's pastoral responsibilities. His precocious vocabulary and uncanny appreciation for the rhythms of language were clearly the patrimony of two generations of fundamentalist ministry. Mike knew by instinct the code that unlocked the powerful emotions of black worshipers. When he was only four, his mother regularly took him to smaller churches in the Atlanta area, where the people "rocked with joy'" to his rendering of religious songs.
The King family belonged to what is known as the school of hard preaching, of which cult of personality, an occasional pinch of exploitation, and sulfurous evangelism are indispensable ingredients. In this tradition, it is not enough to be called to preach. To be a success, you have to be a strong, attractive personality—a man's man but not unattractive to the good sisters of the congregation. Mike's maternal grandfather was such a personality. The Reverend Alfred Daniel Williams had a few credits in theology at Morehouse College's department of religion, but he spoke the broken English of the people he served, as much out of pride in his rough origins as from inability to master sinuous rules of grammar in adult life. The family still recalls Reverend Williams' mischievous putdown of one of his parishioners, a paragon of proper English, who made a nuisance of himself with his grammatical corrections. Reverend Williams once observed, after the tally of the Sunday collection plate, "I done give a hundred dollars but the gentleman who corrected me has given nothing."
As one of the rare people in the black community who was financially secure and independent of the whites, Mike's maternal grandfather was able to play an important role in race relations. He bore lasting psychological scars from the 1906 Atlanta race riot, and, when the city's blacks, spurred by the riot, organized a strong local chapter of the recently founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he was one of its charter members. With other prominent citizens, he led a successful movement to defeat a city bond issue that made no provisions for the construction of black public high schools. As a result, Booker T. Washington High School, the city's first school for black secondary education, was built in the mid-1920's. The local Hearst newspaper, The Georgian, paid a high price for its editorial denunciation of the opponents of the bond issue as "dirty and ignorant" protestors. Reverend Williams and his colleagues called for a boycott of the newspaper, and this contributed to its eventual demise.
Memories of this boycott must have been very strong in Mike's childhood, and inevitably it recalls the more famous bus boycott that he was to lead in Montgomery several decades later. A less inquisitive young mind, secure in such a family tradition, would easily have been persuaded by the example his grandfather and father had made of the potential of the ministry for civic contribution. Mike's father had carried on very much in Reverend Williams' footsteps. He was one of the charter members of the Atlanta Voters' League, an active Republican, and a sponsor of programs for Atlanta youth. Educated at his own expense at Morehouse College, he was later elected to the college's board of trustees. He gave Mike as strong an example as his maternal grandfather had, and yet, in spite of them both, Mike's doubts about his own future persisted.
The source of these doubts lay partly in his relations with his indomitable father. Michael Luther King, Sr. (who later altered his and his son's name to Martin) retained, under a black Puritan crust, the pugnacity of his Stockbridge, Georgia, youth. Until he was fifteen, he had never had more than three months of schooling in any year, and to win a Morehouse degree was, therefore, a remarkable achievement. Despite the crippling disadvantages of rural poverty, Mike, Sr., had determined to make good his angry response to the few youngsters in his community who were better off. "I may smell like a mule," he would say, "but I don't think like one." Powerfully built, he was an alert and self-reliant youngster. He once fought and defeated James Albert, his rather, for drunkenly abusing his mother. He also succeeded in outwitting the white farmer-landlord to whom his father had become, as was the inexorable pattern of the time and region, deeply indebted. It was at the end of the planting season, when accounts were squared, and for the first time James Albert King was told that the value of his cotton crop exactly balanced his debts. The son, after waiting a suitable interval for both men to solemnize this unprecedented event, stupified them by announcing that some $1,000 worth of cotton seed, omitted from the tally, could be kept by his father.
Years later, in rigidly segregated Atlanta, whites were still periodically surprised by Reverend King's forthright opposition to racial effrontery. The arrogant traffic policeman, drawling through a lecture begun with the traditional salutation "Boy," was instantly reprimanded with Reverend King's impatient correction, "That's a boy," pointing to Mike sitting beside him, "I'm a man." One of Mike's most vivid memories of Southern prejudice occurred when a shoe clerk declined to serve him unless he and his father moved to the rear of the store. "We'll either buy shoes sitting here or we won't buy any shoes at all," his father growled, and he marched Mike toward the door.
