As my former American History students will tell you, I am a great admirer of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, and, especially, of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century. I wish I could say I came to this conclusion only after years of reading, study, and reflection on the Movement and on Dr. King’s role in it, and to some extent that’s true, as you’ll see a bit later. However, I must begin with the admission that I first “learned” about the African-American struggle for civil rights when I was growing up, and the “lessons” I learned were taught to me by–what else?–television. The epochal Brown decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in May, 1954, three days before my tenth birthday; the legislative highlights of the “heroic phase” of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, became realities while I was in college. And, until I entered college in the fall of 1962, my largest window on the world was our black and white TV set, and the fuzzy images I saw every night on the newscasts we watched with dinner.
I was a very young “news junkie” in 1954–for instance, I still remember watching some of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the afternoons, postponing my homework so I could catch what I would later learn to call “great political theater.” And, when those hearings eventually ran their course, and I had to find a new excuse to put off the night’s school assignments, the drama–and, thanks to television, the images–accompanying the civil rights movement seemed never-ending. I also must confess that I was quite naive about what I was watching. To me, it all seemed very clear-cut, a matter of black-and-white, just like the TV I watched and the daily newspaper I read–but with the traditional symbolism of black-and-white reversed: it was the (Southern) white folks who were the villains and the black people who were the heroes. Oh, and I also was certain that, as a resident of the great state of Maryland (and, later, of Delaware), I didn’t live where there were any race problems, no siree! Although my view of the world has changed over the past five decades, with the clarity of black-and-white evolving into shades of gray, one aspect has not been altered by time–my conviction of the centrality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the successes–and the failures–of the modern civil rights movement.
I still recall vividly a Saturday afternoon, probably during the Little Rock crisis, standing outside my church, waiting for a ride home, when suddenly my fascination with the on-going epic of the Movement collided with a burgeoning interest in the American Civil War, and I began to ponder, as only a 13 year-old can, whether we were on the verge of a new Civil War, this one over the demands of an oppressed minority for the same basic civil rights and economic and social opportunities the rest of us took for granted.
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On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, my wife and I emerged from a movie theater on a military post in Maryland to learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, I was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army finishing an undistinguished two-year tour of active duty.
We had gone to the matinee because that night I was scheduled to be the post’s Staff Duty Officer, which meant that a sergeant and I were to stay in the headquarters building overnight just in case any important messages arrived for the post commander. When my wife and I took our seats in the post theater a couple of hours earlier, I had been looking forward to the assignment; by the time we drove home, I was no longer anticipating the night ahead.
At the post headquarters building, I was told that, if things got out of hand in nearby Baltimore, as appeared likely, our headquarters company would be alerted to travel to the metropolis to assist in “riot control.” Then the sergeant and I were left alone in a small room equipped with a portable black-and-white television set and an increasingly ominous telephone. My mood was not improved when I called my wife, who told me that her boss, and our landlord (we lived above his shop), planned to stay up all night, garden hose at the ready, in case “they” came marching down the main street of our little town and stopped to burn down his business on the way.
With little to do unless the phone rang, I turned my attention to television news coverage of the roiling civil unrest in the nation’s cities in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. Two incidents from that coverage remain with me to this day: an African-American celebrity (it might have been soul singer James Brown), against the backdrop of the smoke-filled Washington, D.C., skyline, pleading with viewers not to dishonor Dr. King’s memory by going on a rampage of violence and looting; and the increasingly frantic voice of a frightened reporter phoning in details to his employers while an angry crowd rocked, and eventually overturned, the telephone booth in which he had taken refuge.
Evidently, the combined efforts of local law enforcement and the National Guard kept a lid on things in Baltimore, because the sergeant and I never got that telephone call. I drove off the post the next morning relieved that the alert had not come but also feeling that somehow, with the death of Dr. King, the civil rights movement and the nation had been irrevocably changed, though in ways none of us could yet fathom.
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Although I became a “Southern historian” in graduate school, my dissertation topic was narrow: a study of one aspect of life in a single southern state, over a thirty-year period. That’s when fate took a hand: unable to find a college teaching post but still determined to teach History, I eagerly sought, and finally found, a job at a “prep school” in Atlanta. (For more on this, look here) Because I was teaching on the secondary level, I had neither the opportunity nor the incentive to become narrowly specialized, and this eventually brought me back to the civil rights movement.
