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Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963.

He wore silk pajamas and hung out with weirdos. He was often frighentend and uncertain, and even Thurgood Marshall called him a "rabble-rouser."

On the eighth day of his siege against segregated Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jn had reached an impasse on both sides of the color line. King began the campaign in the spring of 1963 vowing to put more than a thousand people in Bull Connor's jail. But despite his exhortations, fewer than 150 had come forth. Many blacks were ignoring his call to boycott segregated stores. The local black newspaper called King's demonstrations "wasteful and worthless '" White Alabama, meanwhile, had begun to bear down upon him. Knowing that the movement's bail money was running low, the state legislature sent the maximum bail fee rocketing, from $300 to $2,500. A week later, King's bondsman was broke. Without bail money, jailgoers would face six months in prison rather than six days. The trickle of volunteers would run dry.

Nonplused, King convened the cabal of preachers behind the campaign. Offly he had the stature to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed. Should he suspend the assault for a fundraising tour? Or step forward to prison as promised? One direction threatened the look of hypocrisy and retreat; the other the uncertain harvest of martyrdom. Polling his lieutenants, King found the demoralized clique as befuddled as he was, and he withdrew into the silence of his bedroom.

When he reemerged a few minutes later, King had swapped his business suit for a denim workshirt and jeans, more fitting for his decision of jail. It was the first time that several of his stunned associates had seen him without a ne"I don't know what will happen," he told the hushed room. Daddy King made a final attempt to change his son's Well you didn't get this nonviolence from me," he huffed. "You must have got it from your Mama."

In the tumult of subsequent days, Harry Belafonte raised the bail money, King scrawled his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, a thousand schoolchildren filled the police wagons and streets, and segregationists came kneeling to the negotiating table. The photos left behind, of children staring down police dogs, are perhaps the most powerful and instructive images of the era, and when they hit the papers, they signaled segregation's doom. Had King kept his tie on, the image left instead at best would have bespoken a man and movement in decline, a wellintentioned leader in over his head.

But King was in over his head, at nearly every phase of his extraordinary leadership. He faced not only the twin bulwarks of burning white hate and cool white indifference but black opposition of every color and hue-colleagues whose egos he bruised, rivals who thought he was moving too fast or too slow, and the apathies of rich and poor, mired in their own privileges and miseries. In hindsight, King's achievements seem shrouded in a romantic mist of inevitability. The titles of the leading biographies-Let the Trumpet Sound, Bearing the Cross, and now Parting the Waters*-add to the impression of mighty, foreordained triumph. But what's striking about Taylor Branch's terrific book is how mightily uninevitable King's victories seemed at the time.

Parting the Waters is both a biography and a wideangled history of the civil rights movement. As the first volume of a planned two-pan work, its 886 pages cover King to 1963, and Branch's meticulous research laces the saga with nuance and irony. There is news in his additions to the story of the FBI's dishonor, but much of the book's joy is simply in the reading. This is a work powered by narrative, and Branch's prose shines: King's aide 'Jerked and crackled across Shiloh's floor like a downed power line"; against blacks, 'Justice was a fast waterslide to jail."

Branch doesn't speculate on what the civil rights movement might have looked like without King, but the reader begins to wonder. To be sure, there would have been a movement without him. But it's doubtful that it would have earned its revered place in American mythology. When people take to the streets, even for a righteous cause, there's no guarantee of a happy ending. Certainly the antiwar crusade left no comparable moral glow. In delivering his cause to its mythological resting ground, King was the survivor of a thousand scrapes with doubt and disaster.

'Let me think about it'

There wasn't much in King's childhood that indicated the gestation of great religious or racial leadership. King did have a traumatic encounter with segregation's harsh heart when a six-year-old white friend obeyed his father's command to stop playing with "the nigger kid" King. In a calm voice at the evening dinner table, King told his parents he hated white folks, and Branch argues tha"anger remained buried within him." But the college King was a loafing student with nondescript grades and little interest in campus activism. He was also something of a dandy, both in the clothes he wore and the words he used: when a professor once asked how he was, King responded, "I surmise that my physical equilibrium is organically quiescent."

One odd foreshadowing of things to come lay in King's silent acceptance of his father's frequent whippings. Unlike his brother and sister, King never wept, and he refused to comply when Daddy King devised a new system to have the children take the strap to one another. Though young M.L. would willingly receive the stinging strap, he refused to apply it. King's sponge-like absorption of sorrow and guilt confounded his family again after his brother A.D. slid down a bannister and flattened King's revered grandmother. As the anxious family gathered around the reviving Grandma Williams, M.L. ran upstairs and flung himself from a window.

