Printer Friendly

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. III: Birth of a New Age.

Claybome Carson, ed. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. III: Birth of a New Age. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 566 pp. $40.00.

The third volume of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Birth of a New Age: December 1955-December 1956, covers the beginning of the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 January 1929-4 April 1968) in America. These speeches, minutes, letters, and photographs chronicle King's emergence as a public figure on the national and international stage in Montgomery, Alabama--"the cradle of the Confederacy." We see King's growth as a leader through his interaction with people who became the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the modern Civil Rights Movement in America, though the focus was decidedly with the men who led the pulpit fraternity. These papers have been prepared for The Center for Nonviolent Social Change by a team led by Clayborne Carson. Under the leadership of its founder, Mrs. Coretta Scoot King, The Center for Nonviolent Social Change plans to publish a multi-volume series to preserve the intellectual legacy of Martin Luther King. Jr.

Volumes I and II present King in domestic society as an ideal son and brother, and as an ideal spouse and father. As a student and a preacher of growing renown, he is as concerned with the social registry of Black America as he is with the social justice agenda of the historic black church. However, in Montgomery in 1954, "the man and the hour have met" with a different outcome than William Yancey had in mind when he had introduced Jefferson Davis as the new president of the Confederacy in this capital city nearly one hundred years before with those same words in a spot near the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that King was called to pastor. When Rosa Parks, a seamstress and former secretary of the local NAACP branch, was arrested on 1 December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, JoAnn Robinson and the Women's Political Council initiated a bus boycott. The community responded with a mass meeting. Led by King, the 382-day Montgomery Bus Boycott was heard, and seen, around the world an d forever changed the course of American history.

Propelled by grass-roots groups and buttressed by a black middle class that reflected the growing self-confidence of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, the King in Volume III emerges as an American David. Like his Biblical counterpart, the twenty-six-year-old preacher, with his newly minted doctorate in Systematic Theology from Boston University, did not seek the position of leadership of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA); however, once called, he led the fight that eventually would break the backbone of the American Goliath of racism in Alabama. Two events in January 1956--his arrest and incarceration for allegedly speeding and the bombing of his house--brought King's personal life into the larger context of Black America's struggle for justice and dignity. Though the political situation is at times dark and tense, we experience a certain vicarious thrill in witnessing the growing self-confidence with which King engineers a successful resolution of the Montgom ery Bus Boycott.

Even in the midst of his darkest moments, King, like David, continually "strengthened himself in the Lord his God" (I Sam. 30:6) and lived in humility among his fellows (I Sam. 18:18, 23). He showed consideration and respect for the enemies of justice, while refusing to compromise on the community's ultimate goal, the end of Jim Crow laws. During 1955-1956, a time that catapulted him to international prominence, King, one can argue, was "a man after his [God's] own heart" (I Sam. 13:14). With the support of his community and progressive whites, King helped usher in a new era in the reconstruction of democracy in America.

King gave his initial Civil Rights address as President of the MIA to an overflow crowd at the spacious Holt Street Baptist Church on 5 December 1955. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, King wanted to address the weight of history (black people's anger over their degradation) without bringing down the wrath of the white city fathers in this rigidly segregated police state. He later recalled the questions in his mind as he considered what to say: "How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?"

Couched in Christian rhetoric, the speech not only set the tone for the Montgomery Bus Boycott but contained in broad outline themes that King would later refine into his Gandhian-influenced philosophy of non-violence. The pulsating core of his speech was the redemptive power of love. He reminded his audience that they were American citizens and Christians, loved democracy, were loyal to their country (to deflect charges of a Communist-led movement in Cold War America), and were the disinherited of this land. Here King echoed the Bible of black theology, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), by Howard Thurman, the spiritual father of the modem Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, King told the mass meeting that they were gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church because they were "tired," a word that cut to the core of their being. King later used this word as the leitmotif in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (16 April 1963), one of the great epistles in twentieth-century Christendom. Though he quoted Booker T. Was hington, King, hearkening back to Christian martyrs and to David Walker and Nat Turner, stressed that some members of the peace-loving community may have to die in the cause for freedom--which proved to be prophetic. In short, King signaled to these grandchildren of former slaves that "the road of submission and accommodation," as his Morehouse schoolmate Lerone Bennett, Jr., observed in What Manner of Man, "had been closed, perhaps forever." Overnight, King became a household name and much in demand as a speaker. With each small victory in the 382-day bus boycott, King, ably supported by Ralph David Abernathy, extended the horizon of the possible as he stood on the shoulders of ordinary people exerting extraordinary effort.

