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THE INCONVENIENT HERO
The Last Years of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
Carl Wendell Himes, Jr.
It was in January 1979 that the first formal call was made for the nation to claim Martin Luther King, Jr., as its official hero. President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Georgian, used the occasion of King's fiftieth birthday to speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church, that familiar home base in Atlanta, to urge the establishment of a national holiday honoring Ebenezer's most famous child. In the course of his statement, Carter touched one of the keys to King's deepest meaning for the nation when he said that the martyred leader had "called out to the best in people.... He spoke of the America that had never been, of the America we hope will be."
There were, of course, many interpretations of the nature of that "America we hope will be," and in the struggles that later took place within Congress and across the nation over the appropriateness of King as national hero, the tendency was to choose the most facile interpretation, the one that fit most readily with the America that is now and has been. Somehow, it seemed that the furthest most Americans could go with King was to that magnificent day inAugust 1963, before the Lincoln Memorial, when he spoke of his "dream." (Of course, he also pointed that day to "the unspeakable horrors of police brutality" inflicted on black people, and said he refused to be satisfied "as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one." But it was easier to deal with the dream of an America where black and white children would hold hands in unity.)
As a result, in most of the celebrations of King's life which prepared the way for this month's inauguration of the official national holiday, the dominant image has been that of the great orator at the Mall, the dreamer of interracial harmony, the stirring and mildly challenging preacher. So, too, in the debates over the establishment of the federal holiday, the supporters appeared to feel a need to make Martin King as harmless as George Washington had become, to trim him to the measure of America in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in one of the most ironic scenes of all, President Reagan, in November 1983, moving toward an election year, apparently forgetting his earlier facetious question about whether or not King might have been a communist, decided that he was really in support of the national holiday. But that could have been less than a favor, for when he signed the bill into law, Reagan continued the trivialization of the new hero's vision by offering his own homily on King's significance. He said,
Traces of bigotry still mar America. So each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King but rededicate ourselves to the commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: "Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself."
It was a strange embrace, especially coming from a man whose administration seemed determined to retreat to an imaginary America of the past, a man who had opposed all of the legislation for which King had fought and died, and who was just then exulting in the invasion of Grenadaan act King would surely have passionately condemned. But the president was clearly representative of vast numbers of the people (including the people of Congress), totally ambiguous in their reception of the new hero, uncomfortable with the idea of an "America that had never been," wondering how they would absorb this second "father" of our country, uncertain how to explain him to the children who would ask why the school was closed.
Perhaps this was the moment that the poet had anticipated back in 1969 while the blood still stained the motel balcony, while King had just begun the process of being transformed from a troublesome, dangerous black presence to a candidate for national hero. Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., saw what was coming and wrote then,
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So, now that he is safely dead
we, with eased consciences
will teach our children
that he was a great man ... knowing
that the cause for which he lived
is still a cause
and the dream for which he died
is still a dream,
a dead man's dream.
* * *
This trial by ordeal at the hands of a nation not yet ready for the demanding grandeur of its hero was poignantly placed in context for me not long ago in a college class filled with students who had all grown up since the death in Memphis. As we studied the post-1963 development of Martin King, one young man blurted out, "It's just not fair. I feel like all through these years of schooling and TV I've just been shut off from the last part of Dr. King's life." He paused, then added, "It's like all I can remember is that great 'I Have a Dream' speech, and then, it's as if he was shot right after thatyou know, like the day after, and then the next thing I know is there's going to be a national holiday." He stopped again, and quietly asked, "Do you know what I mean?"
I thought and felt that I knew what he meant, sensed that it was at least in part a cri de coeur, imploring, demanding that the door be opened, that he be introduced to the hero, that he be given the chance to struggle with the option of building monuments or building a better worldor both. Strangely enough, that student's imprecation sent me back to the pious words of President Reagan, and I wondered what it would be like, really to re-call Martin King, to evoke his life, his presence, his spirit, especially that part between the dream of Washington and the nightmare of Memphis.