The iron constitution of King, Sr., had been proof against the economic and psychological acids of Southern debasement. In the 1930's, when 65 per cent of Atlanta's able-bodied black male population was unemployed, he had nearly fulfilled his vow, made in the kitchen of his mother's white employers, that some day he would have "a brick house, and my brick house is going to be as fine as any brick house." If the twelve-room dwelling near the intersection of Auburn and Boulevard was of wood, the spaciousness of its rooms and garden and the sedateness of the neighborhood made it then, as now, a thoroughly desirable, almost princely, place. The brick house would come later.
"If he had one weakness," President Benjamin Mays of Morehouse observes of King, Sr., "it was those children," Christine, Mike, and A. D. A beneficiary of that lavish love, Mike at times found it too enveloping, too omnipresent. It would not have been wholesome for his ego if Mike, Jr., had not squirmed somewhat, had not resisted the strong leads set by his father. Unasked and unrequired, King, Sr., was always on hand to advise, cajole, and protect. Papa wished to play the grand impressario for all his children, but, with M. L., as the family called Mike, Jr., the boy's special promise made this role more thrilling. For one who desired only the readily available success and neighborhood acclaim of a successful minister's son, such a relationship would have appealed as the fitting filial symmetry in a father's grand design. The many Atlantans who frequently remarked that the elder King was "a character" would have looked upon the son in much the same way, as a character and a chip off the old block. It is possible that Mike even resented, subconsciously, this patriarchal presumptuousness and that his early determination to have nothing to do with the ministry was motivated by a desire to escape the professional prison that his well-meaning curator was constructing.
Equally to the point, however, was the influence of black bourgeois Atlanta. The Kings were certainly materially successful. The head of the house was undeniably a figure in the politics of the community. But Atlanta was socially a complex city. Elsewhere in the South, in Charleston or Savannah, say, the dubious honor of being descended from "free Negroes" or house slaves and possessing a complexion light enough to make one's race a matter of conjecture were a considerable advantage. And, if mulatto status was reinforced by wealth, actual or a generation removed, and a shadowy ancestral contribution during Reconstruction, then social status could be maintained for a time by adherence to quaint antebellum protocol and haughty refusal to socialize with parvenus. In the border states and in the North, social status tended to accord more nearly with wealth, however acquired.
Atlanta, however, struck a balance between the extremes. Skin color and putative family tradition were not sufficient of themselves to maintain a family's social prominence. On the other hand, recent wealth, and certainly illicit wealth (such as from gambling or contraband), offered only the possibility of achieving social respectability one or two generations later. Fortuitous marriage into the mulatto "aristocracy," appropriate membership of one's wife in one of three exclusive distaff clubs, the possession of an Atlanta University or, later, a Morehouse, a Spelman, or a Northern college degree, and a pew in one of a select number of dignified churches, as well as affluence, constituted the prerequisites for belonging to the black upper class in Atlanta. Moreover, while the class of black professionals was elsewhere limited to a small number of ministers, lawyers, teachers, a physician, a mortician or two, and frugal postal employees, in Atlanta there was a large and varied professional class. The black community comprised a sizable number of college professors, contractors, real estate agents, several insurance executives and bankers, many marginal businessmen, and a number of physicians, dentists, and morticians. By 1945, its businesses could boast of a total book value approaching $30 million.
