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Interview: Clayborne Carson
Carson is a professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 13, 2009.
What is it like to immerse yourself in the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King?
It's been an experience, because I learned a lot about a lot of subject matter that I would not have normally studied as a historian, particularly religion, particularly [King's] religious development from the time when he was living here in Atlanta, growing up the son of a minister but not wanting to be a minister, and all the way through his graduate school training and how those ideas developed over time.
Why didn't he want to be a minister?
I think part of it is the reaction of a lot of preachers' kids, that they want to do something else. They want to strike out on their own, but many of them become convinced that they're very good at that because they've grown up around it. They know what good preaching is, and certainly King had the understanding that that was one of his talents, one of his gifts.
“It diminishes King to call him a black civil rights leader, because the issues that he dealt with are much more fundamental than simply civil rights reform.”
And I think also he felt, at that time, that the preaching ministry was a very important function within the black community. Even more than now I think that, especially in the South, ministers provided a lot of the leadership in the black community, because there weren't a lot of lawyers and other professionals who now provide the political leadership.
And when did he feel that he actually thought this was what he should do with his life, be a minister?
He was still a teenager. He was going to Morehouse College. He entered at 15, and between his junior and senior years he was working in a tobacco farm in Connecticut, and during that time he was asked to perform the role of being a minister. ... And the other kids -- I call them kids, but they were all college students -- recognized that he had this special talent, so they asked him to serve as the minister during the summer. And I think it was after those experiences that he came to the realization that he had this calling. And he would tell his father, and his father was very happy, of course, to find that he would be following his father and his grandfather into the ministry. ... I guess he was 17 at the time.
Who were his father and grandfather, and what kind of men were they?
Martin Luther King grew up here in Atlanta with this background and these deep roots in the black Baptist Church. His great-grandfather had been a minister. His grandfather [A.D. Williams] had been a minister and civil rights leader. The Rev. A.D. Williams who had come to Atlanta in the 1890s from rural Georgia had been called to Ebenezer Baptist Church, and during the time when he led Ebenezer, he became very active in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], later headed the local chapter of the NAACP.
So by the time A.D. Williams died in 1931, and then King's father came as the son-in-law of the former minister -- he had married A.D. Williams' daughter -- and he took over Ebenezer early in the Depression era, and again, became a civil rights leader as well as a minister -- taking the lead in voting rights marches, he came to City Hall demanding the right to vote; led a movement to equalize the salaries for black and white teachers -- all of this during the time when King is growing up. King is born in 1929, so he's watching his father taking the lead in civil rights protests during the '30s and '40s.
By the time King goes to college in 1944, he's 15 years old, but he's already been exposed to activist ministry, not only his father's but Rev. [William Holmes] Borders', who preached at Wheat Street Baptist Church down Auburn Avenue from his father [and who] was even more outspoken on civil rights issues. So he had this experience with ministers who preached what I guess would be called a social gospel: that the spirit, the ideas of Jesus had a social implication, particularly coming out of the Sermon on the Mount, and that this meant that they had an obligation as ministers to not simply be concerned about the spiritual destiny of the congregation, whether they're going to go to heaven, but they had an obligation to provide some leadership here on earth to try to better the conditions.
Now, Daddy King -- that's what King Sr. was known by -- he preached a sermon or at least gave a talk to other ministers on what was the mission, what was the social function of the black minister, and he said that it's to carry out the social gospel. And he quoted Jesus quoting Isaiah about the need for the minister to care for those in need, basically, to be concerned about those who were at the bottom of the social order, to preach the Gospel to the poor. And this had a particular significance during the Depression era.
Actually, one of the things I found is that King often paraphrased his father in his own ministry. He grew up with this great concern, particularly about economic justice issues, about the wide disparity between the rich and the poor, and that this was in itself contrary to the teachings of Jesus, especially when it meant that those who are more privileged paid little attention, gave little care to the needs of those less fortunate.
Around the same time there were a lot of people in the U.S. looking at the same situations, and then looking toward Marxism, Leninism, communism as a possible answer.
Yeah, it was interesting that I think what Martin Luther King felt, and he stated this on a number of occasions, [was] that the real conflict in the world, intellectual conflict, was not between those who believed [in] unbridled capitalism versus those who believe in communism. It was really Christianity versus communism, because Christianity offered a more humane message and a concern for the problems of the less fortunate, so that he gives a sermon in 1953, "[Communism's Challenge] to Christianity," in which he makes the argument that Christians need to provide an alternative to communism.
Part of the reason why communism was thriving, particularly in the nonwhite nations of the world, in Africa and Asia, was because Christians had not recognized the revolutionary potential of their own religion. They had presented Christianity to the world basically as a part of imperialism, that the missionaries came with those who wanted to exploit the resources of the nonwhite world rather than coming with this message of liberation from oppression. So what that meant was that Communists had a field of their own in terms of providing an answer to those who were dissatisfied with the status quo.
That's very different from the message that, say, Billy Graham was preaching at the time
It definitely was. I think that King saw himself as a spokesperson for a kind of Christianity that had flourished within the black community, although it was not by any means the majority message. I would not say that most black ministers were preaching a social gospel, but there was a significant minority of black ministers who saw that they needed to interpret the message of Christianity to have some special meaning for those who are poor and oppressed minorities.
And you had theologians and ministers such as Howard Thurman, for example, [who] I think would be a really good example of someone who had an impact on King's thought. And he [Thurman] writes a book, Jesus and the Disinherited, in 1949, which has a tremendous impact. What he does is he goes back to the message of Jesus, and he says that, let's understand Jesus was a poor, oppressed minority leader in ancient Palestine, and that of course he was going to offer a message that helped the Jewish people survive under these conditions of oppression.
