March 28, 2006


Taylor Branch's remarkable third volume about the Civil Rights movement is definitely on my reading list. As Garry Wills notes in his review in this month's New York Review of Books, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 provides some incredible insight into those complex and chaotic times and even more into the type of man Martin Luther King, Jr. was.

One of the marvels of King's life is that he stood up to probably the most intense and sustained of Hoover's campaigns of character assassination. Hoover had King tapped (legally), bugged (illegally), deprived of advisers, vilified in planted stories, left unprotected in danger. He quietly undermined him in every available forum. He had colleges cancel honorary degrees, senators cancel honorary dinners. He tried to block the Ford Foundation from giving his program a grant. To prevent King's receiving the Nobel Prize, he tried to provoke him into committing suicide before leaving for Oslo. He refused to inform King of death threats the FBI knew about, something the organization regularly did for others. Hoover had reached such a berserk extreme that he was hoping for an assassination. King was this crazed Ahab's Great Black Whale.

How did King survive all this? He would not have, if he had ever stooped to returning hate for hate with Hoover. That would have tripped him up without fail. King said, "I refuse to hate," and repeatedly told his allies that love was their only real weapon. That is the profound lesson in the power of nonviolence. Hate and violence are self-destructive. Whatever his other faults, fidelity to nonviolence was King's one towering virtue. He frequently expressed disappointment with others—with Johnson, with Hoover, with many of his own followers or putative friends, with the white power structure. But he did not poison himself with enmity. Even his depressions were self-punitive rather than accusatory. That is the astounding record of the man. He lived with constant threats to his life, subject to vicious racist calumnies, ridiculed by former allies, stalked by Hoover's agents, denounced by high government officials —yet he never lashed back with anger or violence.

Yet, Wills points out that although Branch uses the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. as his prism for illuminating the civil rights era, it was a time of passion and courage for many, many people.

Though Branch admires King's greatness, this is no great man history. It is, rather, a great men and women history. And the greatest were often the least. Branch knows that King could have done nothing if poor and excluded blacks had not had the courage to shake off their servitude. The ones who joined the boycotts, the marches, the registration drives, did it at risk to their jobs, their property, their lives. Lowndes County, with a majority of black residents, did not have a single black voter when the SCLC went in to encourage people to take up their freedom. The outnumbered whites had kept them under by fear and reprisals. It took great pride in themselves for the blacks to defy generations of repression. I remember what a farmer marching to Montgomery told one of the SCLC people. Asked whether he thought the marchers would be able to win in Montgomery, he said "We won when we started."

These brave and honorable people have a lot to teach us today.

via Altercation

Posted by Mary at March 28, 2006 12:29 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

The third volume was an incredible book. My only disappointment with it was that it probably needed another 100 pages to relate what happpened after King's death, to connect us with how things are today.

God give such strength to continue our battles.

Posted by: palamedes at March 28, 2006 05:28 AM