Some months before he was killed, King had already begun that re-calling, that recollection, for himself and others. On Christmas Eve, 1967, he spoke to his congregation in Ebenezer and said,
I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream [in Washington] I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Those words provide an essential key, not only for the students who seek to enter the post-March-on-Washington phase of King's life, but for all of us who are prepared to deal with what could well be called the second coming of Martin Luther King, Jr. For his greatness may rest not so much in the dream, but in his willingness to continue to hope, to struggle, to develop new vision, to call others to a new America, right in the midst of nightmares, despair, and brutally broken bodies. While the echoes of the explosives still reverberated in many hearts, King had to face the families, comfort the bereaved, recognize the fact that the church was bombed partly because it had been a focal point for Birmingham's community in the struggle he had led just months before. In the face of that nightmare he had to revision the dream.
Then, before the year had ended, death struck again in Dallas. This time the entire nation was touched, but King, and his family, had to deal with the special implications of Kennedy's assassination for him. For he was now living in a time when national white support for the movement toward justice and equality seemed to be wavering. King had to come to terms with the polls which said that the majority of white citizens believed that "the Negroes were pressing too hard, asking for too much," and he had to match them with the reality of the black community which was just gearing up to demand from the nation a far more serious commitment to justice and equality. On a certain level he was in full agreement with James Baldwin who was calling for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign, saying,
If we don't move now, literally move, sit down, stand, walk, don't go to work, don't pay the rent, if we don't do everything now in our power to change this country, this country will turn out to be in the position, let us say, of Spain, a country which is so tangled and so trapped and immobilized by its interior discussion that it can't do anything else.
To re-call King with honesty is to re-live those times before the hot urban summers when he, too, warned the nation that it must either deal with the "long-deferred issue of second-class citizenship ... now or we can drive a seething humanity to a desperation it tried, asked, and hoped to avoid."
This was the King who was deeply influenced by the courageous and militant shock troops of the freedom Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). To recall him is of necessity to re-call them, for they helped radicalize him, helped keep him pressed against the hard and jagged edges of the struggle, in places like Mississippi, where in 1964 three of their volunteers had disappeared at the outset of an audacious assault on the heart of America's system of legal segregation, an assault which brought hundreds of volunteers to the state to share in what was known as Mississippi Summer. As everyone quickly realized, James Chaney, Michael Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner had not just disappeared, they were dead, even while King was visiting Neshoba County where their bodies were ultimately found. He had to endure those deaths, more deaths, nightmare deaths.
In this time of his transformation King also had to live with the compromising role he played later that summer when Mississippi's martyr-full freedom movement sent some of its best representatives (who had come, as it were, "out of great tribulation") to challenge the unjust, undemocratic Democratic national convention of 1964. For when the Freedom Democrats, as they were called, brought their black-led interracial delegation to Atlantic City in August to challenge the all-white racist regulars from Mississippi, King was among the national leaders who urged the battle-weary freedom fighters to accept a compromise which would have allowed them only a token presence at the convention. Some of the SNCC folks never forgave Martin for that decision, believing that he had capitulated to his white, liberal establishment supporters who were tied to Lyndon Johnson's fierce bandwagon. Martin had to live with that. It was all part of his becoming.
Shortly after Mississippi Summer, word came that King would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the nonviolent struggle for justice in the U.S.A. He took the honor and responsibility seriously, and on his way to Oslo in December he stopped in England long enough to condemn his own government and the British for refusing to take a strong stand against South Africa. In December 1964 King was clear on the need to "join in nonviolent action to bring freedom and justice to South Africa by a massive movement for economic sanctions." Did Ronald Reagan know that the hero he wanted to recall was one who had announced in 1964,
There are dangers of civil war in South Africa. We have a unique responsibility, but our Governments have failed to act decisively. Why do our Governments refuse to intervene effectively now? Must they wait until there is a blood bath before they recognize the crisis?
Can one who asks such questions ever be safely dead?
Two months later, in February 1965, our Nobel Peace Laureate was occupying an appropriate spacethe Selma jailwhen Malcolm X came down to visit, only weeks before his death. By then that other magnificent hero had begun his own second coming, had already become "much more than there was time for him to be." In Selma he told Coretta King that he was really an ally. And later Martin King could say, "It was tragic that Malcolm was killed, he was really coming around, moving away from racism. He had such a sweet spirit." To re-call Martin is to re-call Malcolm. They were complementary, and by the end of their lives, they knew it.
