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MARTIN LUTHER KING
By Godfrey Hodgson
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2009 Godfrey Hodgson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Dream Deferred
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore - and then run? ... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode? Langston Hughes
On the morning of the great day, Washington was tense, like a capital braced for revolution. Many stayed indoors. At the intersections of the broad avenues that diagonally score the trim residential streets of the white suburbs in Northwest, detachments of heavily armed soldiers were on guard. The fear, in what was still a southern city under its glaze of Camelot sophistication, was the deep-seated slave owners' dread of servile rebellion. Thousands of demonstrators were converging on the city. Black demonstrators. What would be their mood? How would they behave?
Down by the Lincoln Memorial, it was plain from the start that such fears were unfounded, unworthy of the spirit of the day. The crowds were far bigger than expected, and far more peaceful. In the end at least a quarter of a million people turned up, perhaps 300,000. But they were white as well as black. They had their children with them. They were in their best clothes, and the mood was benign, even uplifted. As the summer day warmed up, some swung their bare legs in the reflecting pool in front ofthe memorial. The atmosphere was not riot, but holiday.
Behind the scenes, though - and the headquarters of the march were directly behind the great seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in his marble monument near the broad Potomac River - the atmosphere was indeed tense, but not with insurrectionary fervour. A political struggle was being played out over the fire-eating speech written by one of Dr King's allies, John Lewis, then the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced 'Snick'), and now a respected veteran member of Congress for Georgia. Lewis, like all the speakers, had handed in overnight a copy of what he planned to say. He was attacking the Kennedy administration's draft civil rights bill as too little, too late. Blacks, he said, 'would take matters into their own hands and create a source of power outside of any national structure'. They would 'march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did, leaving a scorched earth with our nonviolence'.
It was just what the organizers, the veteran labour union leaders A. Philip Randolph and his subtle ideologist, Bayard Rustin, did not want to hear. The purpose of the march was not to scare white folks, but to reassure them, to convince a still hesitant white majority, North and South, that black people were only asking for their constitutional rights, and demanding them not in a hostile, hectoring tone, but with the voice of quiet moral authority. The aim was to put pressure on Congress to implement the emancipation already promised, nine summers earlier, by the Supreme Court in its judgement that legal segregation was contrary to the United States Constitution as amended after the Civil War a century before.
There was a practical problem. The march's organizers were anxious to display the broadest possible coalition behind their demands, including labour unions and religious leaders. Now word came that Patrick O'Boyle, Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, was displeased. He was threatening to pull out of the march, with all the authority of a Church that the President and a rough quarter of the American people belonged to, unless John Lewis washed his mouth out.
John Lewis would be listened to with respect. But it was not him the vast crowd had come to hear. The man of the hour was Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Son of a tough preacher of the old school from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, King had won a reputation at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, as a preacher who combined the Old Testament grandeur and populist fervour of traditional black Christianity with a sophisticated understanding of modern theology and social thought.
He was then thirty-four years old, short - under five foot seven inches - elegantly dressed in Ivy League style, with a broad mouth under a neatly trimmed moustache. He had a deep, thrilling voice, which started low and could build up until he communicated an irresistible shared passion to his congregation in church or to his followers in the streets. When he graduated from Boston University, he had toyed with the idea of becoming a theological scholar, and there had been offers of jobs in safe northern universities. He became a minister, he said, more because of his father's example and the tradition of a family of preachers than because of any intense 'call', though his Christian commitment was unshakeable. Behind a smooth face and the incomparable ability to move an audience was hidden a complex personality, passionate and sensuous as well as subtle and staunch.
He became a political leader, almost in spite of himself, in the boycott by the African-American population of Montgomery of its bus system after Rosa Parks famously refused to get up and move to the back of the bus to make room for a white passenger, as custom, backed by municipal regulation, dictated. The bus boycott, King's courage and his charismatic gifts as an orator threw him into the front rank of leadership of a divided 'Negro' movement, and of an aroused people. In Montgomery, then elsewhere, King had put himself at the head of mass protests. He had been repeatedly imprisoned and in other ways 'despitefully used'.