So by going back to that original message and seeing its radical implications, people like Thurman and others who followed this direction -- Vernon Johns would be another example -- all of these ministers were concerned about adapting Christianity to the needs of African Americans. And that's something that had been going on since the origins of the black church around the Revolutionary age. Richard Allen and the founding of the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] Church, and of course during the anti-slavery crusade, you had many people saying that the message of liberation from slavery is of course consistent with the message coming out of Exodus, that black people are like the ancient Jews under Moses and that they were taking a message that came from the Old Testament prophets and interpreted again by Jesus, and that once you go back to that, not as interpreted by the white Christian church but as understood by these black ministers who are preaching a message of liberation to the congregations, that this is truly a revolutionary philosophy. And that's what King picked up on. That's what he understood, and that's the direction that he wanted to take when he began his ministry in the late '40s.
What kind of revolution?
He understood it to be a nonviolent revolution, a gradual evolution in people's perspectives, because part of the message was one of liberation for the oppressed, but not at the expense of the oppressor. Part of the message was you had to get the oppressor and get people who are more fortunate to be more concerned about the needs of those who are less fortunate. King often said that the message was not that wealth was, per se, bad; what is bad is the perspective that often comes with wealth: lack of concern about those who are less fortunate, the tendency to walk past the person who is poor. Now, that's really what Christianity is all about. It's a mutual thing. It's that those who are oppressed need to find a way of liberating themselves. Those who are in the role of the oppressor need to find a way to be more concerned about those less fortunate. And if both of those things happen, then the message of Christianity comes through.
Can the oppressed actually, in some way, spark change within the oppressors by drawing attention to their situation or Jesus' message?
Of course. That's one of the things he found from civil disobedience. Unmerited suffering is a way of appealing to the conscience of those who are more fortunate and drawing attention to the plight of those who are less fortunate. So I think that he saw the similarity between Gandhian ideas and Christian ideas, and all of that of course came together in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
How did King end up in Montgomery, [Ala.]?
After he goes to Boston University [and] gets his doctorate in systematic theology, he and Coretta, they get married in 1953, and they both decide very consciously that they feel that they have responsibility to go back to the South and provide some leadership, because they see that this struggle is going to happen in the South. And next year, 1954, it's the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so everyone knows that the South is going to be the coming battleground on the issues of civil rights. And King and Coretta, they both had been educated outside the South. She had gone to Antioch [College in Ohio] before going to a conservatory [New England Conservatory] in Boston. So they had spent time outside the South, and they could have remained outside the South, and probably, on a personal level, that would have been a better choice. But both of them decide that their talents were needed in the South, and they needed to go back.
What happens to King in Montgomery?
I think at that point he started to boycott with the idea that nonviolence, coming out of the teachings of Jesus, [which] is obviously concerned with not using violence and not killing other people, ... at the beginning of the boycott that was sufficient. This was a way of reaching the people who were involved in the movement, of saying that what you were doing was consistent with Christianity, and in fact it is an expression of Christian ideals.
But gradually, he also began to see that there was something about the Gandhian tactics that fit those principles quite well. So during the course of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, what you see is that the tactics come together with this set of principles, both from Gandhi and from Christian teachings, and that becomes the heart of what King represents for the rest of his life. ...
When King begins his ministry and he becomes a minister, he's ordained before he goes off to Crozer Theological Seminary. When he arrives there, he comes with a perspective that is already concerned about social issues, about particularly the issue of economic justice. And what you see happening to him then is that he begins to develop a theology, and he's influenced, obviously, by the teachings that he gets in theological seminary, and he is inclined toward a liberal interpretation of Christian teaching.
But I think what is really striking is that his emphasis at the start of that is on these economic issues. He writes a paper in 1948. He just arrives at Crozer, and he's a new student, and he's asked to describe his mission as a minister. And it's a really interesting document, because he says that his ministry is going to be concerned [with] understanding the problems of the people that he's pastoring to, and particularly focusing on the issues of unemployment and slums and economic insecurity. He doesn't even mention civil rights. So he writes this in 1948. Look at what he's doing 20 years later. Memphis, Tenn.: What problems is he concerned about? Unemployment, slums, economic insecurity. He's leading striking garbage workers, speaking to them and talking about their needs.
So I think in some respects what happens in Montgomery is that Rosa Parks sets him on a different course; that when she takes her action of refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus, a movement starts. He has not too much to do with that. I mean, he's one of the people who supports the boycott, but really, the boycott is organized by black women in Montgomery. And on Monday, Dec. 5, the boycott is quite successful, and they have a meeting to decide who is going to lead this movement. They form an organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association, and he's selected to lead it. So I think he's unexpectedly thrust into this role of being a civil rights leader. He's not against that. He certainly understands that his father and his grandfather -- he is a member of the NAACP, yet he wants to be active in that, but he really doesn't expect to be thrust into this role of being the leader and the spokesperson. So, for the next 10 years after that, he's really concerned about civil rights reform.
So who chose him to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, and what's his reaction to being chosen?
He goes to the meeting not expecting to be chosen as the leader, but what he finds is that even though he's a relative newcomer to Montgomery -- at this point he's only 26 years old; nearly all the other local leaders are older and more experienced -- but that becomes an asset. ...
So he's selected as a newcomer. He's very articulate; he's got a Ph.D.; and plus that, maybe his youth will be an advantage because he doesn't have a lot of responsibilities yet, and so we'll put him in this role. And probably, at the back of some of their minds, [there was] the notion that if he fails, we can move on to other leaders. So he's selected primarily because of the things that should have been drawbacks -- the fact he's recently arrived and he's very youthful -- but they say that he has this quality of being very articulate [and] being able to express the goals.
So, when they hired Martin Luther King, to some degree they wanted someone who was less confrontational, someone who would be probably less abrasive. And I think King was that, but he still pushed the church to be more active. He set up a social and political action committee in the church, which included people who later organized the boycott.
[Does he at any point not want this role?]