What King knew as well was that the triumphant Selma to Montgomery march in the spring of 1965 had been paid for with the lives of black and white people, and that dozens of courageous persons had been badly beaten to win the right for thousands to march. Part of the noticeable deepening of the shadows in the leader's face in these last years was the recognition as well that the Selma march was not a new beginning but the end of an era. It was the last of the great, traditional Southern marches, with King as the undisputed (at least to public view) leader of the cause. It marked the climax of the long, hard, and costly struggle against legalized public segregation and struck a major blow for justice in the voting process. It was closing the least complicated period of the modern movement toward "the America we hope will be."
Meanwhile, the cause itself was being transformed, deepened, expanded, being made more complexand so was King. An ever-expanding shadow named Vietnam had begun to fall over the hope, and the Nobel Laureate, the Christian minister, the humane lover of the poor, felt he had to speak publicly about what was going on, quietly, deferentially, cautiously at first. But even so tentative a mode was too bold for the president who was building toward nightmares overseas. United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg was assigned to assure King that all was well, that peace "was in the air," and Martin later said he was stunned by the nature and amount of the pressure that was mounted against those first public statements he made on the way. "They told me I wasn't an expert in foreign affairs, and they were all experts," he said. They told him, "I knew only civil rights and I should stick to that." King backed down, temporarily, but the die had been cast. The Negro hero had been told to stay in his place, colored place, to leave foreign affairs to white folks, to squelch any naive thoughts that nonviolence in Birmingham might be in any way related to nonviolence in Vietnam.
But King could not be tied down anywhere. That was part of his strange appeal, and great danger. Increasingly he came to see himself as advocate for the poor and the oppressed wherever they were. They became like a fire in his bones. (To re-call him is to recall them.) So he could not ignore Watts when it exploded in August 1965, nor could he put up with all the facile official explanations and rationalizations, all the condemnations and evasions. He had seen the seething, felt it, heard it, predicted its rising explosive force. When he walked through Watts and saw the faces of the young men, he knew them, recognized they were his children, understood the desperation that led them to stand amidst the charred remains of their community and say, "We won, because we made the whole world pay attention to us."
Much of the rest of his life, brief life, was given to searching out a way to respond to the men-children and their sisters, and the harshness of their experience, to catch the meaning of the explosions in Watts and in all the urban rebellions which would write their incendiary message across the land: "Pay attention!" So he moved, demanding of us that we look directly into the eye of the storm, face the nightmarish deterioration of Northern black urban life, recognize its experiences of economic exploitation, joblessness, and underemployment, neglected schools, and overpriced, absentee-landlord housing, with no one seeming to care, to hearuntil the fires raged. To re-call him is to feel the fire smoldering.
When he faced the nation after Watts, calling for the attention which the fires were seeking, his language was sharper, harsher than it had ever been before. That fall he wrote,
In my travels in the North I was increasingly becoming disillusioned with the power structures there. I encountered the tragic and stubborn fact that in virtually no major city was there a mayor possessing statesmanship, understanding, or even strong compassion on the civil rights questions.... All my experience indicated that hope of voluntary understanding was chimerical; there was blindness, obtuseness, and rigidity that would only be altered by a dynamic movement.
Watts finally convinced him. It was time, King said, for the freedom movement to go North, where he predicted "a sharpened conflict will unfold."
Driven by the faces of the young men in Los Angeles, by the fire in his heart, by the obsession with the need to create a more militant, Northern-honed version of nonviolent struggle for justice, King moved into one of Chicago's poorest, most exploited, black communities. The move was partly symbolic, but nevertheless posed a challenge to all who would now re-call him, to recognize that his love of neighbor demanded that he be neighbor, that he insert his life into the condition of the neighbor, that he challenge, as he used to say, "the whole structure of Jericho Road," that he do it with his total being.