In Birmingham, the tough steel town that was the hardest bastion of segregation in all the South, he had experienced moments of despair, but he had emerged, if not triumphant - the white civic leaders of Birmingham were too stubborn to allow Negroes totriumph - at least successful. At long last he had finessed President Kennedy and national Democratic politicians to commit themselves to action. And from Birmingham jail he had written his famous letter to white clergy, magisterially rebuking them for asking the Negro to wait. Now, in Washington, he had his opportunity to shame the northern half of the national Democratic Party into overriding the prejudice and the pride of their southern colleagues, entrenched in Congress as the chieftains of their one-party states.
Rustin and Dr King did their best to change Lewis's mind. Both failed. Lewis was small, dark, and psychologically adamant. Only Randolph himself, the patriarchal leader of the black sleeping-car porters' union, was able to persuade him that his flight of rhetoric was endangering the whole enterprise. There was, in truth, danger on two sides. It would be bad to alienate the white liberals, the churchmen and the rabbis whose support would be needed for the fight ahead in Congress for the civil rights bill. It would be worse to drive a wedge between Dr King and his moderate allies on the one side and the young firebrands of SNCC on the other; their trust could be destroyed if their chairman's passionate speech was to be censored with too heavy a hand.
With desperate urgency, as the minutes ticked by to the opening of the ceremony, Lewis's SNCC colleagues redrafted his speech on a portable typewriter propped up behind the Lincoln statue. They did not take all of its sting away. Lewis still promised to 'splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy'.
By the time he had agreed to the toned-down draft, the crowd had heard protest songs from some of the stars of the then fashion for political folk music. There was Josh White, famous for his powerful anti-lynching ballad, 'Strange Fruit'; Joan Baez, coolly beautiful in a cotton dress and sandals; and the young, acoustic Bob Dylan. Randolph had opened the programme, welcoming the crowd to what he called 'the largest demonstration in the history of this nation'. 'We are the advance guard,' he proclaimed, 'of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.'
When Lewis had finished, it was time for the speaker the thousands had come to hear. From his first words, he touched deep chords of association with the great traditions of the American past. 'Five score years ago,' he began, and not a man or woman in that huge crowd could have been unaware that by quoting the opening words of Lincoln's Gettysburg address he was clothing himself in the mantle of the man seated in majesty behind him. King spoke with the slow rhythms of the Baptist pulpit, and with a rhetorical trick of his own. As he ended each period, he would hurry on to the opening phrase of the next paragraph, then pause, leaving his audience in suspense for a moment before the torrent of his words tipped over the edge and swept on down the great rapids of his peroration.
The speech was at once sermon and political argument. He was talking to several audiences at once. He was directly addressing the thousands who were there in front him in Washington's Mall. Over their heads he was reaching out to southern blacks and northern whites, to the tens of millions of undecided white Americans, willing to be persuaded that the time was ripe to end the embarrassing southern folkways of segregation, yet reluctant to be carried away on radical paths. He was reaching out to the powerless in southern plantations and the angry in northern ghettos, and most of all to the powerful, only just beyond the reach of his voice a mile or so up the Mall on Capitol Hill. So he wove together different languages for different listeners. He borrowed the emotional power of the Old Testament with an echo of the stately music of Handel's Messiah. He also appealed to the sacred texts of the American secular religion, echoing the grand simplicities of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg address.
The march, and the movement he had led to this culmination, were not an end, he said, but a beginning. 'The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.' Some asked, he said, when the devotees of civil rights would be satisfied. 'We can never be satisfied,' he replied, until the evils of segregation, of police brutality and discrimination have been abolished, as long as 'the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote'. 'No! No!' he cried in the first climax of the speech. 'We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until' - in a resonant verse from the Book of Amos that had been a favourite passage since his days in theological seminary -'... let justice roll down as water, and righteousness as a mighty stream'.
The first passages of the speech, he read. He had been writing them until four that morning in his Washington hotel. Then the idea came into his head of adapting a trope he had tried out in a speech in Detroit a year earlier. In words the whole world remembers, he told the great company in front of him, reaching back for half a mile along the Mall, that he had a dream. And the dream was that 'one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood'; and that his own four small children would 'not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character'.
