King's Legacy

Harvard Sitkoff
King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop
Hill and Wang, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr. has already gotten more than his one annual day of remembrance this year. For reasons worthy—the ascension of Barack Obama as a leading candidate for president—and less so—the comments by Hillary Clinton yoking King’s legacy to Lyndon B. Johnson’s good deeds, MLK’s ghost has hovered over the political campaign. As the 40-year anniversary of King’s death approaches in early April, we can surely expect another round of public testimony from politicians and pundits ever in search of platitudes.

Few, if any, of the tributes capture the full spectrum of King’s message at the time of his assassination. At the MLK Day tribute at BAM this past month, Mayor Bloomberg invoked the “mountaintop” that King said he had reached the night before his death. Senator Schumer, meanwhile, said that the quest for “social justice” was not finished. That Wall Street’s greatest allies could make such statements as Brooklyn’s low-income neighborhoods (not to mention global financial markets) reeled from the sub-prime crisis was bad enough; that neither pro-war politician made any connection between the U.S. spending billions daily in Iraq, and relatively nothing on poverty here at home, insulted King’s legacy.

Yet King, as historian Harvard Sitkoff reminds us, was a warrior in the battles for peace and genuine social justice. Author of several important works on the Civil Rights era, including The Struggle for Black Equality (1993), Sitkoff here brings together the voluminous recent scholarship on King. While the works of Clayborne Carson, Taylor Branch, and David Garrow are landmark achievements, they also qualify as heavy lifting. Sitkoff here offers an excellent and necessary short biography. And as he suggests, King’s belief that “Freedom is a constant struggle” is a lesson that “remain[s] to be learned.”

In Sitkoff’s telling, King emerges as both a great leader and a fully human figure, with his own considerable strengths and distinct weaknesses. Most notable in the latter category, of course, was King’s insatiable sexual appetite. Although a bit titillating at times, Sitkoff’s account shows how King’s extra-marital trysts at times jeopardized both his position and the success of the movement. Hostile to civil rights, and to sex in general, F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover certainly had the dirt on King, and the only wonder is why he never fully used it.

In his chapters on various familiar events in King’s life, Sitkoff successfully recreates the spirit of the times by documenting the call and response that took place in King’s speeches. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, Sitkoff follows a statement from King, “We are not struggling merely for the right of Negroes but for all the people of Montgomery, black and white. We are determined to make America a better place for all people, black and white,” with “Doctor, Doctor,” “Tell it now!” Here and elsewhere, the snippets of church response show King in dialogue with the everyday people who sustained the civil rights movement.

As the movement grew, more voices contributed to the conversation, and King had to negotiate between many different factions: a Kennedy administration intent on placating Southern Democrats; Southern white liberals who didn’t want to push too fast; other civil rights groups reluctant to share the spotlight; and last but not least, SNCC and the rising wave of younger black activists who increasingly demanded real change, and who questioned King’s nonviolent tactics. Moreover, the enemy—white segregationists—was not just violent, but sometimes smart. Sitkoff shows that King’s efforts in Albany, Georgia in 1962 failed in large part because the police chief, Laurie Pritchett, “had done his homework. Having read King’s Stride Towards Freedom and Gandhi’s essays, he understood the dynamics of political theater. The police chief overcame Gandhian nonviolent protest with nonviolent law enforcement.”

In a very real sense, King’s approach depended on the fire hoses and bull whips to come out—such senseless brutality promised to shock the nation’s conscience. After the setback in Albany, the next major theater was in Birmingham. In early May of 1963, a more radical member of King’s SCLC, James Bevel, convinced the group’s leadership that high school students, rather than weary adults, could provide the troops for a confrontational march. (Malcolm X criticized the move, insisting that “Real men don’t put their children on the firing line.”) Unlike Pritchett, Birmingham’s Bull Connor couldn’t contain his venom, unleashing the fire hoses and attack dogs on the students. The national and international outcry produced a victory for King and the movement.

The Birmingham incident, which was followed in the late summer of 1963 by the March on Washington, ratcheted up the pressure on JFK to pass civil rights legislation. After JFK’s assassination, LBJ came into office sympathetic to such legislation, but cautious in proceeding forward. In June of 1964, King’s attempt to eat at a segregated lunch counter in Saint Augustine, Florida resulted in his being jailed for violating a local “unwanted guest” law. A white mob then attacked the hundreds of blacks who marched on King’s behalf. King’s goal of pressuring Congress to pass the civil rights bill succeeded.

When LBJ signed the historic legislation in early July of 1964, King attended the White House ceremony. The Civil Rights Act, he declared, “was first written on the streets,” and it “was not a product of the charity of White America for a supine Black America.” Such a view stands in sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. …[I]t took a president to get it done.” The real credit belongs to King and the many thousands of people who put their lives on the line for civil rights, not to the politicians who finally responded to the pressure.

The showdown at Selma in 1965 split the movement, with the more radical younger generation breaking away from King and moving toward Black Power. But the racist violence witnessed in Selma once again spurred federal action, causing LBJ to propose the Voting Rights Act and to famously echo the movement’s belief that “We shall overcome.” Of King’s impact on both pieces of legislation, Sitkoff writes, “Never before—or since—in American history had a private individual, holding no governmental position, used body and voice to affect public opinion so decisively and thereby induce such social and political change.” The goodwill between LBJ and King, of course, would be short-lived.

In the remaining few years of his life, King increasingly devoted his energies to leading what he termed a “world revolution” against “poverty, racism, and militarism.” King’s increasingly strident opposition to the Vietnam War made him persona non grata among LBJ and the liberal establishment. Undeterred, King confided to a longtime adviser, “I really feel that someone of influence has to say that the United States is wrong” in Vietnam. To challenge poverty and racism, King in the last year of his life helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign; and in the early spring of 1968 in Memphis, he marched with striking sanitation workers. Two weeks before his death, he declared that “America is going to hell [if it] does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.” Amen.

Fast forward four decades, and Barack Obama is a serious contender for the presidency. Throughout the campaign, Obama has impressed many commentators and voters alike for his apparent desire to embody King’s dream of being judged “not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” At the same time, Obama has consciously tried to carry the torch of King.

Witness the speech he gave at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on the Sunday before MLK Day. King, Obama said, “led with words, but he also led with deeds…He led by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and being away from his family. He led by taking a stand against a war, knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause discomfort.” In classic King style, Obama closed his speech with a crescendo: “In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone.” Beneath Obama’s sometimes cloying rhetoric about hope, change, and unity, there is real substance.

It is no stretch to say that Obama is the most gifted American orator since King. Unlike most politicians, Obama is an activist at heart. At the CNN debate on MLK Day, his response to the question of why King, if he were alive, should “endorse” him, was telling: “I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would do is hold us accountable,” Obama said. Power, he continued, flows from the “bottom-up.” As a candidate, Obama is far from perfect—he, too, has been much too friendly to Wall Street. But no matter what happens from here on out, his campaign has been an inspiring testament to King’s legacy.

Contributor

Theodore Hamm

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