Light and Dark

Reading between the lines.
June 24 1998 3:30 AM

Light and Dark

Why the civil rights movement fell apart.

Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

By John Lewis, with Michael D'Orso

Simon & Schuster; 496 pages; $26

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King was beatified because he died dramatically with his sins unknown and the civil rights movement still seen as an epic gathering of heroes. Hero worship dominated the story from the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s through the Reaganaut '80s, when writers finally began to acknowledge that the civil rights establishment had just as many fakers as saints. The inner workings of King's organization have yet to be fully revealed. But enough has been said to show that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a cult of personality in which King's lieutenants covered up his sexual peccadilloes and vied obscenely for his attention and the chance to succeed him in the public eye.

Advertisement

The tale of the selfless prophets is giving way to a more realistic but no less amazing story of how egoists, hustlers, and sensualists rose above their failings to remake the United States. In his memoir, Walking With the Wind, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., pushes this new openness a good deal further. He speaks bluntly about the movement's faults--and his own--during his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. SNCC was SCLC's chief competitor and the principal operator in the dangerous voting rights campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama. Lewis respected his civil rights forefathers but did not worship them. A decade younger than King and substantially more aggressive, he regularly dismissed the advice of bigwigs like King and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, pursuing a course far more radical than theirs in the deep South. But what is freshest about Walking With the Wind is that Lewis is equally candid about the class conflicts that afflicted the modern civil rights movements from the very beginning. Tensions between the uneducated rural poor and the urban intellectuals were glaringly obvious to African-Americans, but largely invisible to the white press and the historians who succeeded them.

Thirty years is less than the blink of an eye in human history. Yet it was that recently that black people in Alabama or Mississippi were arrested, beaten, fired from their jobs, and even lynched for trying to vote. The campaign that overturned American apartheid was a potent form of theater, in which demonstrators embraced the opportunity to be shot, gassed, and thrashed in order to generate outrage against Southern racism. The most harrowing parts of this book tell of Lewis and the integrated teams of Freedom Riders who rode on buses through the South to test federal laws that forbade segregation in interstate transport. One bus was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. The bus was surrounded by a mob that had lynching on its mind until an undercover policeman got off the bus brandishing his pistol. A Freedom Riders bus carrying Lewis had the unfortunate experience of arriving in Montgomery, Ala. The mob that came to savage them bore a striking resemblance to the flesh-eating zombies in the cult movie Night of the Living Dead:

And then, out of nowhere, from every direction, came people. White people. Men, women and children. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Out of alleys, out of side streets, around the corners of office buildings. ... They carried every makeshift weapon imaginable. Baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, even garden tools--hoes and rakes. One group had a woman in front, their faces twisted in anger, screaming, "Git them niggers, GIT them niggers." ... And now they turned to us, this sea of people, more than three hundred of them, shouting and screaming, men swinging fists and weapons, women swinging heavy purses, little children clawing with their fingernails at the faces of anyone they could reach. ... I could see Jim Zwerg now, being horribly beaten. Someone picked up his suitcase, which he had dropped, and swung it full force against his head. Another man lifted Jim's head and held it ... while others, including women and children, scratched at Jim's face. His eyes were shut. He was unconscious. ... At that instant I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing.

John Lewis

SNCC pioneered the strategy of trading fractured skulls for press attention and moral outrage. This seems coldblooded--until the reader considers that Lewis thrust himself into the most dangerous confrontations. Lewis' admirers called it bravery. Lewis called it "redemptive suffering," a concept he picked up from studying Gandhi, among others. But what it amounted to was putting yourself forward to be beaten, possibly to death, day after day, week after week, month after month. What would drive someone to do this is still an enigma to me.

The method succeeded to perfection when Alabama state troopers bludgeoned and tear-gassed the Selma march led by Lewis in 1965. King had skipped the march, fearful of the violence. But "Bloody Sunday" at Selma outraged the nation and gave President Lyndon Johnson cover to press for the Voting Rights Act. Wildly successful, the Selma campaign nonetheless marked the beginning of the end for the movement. The civil rights coalition was tearing itself apart in disputes over tactics, money, and who would get the most exposure in the press.

Egos were clearly at issue. But so were the antagonisms that had long separated middle- and upper-class blacks from their sharecropper cousins. A blatant elitism infested the movement for racial uplift from the outset. The first civil rights leaders were from the mulatto elite, which historically discriminated against darker-skinned blacks and held many of the same ideas about them that whites did. These antipathies mellowed into condescension in W.E.B. Du Bois, a scion of the fair-skinned elite, a co-founder of the NAACP, and the first black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Du Bois' racial philosophy emerged in his essay on "the talented tenth," assigned the task of lifting up the rest. Du Bois wrote, "Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, a surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground."

Lewis had lots of experience with snobbery from high-toned Negroes. The NAACP in particular was chock full of fair-skinned members of the black middle class. Lewis, by contrast, was darker-skinned and had been raised in poor, rural Alabama. His accent and modest, even diffident, manner led the Negro leaders to view him as much less than he was. Lewis describes the civil rights elite as bourgeois folks who enjoyed fund-raisers but had never known the billy club and "tended to look down through a telescope at the little people." Meeting with Wilkins to plan the March on Washington in 1963, Lewis found himself being treated like a hick.

Julian Bond

The most complex tensions were between Lewis and his close colleague Julian Bond, whose father was a pillar of Atlanta's Negro elite and a close friend of Du Bois'. Bond must have found it satisfying to be accepted by a black person who had been raised hard--and who was not from the affluent set. The official line is that Lewis and Bond were fast friends when they were in SNCC together but fell out in 1986, when they both ran for the same congressional seat. Walking With the Wind tells a different story. Lewis hints at secret annoyance with Bond from the first mention, in which he writes that Julian was "like most of the Atlanta members, more upper crust than those of us from Nashville." Lewis portrays SNCC's Atlanta branch as being made up of well-off Negroes who carped all the time.

The split seemed to come in 1969, when Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia state Legislature and became the darling of the American left's radical chic set. Lewis advised Bond to stay at home in Atlanta, build a political machine, and run for Congress. Bond rejected this advice. But a quarter of a century later, the two faced off in a bitter campaign for the 5th congressional district seat. Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, and the mulatto elite dismissed Lewis and lined up behind Bond. Late in the book, Lewis remarks bitterly on press coverage that referred to Bond as "light-skinned, dashing, erudite, articulate" and to Lewis as "short, squat, thick-necked, balding, dark, scowling, a sharecropper's son." Influential blacks from around the country advised him to quit the race and leave the seat to the man many of them viewed as its rightful heir. Still angry, Lewis writes, "Throughout my years in the movement ... people had always underestimated me ... often in the end to their dismay."

  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Dec. 18 2014 9:03 AM We Were Doing It Wrong: The Very First Political Gabfest Watch Emily, John, and David review their inaugural Gabfest from 2005.