Worth Littlejohn Barbour conveyed the surprise of many of his peers at King's transformation in his 2 April 1956 letter: "It was almost inconceivable a few years ago that you, 'Mike' King, would have been the chosen one to lead the redemption of the Southland. The Un-finished Task is your lot." In these days of Civil Rights innocence (before the howling critics of the 1960s had gathered themselves), people of all stripes generally accepted King's leadership and judgment, though the cordiality of the letters exchanged between A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins belie the tension that existed between these Civil Rights warriors and the young lion in the street. Buoyed by the profile in courage of

Montgomery's 50,000 black people, they contributed their time, talent, and money, as is evident in the many letters and telegrams that King received by the basketful from a cross section of blacks and whites, such as Benjamin E. Mays, W. E. B. Du Bois, Lillian Smith, Asa Philip Randolph, Ella J. Baker, Roy Wilkins, Ralph J. Bunche, Medgar Wiley Evers, St. Clair Drake, William Stuart Nelson, Richard Bartlett Gregg, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bayard Rustin. For example, Lillian Eugenia Smith offers King some tough love advice that he keep "the northern do-gooders [sincere and honest as they may be] out" (10 March 1956). Sounding like Malcolm X, she urges him to accept their assistance with publicity and money; however, he should tell them to practice what they preach in their Northern neighborhoods.

Three letters in mid-April 1956 testify to how Americans responded to King's call to justice--"love correcting that which revolts against love" (5 December 1955). The writers throw into bold relief issues of color, caste, class, and the psychic dissonance engendered by the ideology of white supremacy. The last two letters in this sequence are notable for the confessional tone and the silence that initially envelop the public lives of the writers. The hallmark of King's genius is that he moved this silent minority to shake the foundation of an immoral society.

On 12 April, James H. Davis sends King a check for twenty-six dollars that represents one hour of pay from the Skycap Local 297 of the United Transport Service Employees, AFL-CIO, at the Newark Airport, New Jersey. This was a magnificent gesture on the part of those who were one step away from the bottom rung on the ladder of the American Dream.

On 13 April, Glenn E. Smiley, a white Alabama pastor, describes a successful 6 April 1956 meeting of seventy white ministers from all over the state who agreed to meet again to release a public statement encouraging a "liberal approach to racial conflict." While telling King of their attempt to find common ground, Smiley, as if speaking for the white clergy in the South, confesses that there was "a good deal of feeling of guilt and repentance that they had done so little and had allowed the church to be pushed about so much" (13 April 1956).

On 14 April, Jewelle Taylor, who was acquainted with King when he attended Boston University, confronts the color bar that stands between the "talented tenth" and the American Dream: "In my Ivory Tower at Radcliffe I never envisioned the problems I would face as a Negro in the South and still in many areas in the North." She admits that Coretta and he "are living examples of the new generation of Negro leaders who, through perseverance and intelligent methods, are effectively tearing down the last vestiges of separate and unequal facilities." As a result of their action, they inspire assimilated blacks like her join the fight to end racial segregation in America.

Reading between the lines of the advice offered to King by prominent black and white Americans in these letters, one senses the first stirrings in. King's evolution in thought away from the NAACP protest tradition and the gradualistic tactics of organizations like the interracial Alabama Council on Human Relations, which King served as a vice president. He gradually begins to plumb the depths of black religious tradition and tap into its reservoir of strength and psychic energy as he comes to grips with a "philosophy born of struggle."

Finally, the new medium of television contributed mightily to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It enabled King to go directly over the heads of America's racial gatekeepers and appeal to the residue of good will in Christian America. The pictures of well-dressed, organized, churchgoing black people played itself out nightly in the living rooms of white America and forced whites to confront their American dilemma. King thus moved the national conversation on race from monologue to dialogue.

Volume III of the King Papers provides a much-needed intertext to the histories and memoirs of the historic Montgomery year and forms a nice companion to the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize. King articulated the politics of nonviolence in Stride toward Freedom (1958), his book about the boycott--the first organized, disciplined, and sustained mass movement on the part of blacks in America. (There was a direct correlation between its success and the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as Bayard Rustin notes in his white paper.) The Montgomery Bus Boycott sharpened the fight for interpretative control of the social text called AMERICA as black and white leaders gradually came to realize its domino effect on public policy. Failure was not an option. In this regard, the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott may be viewed as Black America's Lexington and Concord, where freedom was born in "the cradle of the Confederacy." Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., an American David, Montgomery made possi ble the latter victories in Greensboro, Selma, Birmingham, Little Rock, and other places forgotten by history, as Tom Dent notes in Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997).
COPYRIGHT 2001 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hubbard, Dolan
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion.
Next Article:Those Bones Are Not My Child.

Related Articles
Jesse Jackson and the politics of race.
Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Called to Serve January 1929-June 1951, vol. 1.
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 1, Called to Serve.
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: vol. 2,-Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955.
In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (eye).
Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (children's reviews).
I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.
Read About Martin Luther King Jr.
Myers, W.D.: I've Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters