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The Making of a Dreamer
It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences. It is impossible to get at the roots of one's religious attitudes without taking in account the psychological and historical factors that play upon the individual.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Autobiography of Religious Development"
Crozer Theological Seminary
No one has communicated the idea of the American dream with greater moral and oratorical power, with greater political and religious imagination, than Martin Luther King, Jr. His expression of black people's struggle for freedom in the "I Have a Dream" address (March on Washington, 28 August 1963) captured the imagination of America and established him among the pantheon of America's leaders. He became the symbol not only of the civil rights movement but of America itself: a symbol of a land of freedom where people of all races, creeds,and nationalities could live together as a "beloved community."
The idea of the American dream dominated the speeches and writings of Martin King and the comments about him. No metaphor of his life and message is more widely known and more often repeated. King's admirers frequently refer to him as the "dreamer." On most occasions celebrating his life and message, this image is placed at the forefront, in such expressions as "living the dream," "keeping the dream," and "we still have a dream." Even corporations advertise their products with his dream. Coca-Cola says, "When we share the dream, the dream comes true"; Delta Air Lines salutes his memory with the statement: "May his dream live on." And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says: "On January 15, 1929, a dream was born."
With so many references to Martin King's dream, it is not only easy to distort what he meant but also to trivialize it. As I pointed out in the introduction, the meaning of King's dream has deep historical roots in the African-American struggle for justice in the United States. Equally important was the influence of his social development in Atlanta, Georgia. To understand the "dreamer," if that is how we wish to refer to him, we must know something not only about the dreams he inherited from his slave grandparents but also something about the ones that were instilled in him as a child by his parents and other African-Americans who loved him.
Martin King made history, but he was also made by history. Karl Marx was right: "Men make their own history but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transformed from the past." To understand the history that Martin King made, it is necessary to know something about the circumstances that made him. Only through an investigation of his social, educational, and religious development, from birth to early adulthood, will we be able to understand the nature of his dream and the dimensions of his accomplishment.
* * *
On 15 January 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, into a middle-class family, the second child and first son of Alberta Christine Williams and Martin Luther King, Sr. Alfred Daniel Williams, young Martin's maternal grandfather, and Martin King, Sr., were prominent Baptist preachers in Atlanta. The church was the dominant institution in the social life of Atlanta's African-American community, serving as the source for leadership development and also providing the moral values which leaders used to achieve justice for blacks. It also erected a protective shelter against the hostile white world.
Most civil rights leaders were members of the church, and many were ministers as were Martin King's grandfather and father. Both served as pastors of the influential Ebenezer Baptist Church and actively participated as community leaders in fighting for equality and justice in a southern city where segregation was a way of life. They combined the self-help, accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington and the protest, integrationist philosophy of Frederick Douglass and the NAACP with the religious values of the black community. The leadership style of combining "protest," "accommodation," and "self-help" was particularly suited for the South and consistent with the spirituality of the black church. Protest emphasized the right of black people to share in the benefits of America on an equal level with whites; accommodation meant that the black fight for equality would always be nonviolent, using the American democratic and Christian traditions of freedom as a way of appealing to the conscience of whites; and self-help stressed the economic, educational, and moral development of the black community, thereby accenting blacks' self-worth and self-confidence as a people. The black middle class believed that success in education, morality, and business would eventually cause whites to accept them as human beings and thus as equal partners in the social and political life of America. The perceived powerlessness of blacks meant that the approach toward social change had to be cautious, realistic, and sensitive to the mores of the white community. Black leaders believed that the movement toward equality depended upon the support, good will, and generosity of the ruling white elite. This is the leadership tradition that Martin Luther King, Jr., inherited.
Although the ideas of protest, accommodation, and self-help were found in the traditions of both nationalism and integrationism, it was the latter, combined with the spirituality of the black church, that had the greater influence upon the black leadership of Atlanta. Political protest was associated with the Old Testament theme of justice, a theme that is found especially in the prophets and that is dominant in songs and sermons of the black church. Accommodation was closely related to the New Testament idea of love, particularly emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount, and, like justice, a major theme in black religion. Self-help emphasized Christian obedience, which was interpreted by the black church to mean that "God helps those who help themselves." The black leadership tradition of Martin King, so clearly defined by his grandfather and father, represented a black middle class, a ruling black elite of Atlanta. Black leaders were strongly influenced by the spiritual values of justice, love, and obedience, and most believed that if members of the black community practiced those values, they would gain political and economic benefits. Faith in the American political and religious traditions and the perceived progress of the black middle class instilled an optimism that blacks would eventually achieve full citizenship. According to the values of the "black bourgeoisie," as E. Franklin Frazier called them, black people could "make it" if they studied hard, worked hard, saved their money, and stayed out of trouble.