Then again he reached for the language of the Old Testament, for the remembered words of Isaiah, to ratchet up the emotional power of his rhetoric. 'Every valley shall be exalted,' he cried, 'and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.' So he moved from dream to hope, from his own vision to the shared pride of the national anthem, and at the end he reached into the deepest recesses of his vision, that of drawing a final line under traumas that haunted slaves and slave owners alike. Let freedom ring, he said on the day when 'all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands all over the nation and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"'
It has become the best-known political speech of the twentieth century, in America and around the world. When in 2007 The Guardian distributed the texts of the greatest speeches of the century, there was young Dr King, the martyred outsider, alongside Winston Churchill. 'I Have a Dream', as it has come to be known, has been sold in millions, in book form, tapes, discs and recordings of every kind. The manuscript from which part of it was read has been sold at Sotheby's for an undisclosed but very large sum. Dr King's papers have been auctioned for $32 million. Copyright of his words has been disputed in the courts. Two corporations, Apple Computers and the giant French telecommunications-equipment manufacturer, Alcatel, have used it in commercials. Martin Luther King is commemorated by hundreds of streets, avenues and boulevards in American cities, and by a public holiday that puts him in the quasi-apostolic company of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. The speech, its author and the Dream have passed into the postmodern world where cultural icons become international brands.
In the process, not only the context of the speech and its purpose and effect, but its author and the real nature of his Dream have been forgotten, misunderstood and even deliberately misinterpreted. He is often misremembered, as an unthreatening, relatively conservative leader, when in reality his vision was profoundly and unrelentingly radical; and as a Christian preacher, when - though he was indeed a Christian - his message was always consciously political. He is widely seen as a leader whose relevance was chiefly to the black people of the South, when in truth he sought to transform American life in the North as well, for whites as well as for blacks. He is seen as the champion for African-Americans; of equality before the law; he came to believe that his mission was to fight for economic equality for all.
His great speech was the hinge between the demanding and dangerous task of giving the southern blacks, de jure, full citizenship, and the less glorious, more frustrating task of giving to both black and white people, in the North and West as well as in the South, de facto economic opportunity and equal human status. King saw himself, from early on, as committed to human rights everywhere, not just in the South or even just in America. He was fiercely hostile to colonialism, and to racism wherever he saw it.
The first task, that of overthrowing legally sanctioned segregation in the South, he knew better than anyone, had been hard enough. But even he did not guess, on that day of triumph, just how difficult the next task would be.
King's speech at the march on Washington was a truly cardinal moment in the modern history of the United States. Barack Obama could not, arguably, have been elected president without it. But its meaning has been subtly distorted by what came after it. Immediately, and in part as a result of King's actions, President Kennedy laid before Congress a civil rights bill that did not become law until Kennedy had been assassinated. His successor Lyndon Johnson was both a master parliamentary tactician and, as a southerner, more deeply aware of what was at stake in the racial upheaval than ever Kennedy was. By the summer of 1964, the civil rights legislation had passed Congress. The following year Johnson succeeded in cajoling and pressuring Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. It was, as Johnson knew, a political catastrophe for the Democratic Party he had served all his life. It touched off a political cataclysm. Conservative white southerners, who would once have voted, as they said, for a 'yellow dog' if the animal had the Democratic nomination, turned into Republicans.
Johnson invested his political capital in the bill because he believed that only access to the vote would enable southern blacks to free themselves. On Independence Day 1965 in a speech at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, he went further than any national leader had ever gone to commit America to full racial equality. Freedom, the President said, in what many consider his own noblest speech, was not enough. It was not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. Black Americans must be helped to walk through those gates. 'This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and as a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.' That year, the Johnson administration made the equality of black citizens, and their economic advancement, its priority. The President poured money into visionary schemes to bring African-Americans into the mainstream of American life. There was Head Start for black children in the Mississippi Delta and the northern ghettos. The slums were to be abolished and turned into Model Cities. A War on Poverty, inherited from the Kennedy agenda, was to be fought in the name of Equal Opportunity.
Excerpted from MARTIN LUTHER KING by Godfrey Hodgson Copyright © 2009 by Godfrey Hodgson . Excerpted by permission.
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