The spine of this remarkable affluence had its base almost at the doorstep of the King place on Auburn Avenue. On either side of the street were homes sheltering Atlanta's black elite, whose robust businesses lined upper Auburn, "Sweet Auburn," as its unofficial historian, the black newspaperman I. P Reynolds, called it. Much of the vitality of Atlanta's black enterprise was the result of the unusual leadership of Hemon E. Perry, an unlettered black immigrant from the Southwest. In 1913, Perry founded the Standard Life Insurance Company, whose paper assets totaled more than $10 million before its collapse in 1924. With generous loans to himself from Standard Life, Perry established a variety of "service" enterprises (black businesses servicing the black market) such as dry-cleaning businesses, a drugstore, a mortgage association, a construction concern, and a Tennessee coal-mining operation. His attempt to develop Atlanta's then remote west side as a preserve for exclusive homes owned by blacks resulted in the fatal overextension of his financial resources, and his empire soon completely folded. Perry became a legend and an inspiration to the adventurous young men who flocked to Atlanta to salvage what fragments of his work remained. The west side became the park for the black affluent that he had intended. As Standard Life foundered, other enterprises were already rising to sustain the black business community. Atlanta Life Insurance Company, founded by barber Alonzo F. Horndon in 1905, had assets in excess of $19 million by 1948. Atlanta Mutual Building Loan and Savings Association, established in 1920 and reorganized by John P. Whittaker seventeen years later, grew lustily, as did Citizens Trust Bank, founded early in the 1920's. The latter became America's third largest black financial institution, with assets of more than $4 million by 1949, and the sole black member of the Federal Reserve system. There was also Southwestern Fidelity and Fire Insurance Company, organized by Charles E. Maxey, Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association, and Aiken Construction Corporation, which played a dominant role in west-side housing construction after World War II. Atlanta also boasted the nation's only black daily, the Atlanta World, established by William A. Scott, Jr., in 1928 and published daily after 1932, as well as the only black-owned radio station, WERD.
All these enterprises rose on Auburn Avenue and were complemented by several religious institutions, such as Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a tremendous granite and pseudo-Romanesque structure, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, slightly more than two blocks away. High up Auburn and off to the side, in the very center of the burgeoning white business district, was the pinnacle of black religious respectability, the First Congregational Church.
On the other side of town, the major artery was Hunter Street. Here, Atlanta University, called "old Atlanta U." to distinguish it from the later center for graduate studies bearing its name, was situated. Later, Morehouse and Spelman colleges were to relocate in the Chestnut Street area, behind Atlanta University. Much later, Morris Brown College, Clark College, and the new Atlanta University would complete the development of the black university center. The famous scholar W. E. B. DuBois was a faculty member at Atlanta University shortly after the turn of the century, and James Weldon Johnson and Walter White were two of its renowned graduates. Next to the residence of the president of Atlanta University, Alonzo Herndon erected a colonnaded mansion of Italian brick, still one of the more splendid in the South, that provided the black aristocracy with a setting for its somewhat stilted levees and receptions. Farther down Hunter Street, the Pitts family built a commodious brick home in the wild territory that Hemon Perry had begun to explore. Hunter Street became a muddy red clay trail, disappearing into the luxuriant brush just beyond the Pitts' driveway. But other houses were raised shortly thereafter—this was early in the 1930's—and, soon after the war, it was no longer fashionable to reside on the Auburn Avenue side of town.
The Atlanta of Mike King's teens was professionally diverse and socially sophisticated. To be the son of a successful Baptist minister was an estimable birthright, certainly, but there were many other standards, supplementary and competing, by which to gauge community status. Within the local Baptist community, he became aware that the congregations at the Wheat Street and Friendship churches were more refined in their Sunday worship, the ministers more rigorously intellectual than at his own Ebenezer. Thus, his experiences in his father's church and his growing awareness of the polished standards within the black community persuaded Mike that the ministry that he knew was neither intellectually nor socially high-toned. Meanwhile, there was an adolescent's world of time in which to select a career. For the present, he was absorbed by the normal adventure of growing up.
Insulated against the most brutal aspects of Southern bigotry, Mike continued, nevertheless, to encounter its puzzling and bitter manifestations. The incident in the shoe store rankled deeply. More disappointing, however, was the defection of two cherished white playmates whose parents owned a small store in the neighborhood. When Mike was old enough to attend elementary school, he discovered that his playmates' parents had forbidden them to associate with him and his brother. "Don't let this thing impress you. Don't let it make you feel you're not as good as white people. You're as good as anyone else, and don't you forget it," his mother told him. He had good reason to believe her, but the experience left its small cicatrice. Five years later, at eleven, he experienced a bewilderingly gratuitous indignity. A white woman he had never seen before walked up to him in a department store and slapped his face. "The little nigger stepped on my foot," she explained. This experience also left its mark. "As far back as I could remember, I had resented segregation," Mike said many years afterward. He was fortunate that his encounters with racism did not turn his resentment into blind anger or despair.
Excerpted from KING by DAVID LEVERING LEWIS Copyright © 2013 by David L. Lewis. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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