Martin Luther King, Sr., the son of a sharecropper, was a classic example of a person who pulled himself up by his own boot straps, thereby becoming a persuasive symbol of the merits of thrift, service, responsibility, and sacrifice. As a youth "with his only pair of shoes slung over his shoulder," he left rural Stockbridge, Georgia, for Atlanta. There against enormous odds he worked and studied hard to fulfill a promise he made to himself after being denied entrance through the front door of his white friend's house. "Someday," he said, shaking his fist at the white banker's house, "I'm going to have a brick house as big as that-bigger. Someday I'm going to be a director of a bank like that man." "Daddy King," as King, Sr., came to be known, more than fulfilled that promise.
Martin King, Sr., became "a major force" in Atlanta's black community, thereby serving as a powerful example for M. L., as Martin, Jr., was affectionately called. King, Sr., not only succeeded his father-in-law, A. D. Williams, as pastor of Ebenezer, increasing the membership to four thousand; he also became an influential businessman, served on the executive board of the local NAACP and on the board of Morehouse College, and was an active participant in the Negro Voters League. He led the fight to equalize black and white teachers' salaries in Atlanta's public schools. King, Sr., was so militant in his fight for the equality of blacks that he received threats from the Ku Klux Klan. He was so prominent that he became a participant in a small group of black and white elite who eased the tensions between their communities.
Home and church were the most important influences upon the early life of Martin King, Jr. In both contexts he was introduced to the integrationist values of protest, accommodation, self-help, and optimism as they were related to the religious themes of justice; love, obedience, and hope. He was introduced to the value of education as a potent way of helping himself: the way to assert his self-worth, to become a church and community leader, and to fight racism in the larger society. Young King not only adopted many of these values for his personal life style but also incorporated them into his definition of freedom and into his strategy for achieving it.
As one who knew existentially the depth of poverty, King, Sr. (with the support of his wife), taught his children (the others included Christine, Martin's older sister, and A. D., his younger brother) early the value of self-help, that is, the need to take the initiative to make something of oneself, despite the disadvantages of being born a "Negro" as African-Americans called themselves—in a white, racist society. According to King, Sr., among the principles of the King home were three S's: "Spending, Saving, and Sharing." Young Martin grew up in a community during the 1930s in which nearly 65 percent of African-Americans were on public relief, but not the King family. They always had plenty of food and suitable attire. Daddy King said the family had "never lived in a rented house" and had "never ridden too long in a car on which payment was due."
Although Daddy King provided for young Martin's material, educational, and religious needs during childhood, he could not provide an environment free of racism. He could not protect him from the ugly manifestations of segregation in every segment of black-white life in Atlanta. At the age of six, young Martin had his first significant experience with the "color bar," and he never forgot it. The father of a white friend told him that they could no longer play together because he was "colored." ("Colored" was the polite term whites used to refer to African-Americans.) The news stunned young Martin because he was unaware of the "racial differences—of the race problem." He did not know quite what to do or say, except to run home and tell his parents about this strange, heartbreaking incident. His parents sat him down and calmly informed him of the "facts of life" about the "color problem" in America. They told him what many African-American parents told their children, namely, about the history of slavery and segregation, and how cruel whites have been and continue to be in their behavior toward blacks. Martin's parents told him that although whites act as if blacks were inferior, nothing could be further from the truth. They assured him of his essential worth. "Don't you let this thing impress you," they said emphatically to him. "Don't let it make you feel you are not as good as white people. You are as good as anyone else, and don't you forget it."
Young Martin's initial responses to his encounter with racism were resentment and reaffirmation of his self-worth. "As my parents discussed some of the tragedies that had resulted from this problem and some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it," Martin later recalled, "I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person." Martin's parents, however, reminded him continually that he "should not hate the white man," because "it was my duty as a Christian to love him." As young Martin struggled with the Christian command to love and the brutal reality of racism, he asked himself, "How can I love a race of people who hate me?" "This was," he said, "a great question in my mind for a number of years."
Martin observed that his father did not "turn the other cheek" to the brutalities of the white man but "had begun to strike back." Daddy King did not "bow and smile" when he was insulted, but was always "straightening out the white folks." "When I stand up," he often proclaimed, "I want everyone to know that a man is standing there." On one occasion when Martin was riding in the car with his father, a policeman stopped him and said, "Boy, show me your license." Daddy King shot back, "That's a boy there," pointing to young Martin. "I'm a man. I'm Reverend King."