In graduate school at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, King grew more serious in his intellectual habits and showed a particular concern with questions of theodicy: How to reconcile God's love and power with the presence of worldly evil? Searching for an answer, King steeped himself in Gandhi and Niebuhr, but his inquiry remained cerebral rather than activist.

That suited the members of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church just fine. The statusconscious professionals of King's first church were looking for a pastor not a prophet. Of prophets they had had enough in three years of Vernon Johns, an eminent theologian of unparalleled eccentricity. Though Johns shared the theological stature of eminences like Mordecai Johnson, he possessed none of their polish, arriving for sermons sockless in mud-spattered shoes. He offended half of the Dexter Avenue's mannered membership with his confrontational politics (delivering a protest sermon called "It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery") and the other half with his barnyard ways (another sermon was entitled "Mud is Basic"). Johns's proud parishioners would often find him peddling fish and watermelons on the s"I get forty calls about fish for every one about religion," Johns growled in defense and submitted his resignation five times. The distraught deacons finally accepted.

Against his wife's protest, the 25-year-old King left the relative racial enlightenment he had known in Boston (and Atlanta) for the deeper Deep South. Arriving there in 1954, the politics that first concerned him were those of his church, as he sought to establish control over the willful church elders. His first sermon detailed 34 specific demands, including a new electric water fountain. King conquered the deacons quickly but grew bored. A year after his arrival, he was contemplating a deanship at Dillard University in New Orleans when Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat.

"Let me think about it and you call me back," King told E.D. Nixon, a local NAACP official, when Nixon asked him to endorse the boycott plans. King was simply one of several dozen ministers who Nixon contacted and by no means the most likely leaden King took control by way of a compromise: more experienced leaders had too many factional enemies. Cynics speculated later that, expecting defeat, the others may have set King up to take the blame.

The boycotters' initial goals appear in retrospect embarrassingly modest. They planned a one-day protest; it stretched on for a year. And they weren't even calling for integration. The boycotters' first demands still had blacks filling the bus from the back and whites sitting in front; they simply asked for more flexibility concerning where the races would meet (so blacks wouldn't have to stand when there were empty white seats).

But once the boycott began, King found himself riding a wave of unimagined power. Like the others, King was stunned to find the buses completely empty as the first morning dawned over the boycott. King's initial inclination, shared by others, was to call it off and use the day's success as a weapon of negotiation, before the boycott inevitably unraveled. But that evening, more than 10,000 people flocked to church to hear King speak, and there was no turning back. In the subsequent months, King was thrown into the role of negotiator, fundraiser, orator, and master logistician. To keep the movement going, he had to coordinate 20,000 carpool rides a day, cajoling the use of almost every black-owned automobile in town. Another 20,000 or so black workers had to walk to work each day, through rain, mud, and winter. "My feets is tired but my soul is rested," one tenacious commuter assured King, providing the movement with its echoing refrain.

King's phone rang incessantly with complaints and occasionally with death threats. After his first arrest (for doing an alleged 30 mph in a 25 mph zone) King trembled in the back of the cruiser. As unfamiliar neighborhoods flew past, he worried that a lynch mob waited ahead. The sight of the garish neon "Montgomery City Jail" filled him first with relief and then again with fear. A bomb exploded outside his home. A shotgun blast ripped through the window. Thurgood Marshall called him a "boy on a man's errand." Daddy King told him to quit; God, speaking to King in his kitchen, told him to persevere.

When a federal court finally struck down Montgomery's segregation edict as unconstitutional, Time put a triumphant King on the cover. But up close, King "projected a doe-like vulnerability"' Branch says. Meeting later with a wary Harry Belafonte, King told him, "I have no idea where this movement is going."

The pajamas

So much changed so quickly in the American South, due in large part to King himself, that it takes an act of concentration to imagine how bleak things appeared at the time. Bombed churches can seem romantic in retrospect; while they evoke suffering, they sing of righteousness and community as well. But more typically, the hum of gathering violence induced a lonely, nauseous anxiety. King himself came within a breath of death in 1958 when he was stabbed at a book signing party in Harlem. He went to a hospital with the hilt projecting from his chest. The surgeon said a sneeze could have killed him.