Actually, the major problem he had after being selected is he had to give a talk that night, because they were going to have a mass rally at the church, at one of the churches in Montgomery, all the people who had supported the boycott. This was a one-day boycott, but now they had to make the decision about whether to extend it indefinitely until they achieved victory. It was a boycott just to get better treatment under segregation; it really wasn't to challenge [the] segregation system per se.
So he has to go home and make up a speech. And in some ways, this is the most important speech that he will ever give as a leader, because if it had failed, we wouldn't be talking about Martin Luther King today. So he had to come to it with his own particular perspective: What did this boycott mean? And I think that that speech is a profoundly important speech, because again, this was a movement, and it was not clear where this movement was going. ...
How does he figure it out?
... He said, what is this really all about? Is it about simply getting better treatment on the bus? No, it's not that. It's about something more important. And that's why this movement will be remembered in history books. It's about the teachings of Jesus; it's about the Declaration of Independence; it's about the Constitution. It's about all of these basic principles.
Now, that was just a very audacious thing to say, because, after all, this movement was not really about all those at that time. It was about, how do we get better treatment on the buses? But for the people to hear that that specific goal of getting better treatment was linked to all these transcendent principles, linked to the basic principles of their religion, linked to the Sermon on the Mount, that was something that had a tremendous impact in terms of the morale of all those people, ... because those principles are the things that are going to affect your children and your grandchildren, and that might keep you going for 381 days, which is how long the boycott lasted. That is what would sustain you.
So that's what he did throughout his public ministry, is that he would often not really talk about the day-to-day. There were other, better mobilizers than Martin Luther King. What he did more than anything else was provide a vision of what is this all about in the long term, in a historical sense. ... What King could talk about was, this is not simply about a civil rights bill -- he didn't even mention the pending civil rights legislation -- this is about what [Thomas] Jefferson is talking about in the Declaration of Independence.
That's why that speech is so profoundly important, is that he moved beyond the particular moment and looked at it in broad historical terms and understood that this was a turning point in the nation's history, and that either the nation was going to live up to those principles in the Declaration of Independence about the equality of man or they were not. Or it was going to be, as he put it, "a check returned with insufficient funds," as he put it in his speech. ...
So his vision is not just carping back to Jefferson, but it's rooted in his own faith in Jesus' teachings. It's a vision that's both part of the American political tradition but also part of a tradition of faith?
Yeah. I think what King does more effectively than probably any other person of his generation is to take some of the best ideals about democracy, equality, and all of these principles that are fundamental to the American nation and apply them to the situation at hand -- that is, the racial conflict that is going on in the 1950s and 1960s -- and basically interpret these events through the prism of this long historical struggle.
Basically, his argument is a prophetic argument. He does what the prophets have always done, and that is, he speaks to a group and says: "Here are your principles, but you're not living up to them. I challenge you to live up to them, and maybe even warn what will happen if you don't live up to them. But these are your principles. These are the things that you say you stand for. And I can express them back to you, even though I'm a member of the oppressed. I can express the principles of Jefferson probably better than Jefferson himself, since he was a slaveholder."
And that has a power, because then you're saying to a person, at the end of this struggle, what's going to happen is not what you fear; that is, that the group on the bottom is going to retaliate against the terrible treatment that they've suffered in the past. Instead, what is going to happen is that there is going to be a triumph, but it's going to be a triumph of justice. These principles are going to come out on top. And that's a challenge, but it's a reassuring challenge. It's a challenge that basically says to white people in America that "I believe in the same principles that you do, and let's look very closely at those principles. We're not really living up to them, but we can, and when that happens, we'll have a better America."
So what was the atmosphere and the reaction at that church on the night he gives this speech in Montgomery?
It was, as I said, a great speech that he gave [at the] Holt Street Baptist Church, because he mobilized the people around not just continuing the boycott, but around the notion that the boycott had this transcendent meaning, that it was something important enough to be recorded in the history books. When you think about it, that was an idea that was in itself audacious, because a one-day boycott in Montgomery that didn't even get to the papers outside of Montgomery, the notion that that would someday be important enough to be recorded in the history books? And yet today, look up [in] any American history book, and you'll find a mention of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So he was right.
And I think that that played an important role in making the boycott successful -- not the role that you might imagine, you know, this kind of leader who basically other people follow his directions. King could not by himself organize a car pool system. He could not carry on the legal battle that ultimately leads to the Supreme Court decision that brings about desegregation. All of this requires people with other sets of skills. What he brought to the equation was the capacity to inspire people by telling them what they were really struggling for, and that that was worth 381 days of not riding the bus.
[So how does King frame Christianity in America?]
We can't conceive of the anti-slavery struggle without evangelical Christianity. And yet by the time of the modern freedom struggles of the 1950s and '60s, Christianity had become rather complacent, both black and white. It had become more concerned about staving off the modern world, resisting all of the influences that come from modernity and becoming much more insular, much more concerned about just the Christian congregation as an island within the society rather than as an instrument for changing the society.
The people who led the anti-slavery struggles saw themselves as doing God's work and were willing to sacrifice and die for it and do it to change what they saw was an evil system. And they did it through all kinds of tactics, including moral suasion, including protests, civil disobedience and ultimately war itself, to bring about change. In the late 19th century, with the rise of industrialism, that's when the Social Gospel movement reaches its peak as a Christian response to the problems of the industrial expansion. And you have many of the people who go into the cities and deal with the problems of the poor and the immigrants coming in, these are doing this out of Christian concern.
That gets lost somewhere along the line. ... Within most Christian congregations, there's very little concern about these kinds of issues. And again, this is black as well as white congregations. But within the black church, at least there's a stronger sense of continuity with this older tradition, and that's what King represents.
When you look at his oratory, it is filled with references and use of passages that come directly from the anti-slavery struggle. He's always quoting the 19th-century anti-slavery poets and the songs associated with the anti-slavery struggle at that time. And he's taking these ideas and saying, "That's the kind of Christianity that I represent, that was able to bring about the destruction of an evil system that had been around since the beginning of biblical times." ...