One of my bread-and-butter courses was the American History survey, and, while the lecture notes from my days as a grad school teaching assistant stood me in good stead for many topics, they were quite sparse for the years following World War II. Thus, I needed to teach the key events of more recent decades to myself before I could hope to impart them to others. Not surprisingly, given my early “education” in the “school of television,” one of the themes I chose to focus on was the movement for African American civil rights. An early product of this labor was an elective course on the “image” of the modern South in movies and television, an offering that lasted a few years before my school jettisoned most electives in order to scramble onto the “back-to-basics” bandwagon. That course eventually was followed by a unit on the Civil Rights Movement each spring in my Advanced Placement U.S. History course. Finally, perhaps a decade ago, I inherited a one-semester elective course, the Modern Civil Rights Movement, which I taught several times before retirement. This teaching assignment necessitated a lot of additional reading on the Movement, reading I have continued to do since leaving the classroom almost two years ago.
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Since 1968, those of us who remember Dr. King when he was alive have witnessed the making, unmaking, and remaking of his historical reputation. Some scholars have confirmed his all too human flaws. Then, too, efforts to understand how the civil rights revolution operated at the grass roots have to some extent lowered Dr. King’s historical profile by raising that of the previously anonymous “foot soldiers” of the movement. Scholars also have recognized the work of those who struggled for equality before King and his Movement contemporaries. Other works have highlighted the “Great Migration” between World War I and about 1970, when thousands of African Americans abandoned the Jim Crow South for the siren song of other, supposedly less racist, parts of the nation. (For a couple of examples of books in this area, go here.)
The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, examines how–and how well–the Movement was covered by the increasingly important mass media in the 1950s and 1960s, a key development for understanding both the nation’s growing awareness of its racial problems and Dr. King’s role as the face–and voice–of the Movement. In recent years, too, revisionism has begun to shine its light on the values and beliefs of Southern whites who opposed King’s efforts. Moreover, scholars are now taking the Black Power Movement more seriously than perhaps used to be the case. Finally, political scientists have examined the methods used to move racial politics from the realm of marches and national legislation to the creation of mundane state and local ordinances, through compromises and back room deals, measures that affect Americans, black and white, everyday. (For a review of a pair of books on these last two topics, go here.)
While the resulting picture of the forces behind–and against–the civil rights movement is fuller and more complex now than it used to be, Martin Luther King, Jr., remains a key figure, especially in mediating between the Movement and the larger society of which it was a part. Taylor Branch does an admirable job fitting Dr. King into the broader context of American history since the mid-1950s in his trilogy, America in the King Years, completed in 2006. Branch balances coverage of the Movement in general, and King’s activities in particular, with treatment of the other issues facing the country during the years of King’s prominence. In his final volume, At Canaan’s Edge, for example, the impact of the Vietnam War nearly swamps King’s efforts to push the nation along the rocky road to equality, just as it did in “real life,” at least in my memory. Overall, Branch keeps his hero at the center of things, carefully charting his course and the ways others, especially those in power, responded to King’s initiatives. So successful is Branch in accomplishing this difficult task, that, when King is finally cut down on that motel balcony in Memphis, and Branch concludes his massive work with an epilogue of less than five pages, the reader finds himself wondering how the history of the nation might have been different had King not been assassinated. In other words, there is no question that, in Branch’s capable hands, King becomes one of those rare figures whose life–and death–made a significant difference in the history of the United States.
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Today, Dr. King has a national holiday and a memorial statue on the Mall in Washington. He and his legacy are now “monumental” in every sense of the word. Meanwhile, his children try to “protect” his image and his words, but they do so in a way that makes them seem mercenary. And, as if that isn’t bad enough, those still opposed to government support for civil rights use Dr. King’s “content of their character” mantra to criticize efforts to advance the cause, claiming that those efforts are somehow “racist.” I watch their antics with a mixture of bemusement, cynicism, and an occasional flash of anger. In quieter moments, though, I think of that thirteen year-old waiting outside the church, pondering the possibility of a new Civil War over the issue of civil rights. There was never any question, then, whose side he was on. . . . And there still isn’t.