Martin observed another racial incident between his father and a clerk in a shoe store. When he and Daddy King sat down in the front seats reserved for whites, the clerk said, "If you will move to the back, I'll be glad to help you." Daddy King snapped angrily, "You will wait on us here or we won't buy any shoes." When the clerk refused to serve them, Daddy King took Martin by the hand and marched out mumbling, "I don't care how long I have to live with this thing, I'll never accept it. I'll fight it till I die. Nobody can make a slave out of you if you don't think like a slave."
Thinking like a free person was not easy for a black child growing up in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. Although young Martin's parents assured him that he was somebody, inferior to no one, the "strict system of segregation" created "something of an inner tension." That system told him: "'You are less than,' 'You are not equal to.'" It was hard for Martin to believe that he was somebody when America treated him like he was a nigger. Seeing "WHITE ONLY" signs for waiting rooms, restrooms, water fountains, and eating places constantly reminded young Martin what it meant to be a nigger in a white man's society. "I could not use the swimming pools," Martin said, as he reflected on his childhood in Atlanta. "Certainly a negro child in Atlanta could not go to any public park. I could not go to the so-called white schools.... In many of the stores downtown, ... I could not go to a lunch counter, to buy a hamburger or a cup of coffee.... I could not attend any of the theaters." He also saw the police and the Ku Klux Klan "beating negroes on some of the streets in Atlanta."
Young Martin's daily reminders of whites' rule over blacks seemed to contradict what his parents taught him about human dignity. "You're the little nigger who stepped on my foot," a white woman shouted as she slapped him. Only eight years old at the time, Martin stood there ("in one of the downtown stores of Atlanta") in stunned silence, and then he ran to his mother. He also heard whites addressing blacks as "boy" and "girl," "uncle" and "auntie," and by any other insulting names they cared to use, and blacks had no power to stop them. For blacks to return the insults meant risking not only their livelihood but often their lives. Even among the best relationships, blacks were required to address whites as "Mr." and "Mrs." Whites, however, except in exceptional circumstances, did not return the respect. They called blacks by their first names—"Lucy," "Charlie," and "Pearl."
A deeply painful racial incident occurred when young Martin was in high school. He and his teacher were returning one night from an oratorical contest in Valdosta, Georgia, and the bus driver demanded that both give up their seats near the front for the newly boarding whites. "When we didn't move right away," Martin recalled, "the driver started cursing us out and calling us black sons of bitches. I decided not to move at all, but my teacher pointed out that we must obey that law. So we got up and stood in the aisle the whole 90 miles to Atlanta. It was a night I'll never forget. I don't think I have ever been so deeply angry in my life."
If blacks were going to believe that they were somebody in spite of what whites did to them, from what sources could they derive that belief? One source was the faith of the church. The church was like a "second home" for Martin. It was not only the place where he developed many of his early friendships; it also reinforced the values he learned at home. At Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin experienced a community at worship—singing, praying, testifying, preaching, and shouting—as they celebrated and praised "the Lord who has been better to us than we have been to ourselves." No reality was more important than God, in this life and the next. God, African-American Christians claimed, could make the "crooked roads straight" and the "rough places plain." They believed that God "builds you up when you are torn down" and "props you up on every leaning side." No matter what whites said about blacks or what wicked laws they enacted against their humanity, the people of Ebenezer believed that God had bestowed upon them a somebodyness which had been signed and sealed by Jesus' death and resurrection. That was why they sang with great enthusiasm and prayed with much thankfulness for what the Lord had done for them. Their activity in worship reflected a fervor commensurate with the gladness they felt in their hearts. They wanted to let the whole world know that God was real and present at Ebenezer. Daddy King and other ministers showed a similar excitement in their preaching, causing the people to respond with shouts of praise, saying "amen" and "thank you, Lord." The church was a haven, a place where blacks could be free of white folks, free of Jim Crow, free of everything that demeaned and humiliated them. They could "sing and shout" and "there'd be nobody there to turn them out." At the age of five Martin joined the church, as he later said, "not out of any dynamic conviction, but out of a childhood desire to keep up with my sister." Yet at Ebenezer the spirituality of the black church was planted deeply in his being, and it grew to become the sustaining force of his life.