When he gives the sermon "Communism's Challenge to Christianity," he's basically saying that communism should challenge Christians, because why do the oppressed people in the world need communism to stand up for them? Why can't they understand that Christianity has an answer to their problems other than wait until you die and then you might get a reward; that Christianity has a revolutionary potential that needs to be brought into the world? So he strongly believes that the conflict of the 20th century is Christianity versus communism, not capitalism versus communism, because capitalism really doesn't offer an ideal other than individual freedom and selfishness. What he felt is that Christianity was the humane response to the modern world, to modern industrial capitalism, and that that's what should be put forward as the option that nations should take. ...
What did he think of Billy Graham?
I think that he felt that Billy Graham was doing some good work in the sense that he was bringing a message of spiritual awakening to a large audience, and that audience included a lot of black people. He was quite willing to work with Billy Graham, and Billy Graham was willing to work with him. Billy Graham was certainly not outspoken on race issues, but simply inviting Martin Luther King to speak at a revival meeting was a somewhat radical act of that time. So I think they didn't agree with each other necessarily, but they appreciated what the other brought, and I think that there was a mutual respect there.
So what happens to King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
I think one of the things that happens to King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott is that his faith becomes stronger because it has to. He has to find the resources to sustain himself as the attacks come. And one of the ways in which he describes that is that he, during his graduate school years, because of theology he's taught, God becomes somewhat of an abstraction. That's one of the things that he resists during his graduate school years, is the tendency in some of his European American theology to turn God into this kind of abstract force that really doesn't deal with the everyday realities of the world. And he kind of goes back to his father's notion that God is a presence, acts in history.
[That was] the notion that was very current in the anti-slavery struggle, that God was going to act in history to end slavery. And I think that that idea, that God is an active force, not simply a moral abstraction, is something that was strengthened during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and I think it was kind of the last stage of his theological development. Once he gained that assurance -- and it came not simply from the bombing of his home, but he begins to understand that his leadership comes under attack -- he finds that it's lonely being a leader.
But there is that moment in the kitchen of his home, when he gets threats, telephoned threats, and he's sitting alone in the kitchen, and his wife and child are in the bedroom, and he is wondering: "Why did I do this? Why did I accept this role?" And it's at that point that he recalled having that sense that God was with him in the struggle, that God would support him, and that whatever happened, that was going to be enough to sustain him in the struggle. And once he goes through that crisis, I think he's really at peace with [whatever] is going to happen. ... I remember at one point he says, "One with God is a majority," and that sustained him when he was getting attacked by a lot of black people for his positions. So it was something that came out of his faith.
And that's true of Coretta, too. They recognized that they might die actually. Coretta's parents and his parents come and try to dissuade him, try to convince him to give up his role. They are concerned about their granddaughter, who's an infant at the time. And they both say, "No, we've made our commitment, and we're at peace with it." And once that happens, he's in it for the long term. And even after he's stabbed in New York -- a lot of things that happened to him would have dissuaded many people, but I think for him, he just comes to terms with the possibility of death and the fact that he is doing God's work and that that was enough. That was his mission in life. ...
The "beloved community": What was that?
The beloved community is an idea that goes back before King. It's how you describe what is the endpoint, or at least the goal of a Christian-based struggle. You have heaven, but that's kind of seen as something that happens after you die, so it really doesn't have to do with the here and the now, so you need to have some way of describing what is the goal on earth. [It's] also about community, about building a kind of society around Christian principles.
I think he and other people believe that the beloved community was a way of describing them. Now, trying to find a definition was kind of like describing what heaven is going to be like. In the minds of different people, it might mean different things, and it might be somewhat vague, but it would simply be a way of saying that we have an endpoint, that we have something that we are struggling for. I think that's the purpose it serves. …
It might not be heaven, but more importantly, though, it provided a model for what it is you're trying to achieve.
In the 1960 presidential election, we have the first Catholic running for president for a major party. At the same time, you have the beginning of the civil rights movement, which was very much inspired by faith. What was the dynamic going on at the time?
I think that that's interesting that at precisely this time when Kennedy wants to distance himself from the Catholic Church for his political purposes, you have this strong movement coming out of the black community that is largely church-based and is trying to infuse religion into the public arena. It's one of the ironies of this time that I think both things were happening. Probably the Kennedy strategy was the more dominant one in the sense that most presidents before Jimmy Carter really downplayed their religious views, at least in the 20th century. So Kennedy was kind of following that norm.
But the black freedom struggle was a return to the 19th century, this infusion of Christian values and into a major public issue. I think that both aspects of this are so American, that America is about the separation of church and state, but American history is about religious values in the public arena, and particularly not so much in the formal politics, but much more in the arena of social change and particularly for these great reform movements of the 19th and 20th century.
That sounds like a contradiction. How is that possible?
I think that religion, in the American context, has been an expression of another great American value: individualism. We don't have a state religion, but we have people expressing their religious values, and we have almost a marketplace of religions in which all of them are competing. ...
There's a story about Kennedy helping King get released from prison. Tell us about that.
I think both Kennedy and Nixon wanted to keep the race issue out of the election. In that they were kind of following the lead of the previous presidents. Even Roosevelt had really wanted to keep the civil rights issue at bay because they faced a dilemma. Since the 1930s, black voters had been a major part of the Democratic Party's electorate, but he knew that by explicitly confronting the issue of civil rights, he would lose the white South.
So Kennedy faced the same problem, and it was probably more acute because as a Northern Democrat, how could he keep the segregationist white South and the Democratic Party at the same time taking a pro-civil rights stand? So actually, going into the election, probably Nixon had more freedom of movement because he had known King. They had met in Ghana; they had met at the White House. Nixon had taken some pro-civil rights stands before the election, and it probably would have been better for him if he had taken a stand. But I think both of them agreed that "We'll keep this out."
