Martin Luther King Jr.

Capturing the Movement
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 21 2002 6:53 PM

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Dear Ted,

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Picking on poor Marshall Frady; shame on you, you racist. What's so wrong with nerdy white guys in anachronistic formal wear? I, like you, go first to the author's photo. But, unlike you, who was obviously not raised the daughter of Great Depression, Great Migration sharecroppers, I am immediately comforted by the presence of nerdy, omnipotent white guys with suspenders and (certainly) pipes. In fact, I don't trust any other kind of author. Or doctor. Or politician. Or I-95 driver. Or person in possession of a wallet or pocket comb or pack of bubble gum in the presence of the police. Don't they know everything? Can't we, looking at their well-placed whiteness and resolute, if not testosteronic malenesss, rest assured that what we are about to read comes directly from God (the ultimate retro white man) himself? Commie. (And by the way; the "purge my sinful land" school of white liberals writing about the accursed South, using highly dramatic, Bible-flavored language"? My mother is from the Mississippi Delta and my father the Tennessee hills; I got no problem with that.)

I voted for doing this book because of Frady and his florid formulations. Five years ago, I reviewed his magisterial Jesse Jackson biography elsewhere and knew that if anyone could nail the Chicken McNugget school of biography distillation, Frady could. And did. If you've only got one evening to devote to Martin Luther King Jr., this is the book. I dreaded this enterprise for another reason, however. I revere King. I listen to a CD of his speeches, especially, of course, "I Have a Dream," again and again and again. I devour all the Civil Rights histories and biographies and am plowing through a thick tome of all his writings and sermons (some of "his," of course, being also large parts of someone else's, given his repeated plagiarisms). So, admiring him, I dread every new analysis of him, his work, and his life because of the likelihood that I'll learn ever more that diminishes him. There's so little left to believe in, and lightweights have so much to gain from pissing on their betters. (See the racist hoax-sites purporting to honor King, which are instead sites devoted to proving him subhuman; that being a philanderer [unlike with Jefferson] or a slave monger [again, see Jefferson] renders moot every other thing a great man ever did. I refuse to provide links to them but they are not hard to find.) But, reverence can't be sustained by ignorance, so I read everything of substance written about that brilliant, troubled, melodramatic man with a death wish. (Were you as surprised as I to read of his two pubescent suicide attempts? Jesus, what drama over his grandmamma! Black men are the worst mama's boys on the planet.)

Frady's book, short though it is, definitely helps complicate the man for me. In large part, this happens through Frady's renderings of his relations with others in the Movement. You expect calumny from the Klansmen and the mainstream media—the status quo works real well for them, then and now. How easy it was (and is) for the Brahmins at the New York Times and the Justice Department and klan klavens or klugels or klatches, whatever those bozos call themselves, to write blacks off for being impatient over their utter lack of civil rights. But when I read of how young SNCC militants (a word I use without negative connotation) used to mock and dismiss King by calling out, "De lawd! De lawd now!" when he spoke, it's a knife in my heart. They thought King a bourgie princeling (true enough) who was only playing at revolution (wrong!) while really fearing to risk his pampered neck by going for broke (in most cases, by marching when the courts had enjoined him from it or when whites reeeeaaally didn't want him to). In one passage I will locate two seconds after I hit the send button, two SNCC hotheads (a word I use with great approval) were disgusted by the sight of MLK having a pajama-clad, hotel-room lunch while marchers were being brutalized by their white, Christian, intellectual, and moral superiors.

OK: At the time, I was a kindergartener whose uneducated, manual laboring parents neither marched nor would in a million years have allowed me to, but damn. Doesn't the brother get to sleep in and have lunch from time to time? Sure, Toussaint L'Ouverture slept in full battle dress, but did a 20th-century brother have to? What was he supposed to sleep in—slave rags? What was he supposed to eat around noon every day—bread and water? From a rusty pail while squatting? Given Frady's renderings of the Olympic-level, death-defying schtupping, drinking and ego cock fights going on behind the scenes, surely MLK caught everyone else lounging about (or worse) from time to time. Sheesh. Cut the brother a break. He was on the road 25-27 days a month. He donated all his prodigious earnings to the cause. Everybody but his mama (Daddy King was a real gem, wasn't he?) dogged him out, called him everything but a child of God. He went to jail: a lot and alone. He got spit on and hit with the same rocks as every other marcher. That letter was from the Birmingham jail, not the Birmingham Country Club. Cut the brother some slack.

But I wasn't there, was I? What do I know? How incredibly important this all was as it was happening, how incredibly portentous, how incredibly history-making. How high the cost of failure. How sure each player was of the rightness of his own mind's direction. I can't imagine what it must have been like to go to bed the night before the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma or to arrive 10 minutes late at the 16th Street Baptist Church and have just missed being bombed. Then to see the precious, Morehouse Fauntleroy hogging the tube. In the end, I have to bow to their greater claim on the conscience. They faced Bull Connor. I didn't. I never can. So I'll just keep reading about it.

And that's what this Penguin Lives offering does best, I think. Make clear how unclear the gains and losses of the Movement were as they were happening. How hard everyone was trying to get it right. Using kids when the turnout for marches got dangerously, unsustainably low—imagine how disastrous that might have turned out to be. How brave they all were. Anyone who doubts that can read Frady's section on how Bull Connor and his "men once herded some 165 young protesters all the way out of Selma into the open countryside at a jogging trot for about three miles." What kept them moving? Electric cattle prods.

Hey, Ted: Wanna talk about how sexist MLK and the Movement generally were? Frady doesn't have the space to mention it, but MLK wrote a column for Ebony magazine that was filled with tidbits about how women belonged at home, dressed to serve and entice their men. Also, notice that Rosa Parks didn't get to take the first symbolic, unsegregated bus ride with MLK after she took it upon her middle-aged, unprepossessing self to instigate it. Talk about ovaries! I met her once and drooled, with all the fervor of those who have never had to sacrifice much, over her while she largely ignored me.

With survivor's guilt,
Debra

Debra Dickerson is the author of The End of Blackness andAn American Story.

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