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Muddying the waters; the years of Martin Luther King.

The latest installment of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson was either praised or damned by reviewers this spring. Both sides had their points: Caro's work, like his first book about Johnson and his outstanding biography of Robert Moses, is for the most part brilliant, but his distaste for Johnson led him to exaggerate LBJ's flaws and downplay his virtues, while sanctifying LBJ's old political rival Coke Stevenson, who was, to put it gently, less than fully deserving of the honor. All of this got us to wondering how even such a clearly heroic figure as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might fare under Caro's approach. Fortunately, we didn't have to wonder long, because, thanks to a postal mix-up, we received the following manuscript in the mail.

-The Editors Introduction:

Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was essentially about a drive for power and glory, power not just to achieve justice, but power for its own sake: naked, ruthless power that would crush anything that stood in its way, and a hunger for glory so profound that he would jeopardize the health and safety of his family and colleagues. Cunning as he was, he was able-through the help of his aides and cronies-to construct a legend about himself, a myth about his nobility and selflessness. It is a myth that has been perpetuated by other biographers, and it is a myth that, under the weight of the evidence I've gathered, collapses.

Finally, after spending 15 years interviewing 12,893 people who knew King or lived through his times, I am able to rip off the veil of secrecy that surrounds him and tell the real truth about his life. He had a dark side and a bright side, yet, sadly, in the conflict that makes up a central part of this work, the spring, 1963 desegregation campaign in Birmingham, we see the traits that not only helped fuel his drive for worldwide fame, but also hurt innocent people: deceit, megalomania, promiscuity, cynical pragmatism.

The Birmingham campaign is also important because it tells us about the transformation of the politics of protest in America. Martin Luther King brought a slick, sophisticated new politics to a sleepy southern town unable to compete with his Machiavellian wiles. King's new politics, fueled by enormous sums of hidden cash, used the mass media to create instant martyrs out of Birmingham's protesters. It also created a "devil figure" in the person of Eugene "Bull" Connor, the commissioner of public safety whose career has been distorted and misunderstood by untold numbers of journalists. King faced, in the idealistic, earnest simplicity of Bull Connor, someone ill-equipped to do battle in the new media age, a beloved, folksy populist who harkened back to a quieter, more graceful, and, in some ways, more honest era. The true story of Bull Connor has been all but lost to history, and I intend to collect that oversight. Birmingham or bust

It was Martin Luther King's last chance. If he lost the upcoming campaign to end segregation in placid but booming Birmingham, his position as the most prominent Negro civil rights leader would be eroded, perhaps destroyed-and so would his chance to become (his private goal) the most influential Negro in world history, with the unlimited power, fame, and access to attractive, willing civil-rights workers that would entail. He was ready to do anything-absolutely anything-to hold on to his status and power: run roughshod over longstanding southern traditions, violate disorderly conduct ordinances, provoke violent responses from mild-mannered policemen, bed down sexy white women from prestigious publications-whatever was necessary. Now 34, he had already earned himself a cover story in Time magazine, made hundreds of speeches a year, led a successful boycott of the segregated bus system in Montgomery. But that was years ago, in the mid-fifties, and his rapid rise had been slowed. Cities across the South were still segregated, and other leaders-John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, Harry Belafonte-and strategies-the sit-ins in Nashville and Greensboro, voter registration drives in Mississippi-had captured press attention. King was no longer the center of attention, and a friend recalled, "he could not stand it."

And, these days he was being branded a loser, and all because he had been outsmarted by a white man several months earlier in Albany, Ga. Laurie Pritchett, the white sheriff, went out of his way to avoid brutality with the marchers. And each time King was arrested, Pritchett freed him in short order, before the national press could turn him into a martyr. King emerged from jail each time deeply depressed. His solitary day-long prayer vigil in front of the jail, with him begging on his knees to be arrested, didn't work either, no matter what provocative stunts he pulled-calling Sheriff Pritchett a "white redneck faggot" or shouting out to white schoolgirls passing by the vigil, "Hey, little girl, want to try a real man?"

Now Birmingham loomed ahead, and as he drove north towards the tough steel city, population 350,000, that occupied a 15-mile stretch of Jones Valley, and that with its suburbs attained a maximum width of seven miles, the city posed obstacles as durable and firm as the iron ore and coal undeneath the land outside Birmingham. It was a hard, forbidding land, and on the 101.4 mile drive to Birmingham from Montgomery (site of his original triumph that he visited obsessively since moving to Atlanta), one passed gently rolling farmland until encountering the daunting 952-foot-high Red Mountain, home of the Birmingham elite. It was an elite built on mineral wealth, a wealth that was made possible by the formation some 500,000,000 years ago during the Silurian era of beds of iron ore. A broad, shallow sea covered portions of Alabama then, and . . . [Note to editor: have your secretary recopy attached section of Geology in Alabama, University of Alabama Press, pp. 2-5, through sentence beginning, "The seas from the Palezoic age . . . " Thanks a lot!] As the eons passed, and the submerged sections of the eastern United States emerged from their watery covers, more layers of limestone, shale, gravel and coal were left as part of this prehistoric legacy. It was a legacy that continued to shape the politics of race in Birmingham.

As King well knew, Birmingham was the city with the most determined resistance to integration in the entire state, perhaps in the entire South. And yet both races had made their peace with the venerable tradition, and many Negro leaders resented this outside intrusion. But most critically, if King was to win in Birmingham, he would have to beat a person at least as formidable as himself, a saintly, legendary figure who embodied all that the citizens of the state felt was best about themselves and their state, the ultimate "good ole boy," and one of the most popular political leaders in Alabama if not the entire South, Eugene "Bull" Connor, known simply as "Mr. Alababama," by some, "The God of Birmingham." The story of Bull Connor

In the twilight of an Alabama evening in 1911, in a small (pop. 762) farming town near Selma, a tall, jug-eared, raw-boned youth of 14 was chopping wood with powerful strokes, helping his father build a log cabin to store some of the cotton they grew. Even as a youngster, Eugene Connor was "plenty strong," his cousin Luke Connor recalled. He was "as big as an ox," a friend said. "He was tough as nails," said yet another friend contacted by this reporter. Bubba Connor and his son Eugene were drawn to the quiet beauty of the land, the long rolling vistas of farmland and the inspiring sight of pines-longleaf, shortleaf, loblolly, upland spruce, lowland spruce, pond, slash and sand pine-that dot the countryside. In the forests and fields, the gentle-souled youth ("He was really a pussycat at heart," says one childhood friend) with the gruff, extroverted exterior first learned the values of hard work, private property, free enterprise-and helping others. The sight of an injured bird made him cry profusely, and he was always bringing home animals to nurse back to health, part of the gentle side of his personality that he kept hidden from the public.

Times were not easy for Connor and his father: his mother died when he was eight; money was always tight. Yet somehow they managed to eke out a small living with dignity, unlike, he said later, many of the Negro sharecroppers who farmed nearby, who turned to drunken revelry to escape their plight. Nevertheless, he was still able to ache with empathy over the suffering they had to endure. As a youngster, young Eugene also watched from afar as Negro children in the neighborhood played baseball, listened to them sing blues songs and hollers," and became a great admirer of their athletic skills and singing abilities.

Equally important in shaping his views on racial issues was his respect-even awe-for the written word. Although his education was only rudimentary in the Plantersville schoolhouse (as he could only attend school a few months each year), he developed a fierce devotion to the Bible and its injunction against the curse of Ham," or black skin. And by the lamplight in the evenings, he also read himself to sleep perusing history books about how Alabama was overrun by white carpetbaggers and their Negro minions during the Reconstruction era-and about why the state's segregation laws were so necessary to preserve order. His reverence for these books laws was as great as that for his beloved Bible. Yet even while his deepseated conservative belief in segregation was being formed, he never lost his basic respect for his dark-skinned neighbors' underlying humanity. As he grew older and assumed political power, he became, in many respects, a pioneer of the tough-minded neoconservatives who have helped bring America's attention to the social pathologies of the underclass.

Beyond his foresighted political ideas, this powerful natural leader, even as a youngster, was highly regarded for another reason: his bubbling, outgoing personality and sense of humor. Whenever a crowd of young people in the town gathered, you could always find Bull in the center," one friend said, telling stories and jokes. He'd tug at his right ear lobe, scratch his belly and start in recounting jokes from a seemingly bottomless stockpile. "Now, here's a puzzle for you: a Polack, a Jewboy, and a nigger all jumped off a cliff at the same time," he'd announce in his warm, booming voice, a small delighted smile curling up the edge of his lips. "Which one hits the ground first?" The rapt crowd would shout out different answers and then Connor would cut them off with a loud exclamation: "The answer is . . . WHO CARES?" Connor and his pals would then explode with laughter, and Connor had earned himself more friends. He viewed the use of racial epithets and jokes as an ironic way to raise a positive sense of awareness of the ethnic diversity in the South, rather than, as some later critics charged, a form of insults or hostility to minority groups.

By his mid-teens, desperate for money, he moved to Birmingham, where he landed a series of low-paying jobs as a newspaper boy, telegraph operator, and crossmaker for the local Ku Klux Klan. He brought the same attention to detail to everything he did: "Eugene made the best-looking crosses in the whole county," recalled former Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton. "Not a nail was out of place and the spiked end was as sharp as a knife. Other crosses might wobble and fall apart when they started to burn, but, by golly, a Connor cross was a sight to behold." All the while, his jovial personality won him new friends, and by the time he was 21, he landed the job that gave him his colorful nickname, "Bull." He became a baseball radio announcer, recreating from a ticker tape the events of faraway games in a gruff, booming voice that sounded like a "bull." He also got "mad as a bull" when he saw anyone do something to provoke violence. "The Lord meant for us to live together peacefully," he'd say, whenever he saw a fight beginning. He "would never harm a fly," one friend recalled, except, of course, when deliberately provoked. Martin Luther King, fueled by his media-crazed dreams of martyrdom, would turn out, sadly, to be just such a provocateur.

Conner became the most beloved person in the city. Wherever he went, women would rush out of their homes to throw rose petals at his feet, while men would doff their hats slowly in a gesture of respect, and whisper to themselves in awe-filled voices, "There goes Bull." Connor would have been content to remain a baseball announcer and a revered folk hero, but the citizens of the town knew he was destined for greater things. One evening in 1934, a delegation of fellow citizens, concerned that the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his pro-Negro wife could lead to the overthrow of the state's segregation statutes and to mandatory viewing of Paul Robeson movies in the public schools, came to Bull and asked him to run for the state legislature. Bull agonized for days over it, and finally he gave in to their pleas. Of course he won, but he soon realized that the state legislature, which was controlled by big-spending lobbyists, wasn't for him. He left behind one proud legacy: a ban on viewing the films "Showboat" and "The Emperor Jones" in any public school in Alabama. He was prepared to return to his life as a happy-go-lucky baseball announcer when his friends prevailed on him again and he reluctantly spent 20 hours a day, 7 days a week campaigning for the job of commissioner of public safety. Connor hated traditional politics, and yet, somehow, he found himself elected, then reelected time and time again-almost against his will-until by 1963 he was the most powerful and popular politician in Birmingham.

He would have preferred to return to his family's small farm in Plantersville with his wife Beara now that he was in his sixties, but duty called on him to remain in office. All the Southern traditions he had cherished faced their biggest challenge yet-the invasion of Birmingham by the short, wily, balding Martin Luther King Jr.... The whirlwind

As King entered Birmingham on the afternoon of April 2, he had, friends recalled, only one thing on his mind: who would he sleep with that night? King's extramarital affairs had been well-known to a close-knit group of hard-partying buddies, such as Ralph Abernathy, and, ultimately, to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Hoover later would try to blackmail King into giving up his civil rights campaign-by threatening to personally go on late-night TV to hawk a salacious "party record," Gettin' Down With Dr. King, based on the Bureau's wiretaps of King's sexual encounters-but King, quietly proud of his sexual abilities, would remain unfazed by such threats. His long-suffering wife, Coretta, must have known about his erotic escapades, friends say, but she had too much pride and dignity to say anything about them. She viewed herself as his helpmate, having abandoned a potentially distinguished singing career for him, but he often treated her cavalierly. "Sorry, dear, I've got to organize another demonstration," he would say, leaving her in the wreckage of their firebombed living room to rush out for yet another sexual conquest. His active traveling and speaking schedule provided a perfect cover for his amorous ramblings. And so it was on April 2, when he headed towards the Gaston Motel, headquarters for the Birmingham campaign. Tonight's late-night rendezvous was with either Joan Baez or Nancy Wilson or maybe both (Abernathy was the one who handled the scheduling details for him), but before he could indulge his appetites, he had to spend hours talking with the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other local ministers about the strategies for the mass demonstrations and sit-ins-a task he found far more boring than showboating as a stump speaker, granting interviews, and, of course, having sex.

To King and his cohorts, the laws of Birmingham-and of Alabama-were made to be broken. King had always disdained legal niceties in his drive to power: he casually violated tax laws, for instance, when during the Montgomery bus boycott era he took, one aide recalled, "lots and lots of dollars" in donations destined for his puppet organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Montgomery Improvement Association, and mixed them in with his personal bank accounts. As other biographers have noted-but sought to explain away-he was forced to pay both the state and the IRS a total of $2,167.83 in back taxes; he subsequently faced a perjury trial for falsifying his tax records, a trial King's apologists-then and now-have sought to portray as merely state government harassment of an innocent idealist. Now he was eager to overthrow the laws-such as those on disorderly conduct and racial segregation-that had made Birmingham such a pleasant, old-fashioned place for so many of its citizens, the laws that kindly Bull Connor had cherished as a youngster and was sworn to uphold.

To win this campaign, King would use money-lots of it. It was money-and the ability to raise it-that was the basic source of Martin Luther King's power and effectiveness. He has been described as a great orator, a brilliant strategist, a leader of men. King, admittedly, was all these things, but his abilities would have had far less impact without the money to back them up. King's fabled "charisma" and moral appeal, now part of the national political folklore, were, in fact, merely the decorative velvet fabric that encased the steel fist of raw power.

Despite his enormous financial resources, in the first few days King's bold campaign seemed to fizzle. Only a relative handful of protesters showed up, many of them white college students and beatniks sporting berets and bongo drums. News reporters who had come to Birmingham expecting violent clashes between peaceful protesters and Connor's troops instead spent their days napping, playing cards, and complaining to King about the lack of exciting news.

Fortunately for King, Connor, the media naif, made a critical mistake: he asked for-and won-an injunction banning all picketing and demonstrations. At a strategy meeting that evening, King and his aides celebrated this new opportunity. But they faced a serious political challenge: how best to get the most publicity for violating the court order? King, as usual, volunteered to be arrested. (He, in fact, did go to jail for a few days until freed on bond.) But King's jailing, they decided, wouldn't be enough, even if King was willing to grimace wildly in pain for the cameras, an act that, after eight years of protests, was getting a little stale. Suddenly, King had a brainstorm: "Why not use children against Bull Connor's police? It wouldn't hurt our cause if a few little black girls could be injured or maimed, right?" Shuttlesworth, among others, protested against the cruel cynicism of this idea, but King's forceful personality soon convinced the others to join this scheme. Children as young as six years of age would be allowed to join, they decided. King and his aides heavily recruited marchers among Birmingham's schoolchildren, promising them free candy, extra allowance money, and no more homework, ever, if they joined the march. Not surprisingly, nearly a thousand kids signed up and took off from school.

That morning, Bull Connor kissed his wife Beara goodbye, not knowing if he would ever return alive from the potential confrontation he yet hoped to defuse. Connor, who had always enjoyed friendly relationships with what he called "pickaninnies," rubbing their heads for good luck and giving them candy, hoped to convince these schoolchildren to stop marching and return to school with a few diverting pranks he had planned. He ordered the K-9 units of dogs to set up outside the church, in the hope that the sight of cute little dogs-little more than puppies, really-would distract the children and encourage them to stop their protests to play with the frisky critters. Then, as an added treat, he ordered his fire department to use big black fire hoses to douse them with water on this hot spring day, because there were no swimming pools in Birmingham that little black children could use.

Bull Connor miscalculated. It was with a sinking heart that Connor realized that his plan for a recreational diversion was being greeted hostilely by the black schoolchildren-"they're cute as buttons," he often told his wife-that he so loved. They taunted his police and firemen, booed him, threw rocks at the K-9 units. A few dogs, prodded out of control by jeering children, leaped to take bites out of their clothing as photographers snapped pictures. The water from the fire hoses, apparently too strong for the gentle water-play Connor had envisioned, forced some children to roll down the street under its force, injuring some, frightening many. There were many critics who later argued that Connor's police force had violated elementary principles of justice and fair play, and, indeed, no matter how well-meaning his intention, Connor's response to the protesters revealed that, perhaps, he did not adequately grasp those concepts. Politically, there was no doubt that Connor had made a tragic mistake.

King, on the other hand, was overjoyed. Television and newspapers were filled with pictures of supposedly innocent black children being blasted with water hoses and chased by police dogs. Millions of Americans were outraged, and the world's press descended on the once-calm city of Birmingham as the demonstrations grew in size each day. Bull Connor, once the hero of Birmingham and Alabama, had become an archaic liability, outwitted by the media-savvy King. No longer would white and black people live separately in Birmingham, taking nourishment from their own rich cultures, but, instead, centuries of tradition would be hurtled aside in a media stampede engineered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Connor decried the desegregation agreement as "capitulation by certain weak-kneed white people," but, by this time, he was almost a broken man.

For years afterward, he sought to redress the injury done to his reputation by King and King's admirers in the national press. He pursued a libel suit against The New York Times, but that ultimately was rejected in federal court. The city-commission form of government that had made him so powerful was rejected by the voters, and he was defeated in an attempt to become mayor.

The 1963 Birmingham campaign marked the end of the old ways of politics and ushered in a new era of media and money, but the man who was victimized by this shift lived for another 10 years. He returned as often as he could to his farm in Plantersville, where, amid the pines and gently rolling farmland, he strolled hand-in-hand with his wife Beara, still very much in love after all these years. At night, on his front porch, his whole family-his daughter and two grandchildren included-and a few old friends would gather to drink rye whiskey and tell stories. Even in his seventies, Bull Connor never lost the charm and wit that had made him so popular, such a legend, for so many years.

"Say, Luke," he'd joke to his cousin with a broad smile, "what do you say to a nigger in a three-piece suit?"

"I dunno, Bull. What?"

"Will the defendant please rise!" Then the whole family would erupt in joyous laughter, just like in the good old days before Martin Luther King ruined everything.
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Author:Levine, Art
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Words:3918
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