And it was really the other people around Kennedy, his supporters, who pushed the issue onto Kennedy. Kennedy did not want to take a stand when King was arrested in Atlanta in 1960. He was jailed at Reedsville [Prison] here in Georgia. And Coretta King and other people wanted Kennedy to intervene. They contacted Harris Wofford, [the coordinator of the Kennedy campaign's civil rights platform], who had been friendly to King, and actually they had known each other since Harris Wofford was a white student going to Howard University and had been a proponent of Gandhian ideas. So Harris Wofford tries to have some influence in terms of getting Kennedy to intervene. But Wofford is not a major player in the campaign, and he really needs to get to Bobby Kennedy.
And Bobby Kennedy, I don't think he really thinks through this too much, but just [has] a visceral kind of reaction that King shouldn't be in jail, that there's just something wrong with this. And he makes some calls. And of course all the key players in segregationist Georgia are all Democrats, so he's able to intervene to get a judge to eventually get King released.
Then the candidate Kennedy calls Coretta King, and that call is a decisive factor in the election, because for the first time, black Americans see that Kennedy as a candidate is willing to take a stand on something crucial. And this is the first time during the civil rights struggle that you get a clear signal from someone who, in this case, might be president. ...
Kennedy combines a very small action with something that everyone can relate to. Everyone can relate to a candidate calling the wife of someone in jail and just offering comfort. And actually, that becomes the pattern for Kennedy. I think he's much better at these small symbolic gestures than taking on the big issue of civil rights reform until it's forced upon him in 1963 after Birmingham.
What was the involvement of Daddy King in the election after Kennedy's intervention?
Martin Luther King Jr. was probably sympathetic to Kennedy. He was much more liberal in his thought and probably voted Democratic, even though we don't know for sure; probably was sympathetic to Kennedy over Nixon primarily because he felt that Nixon, although he had befriended him in Ghana, had really not followed [that up] with anything, and he felt that Nixon had kind of blown the opportunity. Nixon had this chance to really be on the inside track of someone who understood a key figure in the civil rights movement, but instead, Nixon had just acted like he really didn't want to take any political risk with the civil rights issue.
Daddy King had been a Republican, like many older blacks in the South. I think also, Daddy King was maybe a little bit skeptical about Kennedy's Catholicism, like a lot of Baptists during that time, the sense that he might be beholden to the church in some way. But in any case, once Kennedy intervenes on behalf of his son, Daddy King makes it very clear that his support is now with Kennedy, and he'll deliver as many votes as he can get. And that was multiplied throughout the black churches of America, that right after King is released from jail, leaflets were passed out in black churches, particularly in Chicago. And that becomes a crucial factor in the election, because that changes what would have been a relatively close election in black communities between Nixon and Kennedy into pretty much a very strong vote on behalf of Kennedy from the black community. In some states, particularly Illinois, that's decisive.
But there's not an embrace from Kennedy's point of view of all civil rights?
Kennedy, at this time, he does not have a strong commitment to civil rights reform and sees that as not a major part of his presidency. Someone like Hubert Humphrey would have been much stronger on the question of civil rights reform. Kennedy is concerned about the Cold War and other kinds of issues. That's where his priority is. So he wants to keep the civil rights issue on the back burner, and [he does] throughout his administration, up until Birmingham, when he can't avoid the issue anymore.
And then once he confronts the issue, he does something very important. He says: "I'm not only taking this stand of intervening in Alabama against [Gov.] George Wallace and introducing the civil rights. I'm not only taking this stand because it's been thrust upon me, but it's the right thing to do." Or, as he puts it, "It's an issue as old as the Scriptures," and as old as this nation in terms of the principles underlying it. Now, that's precisely what King has been saying, is that this is an issue that has to do with basic American values that have not been realized. So to have a president of the United States say that, that's a defining moment of the movement.
What set the stage for the movement in Birmingham? What were its principles, and how were they put into action?
The way to understand Birmingham is that it wasn't something that King initiated it, but it came out of Fred Shuttlesworth, who was another Christian activist minister [and the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)] who had been involved in Birmingham, which at that time was one of the more racist cities in America. Fred Shuttlesworth had confronted [Birmingham public safety official] Bull Connor as far back as the late 1950s, tried to integrate the schools. He was a battling minister. I've met him. I really admire him as an activist from that period, very outspoken even today, and he is the person who launches this movement. And [in] part it comes about because the state of Alabama takes action to essentially outlaw the NAACP.
So Fred Shuttlesworth and other ministers organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and that's the movement that launches the campaign in Birmingham. King, at the end of 1962, after not having very much success since Montgomery really -- King is not very successful as a leader. He doesn't seem to understand how to build upon the momentum of what had been started in Montgomery, so he's looking for some way of demonstrating the effectiveness of his leadership, and Fred Shuttlesworth offers him that opportunity.
He says: "Come here to Birmingham. We've got all the ingredients of a great nonviolent campaign. You can't have a better opponent than Connor and his police and all the history that goes with Birmingham, a really entrenched segregationist regime in the city, and you've got people who are eager to get into the struggle. So if you come here, we can deliver a victory for you."
And King decides to come. And the movement in Birmingham doesn't go well, in part because they are up against tremendous opposition. And Bull Connor responds to protests by saying: "Look, I can arrest more people than you can produce. You try civil disobedience with me, I'll send you to jail, and you're not going to fill the jails, because if you do fill the jails, we'll just make some more jails." But he understood that King's strategy was to try to fill the jails. So King tries to do that, and after a while, he runs out of trained practitioners of civil disobedience, basically adults who have been through the training program and [are] willing to go to jail. …
There were two choices. One of them was to try to draw more attention to the city, but you needed to have arrests in order to do that. The other was to recruit children. They wanted to get arrested, but until that point, there had been a reluctance to have people under 18 involved in protests. So in Birmingham, King faces this decision. He's urged by the organizers who are working with him, James Bevel and others, who say: "Look, we've got to use everything at our disposal. You've got all these young people in high school and even younger who are just eager to participate. You can't throw away this opportunity."
King is initially reluctant, but when he himself is arrested, and you have that period when he's in jail and he's hoping that his own arrest is going to be the stimulus to get Northern support, to get more press attention, to turn the corner in Birmingham, it's then that he writes his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," which, in his view, is his best effort to try to turn the corner in Birmingham. And it's a wonderful letter. It's probably the most profound thing that King ever writes. But by itself it probably would not have turned the tide in Birmingham. And if he had failed in Birmingham, we probably would not be talking about the "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
But what happens is that young people, the Children's Crusade, they really saved the day for King, because this is the use of young people in the struggle, something that Connor is not prepared for. It means that you have an almost infinite number of people available to fill the jails, and it means that you're going to get even more sympathetic coverage, especially with the dogs and the fire hoses and all this brutality against kids.
So I think what Birmingham represents for King is that it is the decisive victory for him, and he doesn't have very many. ... Once you get past Montgomery, he's looking for a victory, and he needed one in Birmingham. And it's interesting that we emphasize King and his civil disobedience and his going to jail and the wonderful letter that he writes, but all of that would have been somewhat irrelevant if he had lost. And what made it possible were young kids, 12, 13, 14 years old, some of them 8, 9, 10 years old. That was the decisive factor in Birmingham.
Why write the letter?
What King did in the letter was really summarize the thoughts that he had developed over time. It's in some ways an unwieldy document. He brings together lots of different ideas, all of them quite effective, but it's really a collection of a number of different essays about different topics. And it's interesting that he wrote it under extreme conditions. He's in jail; he doesn't have a library. And I think this is where [he displays] his memory and his ability to call upon all these ideas that he's played with throughout his life, ideas from the Christian tradition.
The letter itself is a response to the challenge of white ministers in Birmingham who had said: "Why are you coming? Why are you causing trouble in our city? Couldn't this have been done in a more passive kind of way? These demonstrations are very disruptive, and they don't seem to represent to us Christian principles." So he has to respond to that, because they're challenging him as a Christian minister and saying that "What you're doing doesn't seem very Christian to me." In part, what his response is is an explanation of why what he's doing is within the Christian tradition, even the notion of civil disobedience. ...
Another part of the letter has to do with, why are there protests anyway? Why is there this insistence that change has to come quickly rather than gradually? ... And he responds very eloquently about why it's wrong to ask someone who is undergoing oppression to wait for justice; that ... simply the passage of time doesn't mean that things will get better.
It sounds like he is drawing on his intellectual worldview that's been developing since he was a teenager, looking at Christianity as an answer to communism and the notion that Christianity is revolutionary.
One of the things about the letter is that it's directed against those who are sitting on the sidelines. ... A Christian should be engaged in the struggle. It's when good people sit on the sidelines that evil prevails. He's arguing against the complacency that he had always argued against within the black community. ...
He's saying... what Christians need to understand is that Christian values are at stake, and they need to be active in promoting those values. And that's a very forceful argument. The "Letter From Birmingham Jail" I think should be part of the understanding of any American Christian. It's one of the most important documents in the history of Christianity in America. And it's really unfortunate that you can probably go into many Christian bookstores throughout the country and not find the "Letter From Birmingham Jail" in that store. ... That has been a central aspect of American history, the notion of a promised land. ...
It really wasn't King's decision. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the idea of A. Philip Randolph. He had tried to stage a march in 1941 to convince Roosevelt to implement new policies on employment in the defense industries. I think he also wanted to bring about desegregation of the Armed Forces. He didn't succeed in that, but he got Roosevelt's attention by threatening this march.
So the idea of marching on Washington was something that was instilled in the heads of at least some African American leaders apart from King. I don't think King necessarily saw this as his idea. It was a question of whether he would participate -- and of course he would, because he had already been to Washington in 1957. He had already spoken at the Lincoln Memorial as part of a march for integrated schools. He had given his "Give Us the Ballot" speech, a very fine speech which I think represented his feeling at the time that the crucial issue was the vote. So King was more an invitee to the march. The question that came up was: "Who is going to give the closing speech?" And there were other leaders who felt that King should not have this pre-eminent role, [but] that King should certainly be there.
Now, King was still at this time only 34 years old. He had only achieved two major victories: Montgomery and Birmingham. There were other claimants. The NAACP had been in the battle for a much longer time, and actually, they had, in their view, brought about the victories. They had brought about Brown v. Board of Education; [an] NAACP lawsuit had integrated the buses in Montgomery. So there was this question, "Why have King as the pre-eminent figure of the march?"
But King had some arguments on his side, and one of them, which was voiced by [King's attorney] Clarence Jones, for example, who was representing him in some of these discussions, "Do you really want to follow Martin Luther King?" I can imagine many of them saying, "Yeah, I'd like to be the concluding speaker, but if King gives this rousing address and I get up, what am I going to say that's going to match that?" So I think that that's probably what won the day is that no one wanted to follow him.
And then the question was how long should he speak, and there had been an understanding among all the participants that no one was supposed to speak more than five to seven minutes -- five minutes hopefully, but really no more than seven, and they would submit their remarks in writing to make sure that they stuck within this time limit. Well, that was going to constrain King a lot because he's a minister. He's used to speaking extemporaneously and sometimes at great length, as ministers are apt to do. ...
And when he submitted his remarks, they fit within the five-to-seven-minute time period. ... How did he make the decision to go beyond that, to speak 13, 14 minutes as opposed to five to seven? I think that part of it is that he was advised by Bayard Rustin, who was the organizer of the march and really the person in charge of the day's events. He basically came to him and said, "Look, we'd like you to stay within this limit, but you're the concluding speaker, and we're not going to mind too much if you went on a little bit."
So King gets the OK from Rustin that it might be OK to exceed the seven-minute limit, and I think also there were people on the podium who had heard King speak in Detroit. And [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson, for example, had heard about "the dream," so I think there were some stories that she or maybe other people had said, "Tell them about your dream."
This is a speech given in Detroit sometime before?
Two months before, there had been a major rally in Detroit, and he had given a speech that was fairly similar but a bit longer than the March on Washington speech, but had many of the same ideas in the speech.
So I think that what happens -- and you can see this when you see the footage of King giving his remarks -- at a certain point he reaches the end of his prepared remarks, turns over the last page. You can sense that he's getting some messages from other people, maybe whispering or shouting to him, "Tell them about the dream." ... And probably he's thinking, "Well, what would be a better wrap-up?" The first part of the speech really lays out the ideas. He starts with the Jefferson idea of equality and said we're not living up to that. He goes on to say because we're not living up to that, that's what's causing all the protests, and these protests are going to continue until we start living up to the promise of American democracy. And then I think he sensed that something else was necessary.
You have a two-part: One is, what is the challenge? The second part is, there's going to be protests until we get the nation to live up to this, but if all of this happens, what's going to be the result? What's going to be the vision of a future? And that's where the dream comes in. That's where he began to lay out this idea of, what if we did live up to these values? What if we did begin to realize the principles that come out of the Christian tradition? What if we lived up to the principles of equality and democracy that are inherent in the Declaration and in the Constitution? What if all of this would happen? Then something would change in America. And he gives this word picture of a new America that would be at the end.
It's visionary in not just the sense that it's in the future, but it's really in the distant future, because he's not simply talking about getting civil rights bills passed. He's talking about something that's much more fundamental: When will Americans treat each other as brothers and sisters? When will even the most racist pockets of America understand that now there is a new day?
Now, that's ... interesting when we look at how "The Dream" is used in America. Sometimes it's used as if King is talking about the America of today. I think even today in the 20th century, he's still talking about the America that will be someday or that can be someday, and there's too much of a tendency to use the speech as Americans patting themselves on the back. ...
I don't think anyone can really look at "The Dream" passages without really understanding that this is something that we are still struggling with today. The democratic experiment is still in progress. We don't know its ultimate outcome. We should know that building a democratic society with multiracial, multireligious, multicultural facets to it and getting all of these groups to entrust their destiny to a democratic process, that that requires a kind of attitude that is still coming into being, that we don't really know for sure that that can be sustained because it is a leap of faith, democracy.
King is going beyond civil rights.
Going far beyond civil rights. To me, it diminishes King to call him a black civil rights leader, because the issues that he dealt with are much more fundamental than simply civil rights reform. You know, if he had simply been a civil rights leader, he would have retired in 1965. ...
Part of his visionary aspects, part of his prophetic role was that he saw the movement during that 10-year stretch from Montgomery to the passage of the Voting Rights Act as something that was important, but important in the context of the broad movement of American history. I think he had a better sense of understanding that the great movement of the 20th century, the great historical question for the world, not just the United States, was not the Cold War, World War II, World War I, the rise and fall of communism. Those were very important issues, but for the majority of the world's population, the basic issue was rights; was can the majority of the world's population move beyond their oppressed conditions where the majority of the world were peasants -- landless, uneducated, without basic rights; not even citizens in a real sense of the nation where they happened to reside; oppressed by colonialism, racial discrimination of all sorts -- whether that majority could improve their situation. ...
It doesn't mean that we've reached the promised land, but it does mean that something fundamentally important happened to the majority of the people in the world, and King is a major symbol of that, and that's the major story. So that's what justifies his importance. That's why I'm so frustrated sometimes when you see people saying these ignorant things -- "Well, King had these limitations, and he was a womanizer; he plagiarized some of his writings," you know, as if by pointing to these flaws, they can undermine his historical importance.
But his historical importance is not based on whether he was a perfect individual. His historical importance was that he symbolized this great freedom struggle, ... and that's something that can't be taken away from him.
How did he react to the criticism from within his own community about his tactics, with his emphasis on poverty and the Vietnam War?
... It's interesting that right at the beginning of the [Riverdale] speech, he responds to those who are saying, "Why are you, a civil rights leader, taking a stand on Vietnam?" And you can see his frustration: "If you are thinking about me in those terms, you haven't really been listening to me. You haven't heard what I am talking about." It reflects my sense of King that here is a person who is basically a civil rights leader because of Rosa Parks. That's not what he started out to do. What he started out to do was to be a social gospel minister, and, in the process of doing that, he took part, obviously, in the civil rights struggle.
But if you understand what he's saying as a leader, that what is going on in that civil rights struggle in the South is related to what is going on in the world, and what's going on in the world are the struggle of the world's majority to gain basic rights, ... now, if that's the case, if the African American struggle is related to the anti-colonial struggle, is related to the South African anti-apartheid struggle, all of these struggles are interrelated because they have to do with this movement on the part of the majority of humanity to gain basic rights. If that is true, then of course the Vietnam issue is a central concern of mine. It always has been. …
The real question historically is why he delayed taking this stand, because he felt the same way about Vietnam in 1965 as he did in '67. Why did he not take the stand publicly in '65? Well, that had to do with his concern that the issues would not have a negative impact on his relationship with the Johnson administration, and he wanted to give the Johnson administration time to find a solution to the Vietnam conflict.
But I think, for King, there was no question what his position was. Coretta was making speeches against the Vietnam War from '65, '66, and obviously Martin knew what Coretta was doing and approved of what she was doing. So the question was not whether he was opposed to the war but whether, as a leader, he should take a stand and, ultimately [he] decided he could not not take a stand, that the issue was so crucial and so interrelated with the issue of civil rights and the economic situation in the United States that the spending on the war was affecting the War on Poverty, all of these interrelationships of foreign policy issues and domestic policy issues.
How did he respond to those who were growing impatient with the nonviolent movement?