In addition to religion, education also played an important role in helping Martin to overcome the disadvantages of being born black in a white, racist society. At an early age, he became fascinated by language, by the sound and power of words to arouse an audience. "You just wait and see," he told his parents, "I'm going to get me some big words." He liked having books around him even before he could read and also tried to go to school before he reached the eligible age. He skipped grades twice and found himself at Morehouse College at the age of fifteen.
Although the spirituality of the black church bestowed upon Martin a somebodyness that racism could not destroy, it did not at first change his mind about hating white people. Education and exposure beyond the church did that. "I did not conquer this antiwhite feeling until I entered college and came in contact with the white students through working in interracial organizations." Through the study of sociology under the direction of Walter Chivers and other professors at Morehouse, Martin came to see that racism was not primarily personal but structural and thus linked to the political economy of capitalism. He also observed that some whites were working, albeit gradually, to eliminate racism. His resentment slowly began to disappear as he associated with more whites of goodwill, especially in an interracial Intercollegiate Council. "The wholesome relations we had in this group convinced me that we have many white persons as allies, particularly among the younger generation," Martin recalled. "I had been ready to resent the whole white race, but as I got to see more whites, my resentment softened and a spirit of cooperation took its place."
Martin also came in contact with whites in Connecticut during his summer employment on a tobacco farm. It had a significant impact on his evolving perspective on race. In Hartford, unlike Atlanta and other places in the South, Martin was free of overt, legal segregation. He and his friends went to restaurants and movies with whites. To the young African-American who had never been exposed to that sort of "equality," these experiences gave an "exhilarating sense of freedom." When he returned South, however, he had to renew his acquaintance with Jim Crow, as he was forced to sit behind a curtain on a train. "I felt as though that curtain had dropped on my selfhood," Martin said. "It was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation's capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta." But instead of segregation making him hate all white people, as he had done earlier, this incident, and others like it, only made him more determined to join with others of both races to fight for the integration of Negroes into the mainstream of American society.
Excerpted from Martin & Malcolm & America by James H. Cone. Copyright © 1991 by James H. Cone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction. America: A Dream or a Nightmare?||1|
|The Meeting of Malcolm and Martin||2|
|Integrationism and Nationalism in African-American|
|1. The Making of a Dreamer (1929-55)||19|
|2.||The Making of a "Bad Nigger" (1925-52)|
|3. "I Have a Dream" (1955-64)||58|
|The Context of Martin's Vision||58|
|King and the American Dream||60|
|Pursuing the Dream: The Role of the Negro People||70|
|The American Dream and the Dream for the World||79|
|Birmingham and the March on Washington||80|
|4. "I See a Nightmare" (1952-63)||89|
|The Context of Malcolm's Vision||89|
|Malcolm and Muhammad||91|
|Oppression and Justice||93|
|Unity, Self-knowledge, Self-love, Self-defense, and|
|America as a Nightmare||111|
|5. "We Must Love Our White Brothers"||120|
|The Impact of King's Faith and Theology upon His Dream||121|
|King's Impact upon the American Churches||135|
|6. "White Man's Heaven Is a Black Man's Hell"||151|
|The Impact of Malcolm's Faith and Theology upon His|
|Malcolm's Exposition of Religions and Race||166|
|7. "Chickens Coming Home To Roost" (1964-65)||181|
|Break with Elijah Muhammad||183|
|Movement toward Martin||192|
|8. "Shattered Dreams" (1965-68)||213|
|The Struggle for the Ballot: End of the First Phase||215|
|The Second Phase: A Dream Shattered||221|
|Disenchantment with Whites||232|
|The Vietnam Crucible: Justice, Love, and Hope||235|
|9. Two Roads to Freedom||244|
|Complementing Each Other||246|
|Correcting Each Other||259|
|10. Nothing But Men||272|
|11. Making Their Mark: Legacies||288|
|Critique of American Christianity||295|
|Qualities as Leaders||297|
|Self-criticism and Humility||300|
|Nonviolence and Self-defense||303|
|Militancy and Humor||304|
|Solidarity with the Masses||309|
|Link with Other Liberation Movements||311|
Posted September 6, 2004
You can not go wrong with purchasing this book. It is a wonderfully written comparative about the lives and ideologies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. From beginning to end your interest will not fade because the structure of this book is wonderfully written.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
James Cone gives the reader a good insight into the philosophy and life of Malcolm X and Martin L. King, Jr. as individuals and weaves together what they meant for the larger Civil Rights Movement. I found this book to be very helpful for my own understanding of these two great figures.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.