Martin Luther King’s gospel of freedom

Today the Rev, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a revered figure who is criticized by virtually no-one. We forget how radical, controversial and even hated he was during his lifetime.

Liberal white people in the North approved of his non-violent struggle in the South, because they regarded the South as like a foreign country, like South Africa.

It was a different matter when he started campaigning in segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, when he applied his message of peace and nonviolence to the Vietnam War, or when he started to question the justice of the whole American economic system.

He lived with constant fear of being killed, many of his comrades were killed and he himself was killed in the end—in a conspiracy which has never been fully investigated.

Yet he and his followers brought about fundamental changes that had been thought to be impossible.

Few if any social or political movements have accomplished so much good with so little harm.

Dr. King’s philosophy was outlined in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote while in prison in April, 1963, It was aimed at two sets of readers:
• Moderates, most, but not all of them, white, who thought he was pushing too hard and too fast, and wanted him to go slower.
• Militants, most, but not all of them, black, who thought his belief in love and nonviolence was weak, and wanted him to strike harder

My friend Richmond Dyes did a presentation on “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the Rochester Russell Forum on Oct. 12, which prompted me to read Jonathan Rieder’s GOSPEL OF FREEDOM: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation (2013), a report on the background and context of the Letter and an analysis of its text.

It was written in response to eight prominent white Alabama clergymen, including six Protestants, a Catholic and a Jew, who had written a public letter entitled “A Call for Unity”.

They condemned Dr. King’s protests and lawbreaking, and called on “both our white and Negro citizens to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

The eight had been part of a group of 11 clergyman who seven months before signed “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” that urged obedience to court decisions that ordered desegregation. For this they had received death threats, and no doubt thought of themselves as the good guys in this struggle.

Dr. King attacked the false equivalence of black people struggling nonviolently for justice and equality, and white racists engaging in murder and terrorism to perpetuate oppression.

Members of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, on a whim, castrated a random black pedestrian, Edward Aarons, and then told him to send a message to the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, that the same was in short for him.

The Klansman who was charged with attacking Aarons was pardoned by Gov. George Wallace.

Another civil rights leader, the Rev. Charles Billings, was kidnaped, blindfolded, beaten with chains, tied to a tree and branded with the letters KKK.

Klansmen attacked the black singer, Nat “King” Cole, when he was giving a concert to a segregated all-white audience.\

Nor was the Klan a marginal group. Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety for Birmingham, was in contact with the Klan. Asa Earl Carter, a Klan leader in Birmingham, was speechwriter for Gov. Wallace.

The Klansman who was charged with attacking Aarons was pardoned by Wallace.

And Wallace was an important national political figure. He ran for president in the Democratic primary in 1964, winning nearly 30 percent of the vote in Indiana, a third in Wisconsin and 40 percent in Maryland. He carried five Southern states as a third-party candidate in 1968 and five states, including Florida and Michigan, in the Democratic primary in 1972.

Among those who were urging Dr. King to go slow were John and Robert Kennedy. Liberal Republicans Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits were then more forthright supporters of Dr. King than the Kennedys, although the Kennedys views changed over time.

Rieder wrote that Dr. King was protective of his movement’s pubic image in the eyes of white liberals. Yet, Rieder said, he and his followers had little confidence in white people in general, which is why they praised such whites as sincerely embraced their cause.

Dr. King never said, “God damn America,” like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But he thought that the United States was only potentially, but not yet actually, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

His faith was based on the Bible—the message of justice of the Hebrew prophets combined with Jesus’ teaching of love and peace.

Rieder obtained rare audiotapes of Dr. King’s preaching in black churches, which showed the power of his Christian message to his Christian audience.

Leaders of the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam called his message and tactics weak. Yet Dr. King was able to bend governors and presidents to his will, which his supposedly militant critics were never able to do.

The only black militant who was equal in stature to Dr. King was Malcolm X, and Malcolm X was struck down before he reached his full potential—also in a conspiracy that was never fully investigated.

Like Dr. King, Malcolm X was still evolving in his thinking when he was killed, and there’s no telling what he might have done. But the fact is that he spent his life mainly in conflict with other black people, while Dr. King was changing the world.

Rieder told how the Rev. James Bevel went into “the dives” to talk to tough young black men who ridiculed non-violence. He’d asked them, “How many people have you killed? How many white boys have you beaten up?” Then he’d call them cowards. Then he’d tell them how to fight effectively.

Soon after Dr. King was released from prison, his followers organized what Rieder called the “children’s crusade”—mass demonstrations by students, including young school children. King had misgivings about sending children into danger, but did not veto it.

Newspaper and TV pictures of children being attacked with high-velocity fire hoses, powerful enough to strip bark from trees, and by police dogs changed public opinion.

It affected President Kennedy. His speech on June 11 for the first time defined civil rights as a moral issue—not just as a duty to obey court decisions whether you agree with them or not, but as a moral issue.  It’s still a moral issue.

Afterthought [11/1/2017]

If Dr. King had a rival, it wasn’t another black leader.  It was the anonymous black rioters in large American cities from 1964 through 1972.   I don’t approve of vandalism, arson and looting as a vehicle for social change.   The victims are seldom if ever the ones who are the cause of the problem.

But it is a fact that the urban riots brought about a response by political and business leaders .   Here in Rochester, N.Y., it is a fact that the urban riots of 1964 made the local political and business establishment take notice of the community’s black minority—with the help of Saul Alinsky, who used non-violent tactics, but did not advocate Christian love.

Without the riots, it would have been many more years before Eastman Kodak Co. and other large employers started hiring black people for non-menial jobs.

You could argue that Dr. King would not have been so effective if the potential for violence had not been in the background.   But the argument can be turned around.   The goodwill that made a positive response possible in places such as Rochester would not have existed except for Dr. King.

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