The enenlies of integration had more than violence in their arsenal. They had formidable legal powers as well, which they could train on the slightest indiscretion. Tennessee officials raided the Highlander Folk School, a training ground for civil disobedience, and found a washtub of iced beer next to a coin jar. They closed the school for selling alcohol without a license, revoked its charter, and auctioned off its land, books, and buildings. King personally discovered the variety of his enemies' weapons following his victory in Montgomery. During the bus boycott, King had handled tens of thousands of dollars and kept few receipts. The state returned the favor by charging him with felony tax evasion, punishable by up to a dozen years in prison. King's own lawyers doubted his innocence and his accountant fleeced him with exorbitant Never before or after was King so distraught. . ." Branch If convicted. . .he would take to prison the tarnished public image of a lying, greedy, sham preacher. This was everything King had resolved most devoutly not to be. . .'" King was saved from his chaotic financial records by his habit of keeping a precise diary detailing his expenses. Still, the verdict of innocence from an all-white jury struck the judge as "the most surprising thing in my 34 years as a lawyer."

In the aftermath of the boycott victory, King sailed high but in no clear direction. His late-fifties plunge into the eccentric world of integrationists brought him face to face with a variety of zealots, and he struggled, Branch says, "to distinguish between kooks and quixotics of promise."

Tactically, King was at an impasse. He traveled at a staggering pace-an estimated 780,000 miles and 200 speeches a year. But facing his audiences, "King himself was surer what they should think than what they should do." He faced the "evangelist's curse" of "tear-streaked faces" but lives left untransformed.

King faced something of an existential impasse, too: who am I? he sometimes wondered. Inspired by the classless unity of the boycott months, King felt divided against himself. When he and Coretta moved back to Atlanta in 1960, King chose a modest house, drove an old car, and irritated Atlanta's black aristocrats with what they perceived as conspicuous humility; yet Coretta brought her cook from Montgomery and moved easily in high society. King wore silk pajamas in jail, vacationed in Martha's Vineyard, and worried that his pleasure in golf was too frivolously bourgeois.

In one post-Montgomery speech, King almost came unhinged, railing against both the poor (they may not be able to buy perfume in Paris, he said, but they could afford a nickel bar of soap) and the educated ("I have met more school teachers recently. . .who wouldn't know a verb if it was as big as that table") . Quick to recognize the significance of the emerging student movement, King was hesitant to share its risks, exploding, "I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha." Both King and the students reeled in embarrassed surprise as his Christ complex was laid naked.

As America turned a corner into the 1960s, the quickening pace of the civil rights movement caught almost everyone by surprise, and King was no exception. In Atlanta, the student leaders of a 1961 campaign of sit-ins and boycotts heckled senior black ministers for accepting a settlement that gave the Chamber of Commerce the upper hand. When Daddy King assured the y"I've been around this kind of thing for 30 years," a student shot back, "That's what's wrong!" Witnessing his father's berating, King launched into a furious speech on the "cancer of disunity." The thunder of his formidable oratory kept the pact intact, but generational tensions continued to grow.

In the fall of 1961, King encountered opposite generational problems when his attempt to enlist the black National Baptist Convention in the cause of civil rights met a bitter defeat at the annual convention. With King backing a pro-civil rights challenger to the reigning Baptist monarch, J.H. Jackson, a riot broke out on the convention floor. The tumult knocked a Jackson supporter from the platform, fracturing his skull, and he slipped into a coma and died. Jackson, his power preserved, denounced King as a "murderer," and it was only the indifference of white media to black preacher politics that kept the ignominious events from wider broadcast.

Controversy within the movement continued to stalk King the following year when the leaders of mass demonstrations in Albany, Georgia sought his help and then blamed him for securing few concessions. Gazing back, King rued his arrival as a fireman, criticized for a blaze he didn't start. It had been six years since Montgomery, and King had been responding more than attacking. Dispatching aides Andrew Young and Wyatt Tee Walker to case Birmingham, King, for the first time, moved into "the conscious, advance selection of strategies and tactics'"

They scouted the city with military thoroughness. Walker had phone committee lists, transportation lists, jail lists, mail lists, food provision lists, layout charts of segregated lunch counters, and secret maps for marching there. He knew to the second how long it took old people to march there and how long it took the young. But for all the planning, Birmingham in the end was a cold, faithful plunge. The "mountain of lists and calculations seemed pitifully small next to the core identity of an American city" as fiercely segregated as Birmingham.

In retrospect, the use of children against police dogs and fire hoses seems an act of genius. The socalled complexities of race relations were shrunk to a stunningly simple portrait of might versus right. But had the crazy days of the siege played out in only a slightly different fashion, the image bequeathed would not have been King the Moral Emancipator but King the Cynical Opportunist, dispatching children into riots.