I was probably leaning more toward the Malcolm X, even Black Panther Party notion because of the impatience. I felt that one of the things that is so appealing about the idea of revolutionary struggle, violent revolution, is that it gets it over with, and the evil is suppressed. You try to build a new society. …
King talked about that. He said that during the early 1950s, he felt that the solution would probably end in some kind of violence. Certainly some kind of violence was a part of it, but I think he understood also that at the end of the struggle, you have to put together something new. There has to be a reconciliation process. And actually, that has had the most impact on me. …
But one of the things that I began to discover is how much that anger and violence is not simply directed outward against the oppressor but is directed inward. Black people killed far more black people during the late '60s and early '70s than ever. Malcolm X, you know, in the famous picture of him with a rifle at the window, that was not a rifle intended for white people; that was to defend themselves against other black people. I was on the UCLA campus in 1969 when two black groups, both of them thinking of themselves as militant black groups, had a violent conflict on the campus. Two members of the Black Panther Party were shot dead. I was probably about 50 yards away.
So all of that really brought home the notion that King was always trying to get us to understand that violence is something that, if you try to achieve that through a violent means, you have to continue to use violence. If you suppress evil through violence, it's not going to go away. The only way you can ever destroy evil through violence is to destroy all of the evildoers forever. So what you're talking about is a kind of tyranny that destroys the ideals that you were trying to achieve in the first place, and there's always this cycle of violence where one revolutionary group decides the other group is not revolutionary enough. ...
I put it sometimes, "King got wiser as I got older"; that there was something about what he was saying that really began to ring a bell with me as I experienced the alternative, as I saw people who were close to me get wrapped up in this kind of revolutionary idea that somehow the change was going to be cataclysmic..
You were talking about the appeal, at the time, of a violent revolution. Did it pain King that he felt like he was not understood, that the division within the movement caused him personal anguish?
Of course. He was disturbed by the fact that his popularity goes way down after the March on Washington and the mountaintop experience of getting the Nobel Peace Prize. And almost immediately he describes it like going back into the valley and how, as a leader, that's when he senses that he's the Moses, you know, when you look at the biblical story of Moses and how as he's leading the Jews to Canaan that he gets all this backbiting from all the people. A lot of the story, as it unfolds, is really about splits within his followers and challenges to his leadership. People were saying, "You're crazy," and he has to reassert himself. …
This idea of black separatism, that, of course, is going to disturb him. He's beset by that, and you could see this when he talks about his relationship with Stokely Carmichael, [who began as a leader in the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) but moved toward black nationalism and Black Power], a person who had a great respect for him, and he had respect for Stokely Carmichael's contributions to the Mississippi struggle, but in 1966 they're at loggerheads over this issue of Black Power.
And that's where, again, it strengthens his sense that God is with him. ...
It's one of the things that's hardest to convey to young people is how unpopular King was in 1968, how few people were actually following King's leadership in 1968. And that didn't dissuade him. I think in some ways he became even more determined, even more certain of his course, because after 1965 he was able to get back to his mission. He was an accidental civil rights leader, but he had volunteered for the role of social gospel minister. So after the civil rights reforms have been achieved, he could go to Chicago with a different sense of purpose. He could see that this is something where I'm making a decision, not something that is thrust upon me by Rosa Parks, not something that has come from the external. This is coming out of my sense of my Christian mission to do something about the less fortunate in the society, to take the struggle beyond the question of civil rights reform. And that's what he wanted to do from the beginning.
Talk about Memphis.
I think the most interesting speech he gives is what is often called "The Mountaintop Speech," April 3, 1968. And it's usually seen as kind of like the "I Have a Dream" speech, where everyone focuses on the last few minutes of the speech: "I've been to the mountaintop, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you." And that's a great speech, and it's great extemporaneous oratory. ...
But like that earlier speech, if you really want to get to what did King intend to say, you'd have to look at the first part of the speech, because that's where he really expresses what the speech was about to him, and that was: "What is the meaning of my life? What have I been sent here to do?" …
And he says, "If I had to choose just to live a few years, it would be precisely in this period of human history." And then he says, "Well, why?" Because the nation is messed up. The world is in turmoil. ... And you understand his vision of why the 20th century and why the mid-20th century is so important. It's the time when most people had their first taste of freedom, that people who a generation or two earlier had been peasants now find themselves citizens of independent nations, now find themselves having rights that white men have to respect. ...
I think that what he's suggesting there is, again, the parallel with the biblical story of Exodus, that what he understands is that that's the reason why that story has such power as the archetype of a liberation movement. That's why generations of African Americans have gone back to that story and have seen the efforts of Moses as being a model for liberation. ...
And that's why that story has such power, and that's what King understood: that if you could convey that to African Americans, that you also are participants in a struggle that is actually more important than the struggle of Moses, because he was talking about one group, one part of humanity, one chosen people, what you are involved in is something that has to do with all of humanity and that you are participants. What more of a purpose can you have in life than to be a participant in something that's going to affect most people on the face of the earth?
That's what King relied upon. ... Every human being has a right to determine their own destiny and that if we can understand how powerful that message is, we can change the world.
[How has that message continued to resonate today? Can you talk about King's legacy and race in the 2008 campaign?]
... I thought [it] was quite striking, ... and I've written an article about this in American Heritage magazine just earlier this year, the way Obama kind of takes King's rhetoric -- and there is a very strong similarity to the way King refers back to these American ideals of Lincoln and Jefferson and uses them as rhetorical strategies to say, "This is where America should be going" -- I find it kind of striking that King could do that in his 30s and Obama can do that in his 40s. ... I think they just have a historical sense, and some of it may come from the fact that they're both religious, that they sense this through their religious understanding, that they stand in relation to certain American principles that are both political and spiritual and that that gives them strength, and not just personal strength but also rhetorical strength, because it allows them to communicate with Americans through a reference to a common set of ideals.
Published October 11, 2010
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