And yet there was always something tearing, dividing him, preventing the unrelenting focus. In 1966, as he turned his face to Chicago, the South would not be denied its own continuing fire. Late that spring the quixotic, courageous James Meredith had drawn it down upon himself on a Mississippi road, shot down (but not seriously wounded) just as he set out on a one-man "March against Fear" through his native state. As King met in Memphis with other civil rights leaders, first around Meredith's bed, then in long, harsh gatherings preparing to continue the march, it was clear that there was no more business as usual for them. They could not escape the fires they had helped to create. The older movement no longer existed. The power of blackness was now on the agenda. The role of whites had become a subject of rancorous debate, and all the way down Highway 51, cutting through the heart of Mississippi, facing the still-untamed official violence of the state, the debate went on, and the cry of "Black Power," brought international attention to what was already taking placethe transformation of the Southern freedom movement, the ending of the era that had begun in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. A generation of social change had been jammed into little more than a decade. Explosions were inevitable. Besides, in spite of all its confusion and disarray, the Meredith marchbuilding on the life and death of many earlier freedom workershad witnessed powerful expressions of black courage and determination in places where fear had reigned less than five years ago. Now, for instance, in the face of tear gas, whips, sticks, and gun butts, a local black woman participating in the march could stand up in the mud and say, "We are not going to stay ignorant, and backward, and scared." The rock had surely been cracked, and King's presence was a part of it. (To re-call him, is to recall what it costs to crack rocks in America.)
Chastened, shaken, enlightened, but not fundamentally discouraged or put off by the surge of Blackness represented by Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick and the younger forces of SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), King returned North in 1966 as the fires of summer were beginning to mount again. Distressed but not surprised by the lethargic response of the federal government to the official violence of Mississippi, Martin prepared to do battle with the most formidable political machine in the nation, Mayor Richard Daley's Democratic Party of Chicago. Under the best of circumstances, King needed at least two years of organizing, training, experimenting, failing, and learning how to take on this new reality. He was off his home base, operating in a different milieu, up against not only the epitome of "blindness, obtuseness, and rigidity," but facing a highly skilled political operative who had coopted a significant segment of black political leadership into his camp, and who had the money and the troops and the knowledge of the local terrain that King could only develop over time.
But the fire-seared hero was not given two years. So he seized the time that he had. Out of the tangled skein of life and political corruption in the most segregated city of the North, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) forces and their Chicago allies chose to attack the problem of racially segregated housing. He had dreamed of mobilizing tens of thousands of mostly black people in Chicago to carry out acts of massive civil disobedience to press the city's political and economic leadership to the bargaining tables. But the realities of the hastily organized activities that summer were very different. After a July 10th Freedom Sunday march by some forty thousand persons to witness King tacking up demands on the door of city hall, the largest direct action mobilization after that brought somewhat fewer than a thousand marchers into the dangerous precincts of Marquette Park, one of the many segregated, antiblack communities of Chicago. It was here that the demonstrators met fierce opposition, needed all the protection that Daley's police force could provide, and went through the frightening experience of having Martin King hit by a rock. When it was over King said,
I've never seen anything like it.... I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seeneven in Mississippi and Alabamamobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I've seen in Chicago.
When it was over, King knew it really wasn't. Threats of even more dangerous SCLC-led confrontations with the fears and hatred of Chicago's white neighborhoods pushed Daley and his forces to the bargaining table, but not a great deal was gained there, and it was not over, only beginning. Fifteen years later, with a black mayor sitting in Daley's chair (but not taking his place), it was not really over, and the danger of re-calling King is that the questions of "Who is my neighbor?" and "What does love demand?" are still waiting on our answers.
For King, the answers were constantly expanding and deepening, raking him through fire, pressing him on to more and more exposed and dangerous groundlike Vietnam. Resisting both the threats and the blandishments of the war-obsessed president, recognizing the scurrilous, blackmailing ammunition that his own personal weaknesses had provided to the eavesdropping FBI, King refused to back away from his opposition to the brutal war against the Vietnamese. For him, the faces of the burning children and the self-immolated monks were extensions of the faces he had seen in Watts. The forms of the American soldiers, so terribly still in body bags, so emotionally crippled by the crimes against God and humanity they were forced to commit, were too often mirror images of his neighbors in Chicago. (Somehow, he seemed to know instinctively what presidentsand we who follow themrefuse to learn: nothing in "the commandments he believed in" set any national boundaries around the neighbors he was called to love. And nothing in the life of that Jesus, who Mr. Reagan was indirectly quoting, provided any indication that it was possible to love neighbors while also burning them, bombing them, targeting them for missiles, or undermining their search for revolutionary, life-affirming changeeven Marxist-led change.)
Excerpted from MARTIN LUTHER KING by Vincent Harding. Copyright © 1996 by Vincent Harding. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.