Of Kennedys and Kings

King's fights with the black radicals and white conservatives linger on in memory, but what's easily forgotten, now that King rests secure in the liberal pantheon, are the liberal attacks with which he contended. He achieved acclaim, to be sure, but never the respectability of a Roy Wilkins or Thurgood Marshall, who denounced him as a "first-rate rabble rouser'" It was the criticisms of liberals, after all, that prompted King's Birmingham letter. From a cell in solitary confinement, King read a smuggled copy of the Birmingham News, finding on page two a short story in which his former white allies denounced him, calling the demonstrations "unwise and untimely'" Angry and hurt, King began penning his reply on the newspaper itself, twisting his sentences, Branch reports, past pest control ads and the garden club news. "I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait. ..'" King wrote, before launching a sentence of more than 300 words at his liberal critics, beginning with "But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers. . ." and ending with "then you will understand. . . ." Back at the Gaston Motel, King's aides puzzled over his fixation, typing the sheafs of smuggled paper that filtered back for several days and that eventually filled 20 pages. No ncwspaper mentioned it for a month.

The Kennedys offer a fitting example of the liberal unease with King, alternately bailing him from prison, saving his life from rioters, and tapping his phone, This book brings a sense of irony to the black velvet paintings of King with the two slain Kennedys that decorate the walls of countless homes throughout the South. They were antagonists as much as allies. In further irony, what John Kennedy did share with King was a habit of sexual recklessness that gave J. Edgar Hoover his advantage. By Branch's evidence, Robert Kennedy had vacillated over the idea of bugging King until he learned that Hoover had files on the president's White House affair with Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German spy. (This echoed a then-unknown 1940s affair between JFK and Inga Arvad, who was similarly deported for reasons of national security.) If Branch's information is correct, this is a sordid matter: The microphones went under King's bed at least in part to silence the FBI about what had taken place in JFK's.

The famed JFK phone call to Coretta during King's imprisonment in the 1960 campaign-which may have tipped the electoral balance Kennedy's way-was placed casually at the urging of Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver, notoriously suspect in campaign circles for their softness. Robert Kennedy, fearful of alienating southern white voters, threw a fit when he learned of the call-then, inexplicably, called the judge a few days later, gaining King's release.

Even when King was basking in the postBirmingham glory of the summer of 1963, John Kennedy regarded him as too dangerous to embrace with public zeal. He remained shuttered inside the White House when King marched on Washington, the easier to dissociate himself if the demonstration went awry. And, offering another fitting image of liberal ambivalence toward King, The Washington Post's coverage of the march quoted instead A. Philip Randolph. Readers that day had to turn to The New York Times to learn that Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream.

The strength and variety of the forces arrayed against him simply make King's achievements that much more impressive. Combined with his own confusions, they restore him from mythology to the more impressive level of man. How, then, did he do it?

The nuances of Branch's study suggest a few wrinkles to the standard stories of King's success. In a movement that had to embrace both the prosperous (white and black) and the dispossessed, King embodied what Branch calls both "the common and the exalted'" When King's first cellmates clamored for his help, he "Fellows, before I can assist in getting any of you out, I've got to get my own self out"-combining the folksy "fellows" and "My own self' with the refined "assist.'"

King's years of theological study had laid the intellectual groundwork for his leadership and his powers of oratory were essential in projecting it, but in another way, it was King's inexperience that gave him an edge. Members of the NAACP had a stake in working through the courts. Rising pooh-bahs in the National Baptist Convention were staked to status anxiety and image inhibitions,

Without such harnesses, King was free to stumble into the power of direct action-or, perhaps more accurately, to allow its power and wisdom to issue forth from him, unthrottled. He was free, then, to welcome paradox-like the strength in nonviolent resistance. (Until King, lawyers had dominated the civil rights movement, and paradox is scarcely a quality dear to the legal mind.) When nonviolence flowed from him, it had an element of existential genius. No more need to wait on courts, lawyers, timing, shifts in your oppressors' heart: Just get off the bus, Gus. Act free and you are free.

America's racial revolution of the past 30 years is a source of both vast hope and a little fear, for it suggests how much and how fast a society can change under the spell of new energy and a few ingenious leaders. In the hands of King, that change made us a better nation than we might ever have hoped. But societies that change fast don't necessarily change well. More optimistically, one wonders who, if any, are the current Kings among us, planting the flag on new moral ground that we'll occupy before we know-that we're not yet even sure is more moral. Perhaps in 30 years, like today's abashed former segregationists, we'll turn to our children and explain that our tolerance of homelessness, or nuclear weapons, or legalized abortion, or the death penalty, or the despair of the black underclass was. . .er. . .well, complicated at the time.
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Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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