Walking History

Byron Williams writes over at The Huffington Post that he wants "a different King," a different Martin Luther King, Jr., than the one most at play in the popular culture. Williams prefers the uncompromising King of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to the less threatening King of the "I Have A Dream" speech and to the imminently-ascending King of "I've Been To the Mountaintop."

Williams writes:

If one dares to conduct a modicum of research, they may soon discover that contrary to the myth, the "I Have a Dream" speech may not be representative of King's best work of 1963, let alone his lifetime.

Earlier that year, King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which was a radical, non conformist response to an open letter by eight white clergy that believed his methods were extreme and precipitated violence.


If I must watch King's final speech (I've Been to the Mountaintop) please show me more than the final 60 seconds where he seems to come to terms with the inevitability of his own death.

I want to hear the part of the speech were he links his movement to the "wells of democracy that were dug deep by the Founding Fathers." I would like to also hear how he was calling for economic boycotts, urging African Americans to exhort their economic strength by supporting black owned businesses.

This may be a King that is harder to digest. In fact, I am not certain that we even have a quorum to take up a vote for this King.

Indeed, the "I Have A Dream" speech is a perennial favorite and is much more well known than "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which I believe is not only one of King's great works but one of the greatest prose works in American literature.

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" contains my favorite sentence in all of English prose:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "Wait." But when you have see vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (howeverold you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

The long periodic sentence is one of my favorites because the syntax embodies the thought — having to wait for the main clause of the sentence, the grammatical delay, embodies and forces a kind of experience of the waiting King refuses. Frustrate your frustrators. King's protest philosophy embodied in language.

More readily quoted, however, are the dream-tableaus from the "I Have A Dream" speech:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I remember many times my own mother quoting from the last two of these paragraphs. In the hope for judgment "by the content of their character," my mother saw, I think, not just the hope of the Civil Rights movement, but as well the hope and promise of America. And because we were in Alabama, I think, my mother thought the image of white and black children joining hands was the image we had to realize. In those images, I think, my mother found a way to imagine herself and her children as participants in the struggle—she wasn't even old enough to drive when the great events in Birmingham and Montgomery, just a few hours away, swept the television screens—and I think that may explain why many people, many white people especially, may turn to "I Have A Dream."

Participation is still important, I think, even at this historical remove, and I know that Williams is calling for a more robust participation, which is why he's chagrinned at some of the more facile, more packaged forms of participation, asking "Can someone explain to me why Netscape is offering MLK Jr. weekend trips from $199.00?"

But I can't join Williams in equating common memorial forms with a kind of ameliorationism.

He writes:

How many reenactments of marches and "freedom rides" will it require before we realize that those of us that participate in such events are unwitting co-conspirators in a movement committed to making King as non-threatening as possible to the general public?

I find the tour a particularly important exercise.

Over the Christmas holidays, I drove across south Alabama from Dothan to Marion, where on February 18, 1965, one of the most important — and most forgotten — moments in the Civil Rights movement occurred.

That night, the congregation of the Zion AME church gathered to march from the church's front doors into the town square, gather outside the city jail and sing to James Orange, a voting rights coordinator who was being held there. Once they entered the square, they were met by the Marion police and a large contingent from the Alabama State Patrol and a number of other whites. Asked to disperse, the congregation stood while their Reverend knelt to pray. A state trooper clubbed the Reverend over the head, someone cut the lights in the square, and the police and state troopers began to beat everyone, even chasing the protesters into adjacent buildings, including a cafe, to continue the beating.

In Mack's Cafe, just behind the church, two troopers ascended to the upper room where they continued their beating. One of them beat an old man named Cager Lee. When Lee's grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to protect him, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee in the stomach and, according to some witnesses, drug Jimmie Lee downstairs and into the street to beat him further.

Jimmie Lee's shooting and subsequent death galvanized the Civil Rights movement. It led to the Selma gathering just weeks later, to Bloody Sunday, and the five-day march to Montgomery.

I drove to Marion to see the square, to understand the geography in which this all occurred. I drove to internalize the geography in which this all occurred, my plan to continue on to Selma and then to Montgomery, to trace the events of February and March 1965, from the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson to the shooting of Viola Liuzzo, my plan not to joy in the uplifting vision of Dr. King, but rather to look toward the terror that made the fight necessary, to look toward the terror of the fight, to take it in, as much as one can.

I grew up in Alabama, but I felt very out of place. As I walked around the square, a trio of gentlemen — one black, one white, one Asian — eyeballed me, knowing me foreign. Local suspicion is part of small town life, but in their gaze my respect was growing for those who came to these towns in the 60s from elsewhere and my respect was growing for those who stood up to the most powerful people they'd ever known.

Thinking back to King's refusal to wait, I can understand the motives to frustration, the call to action.

Much more difficult to understand, however, is the courage. And my own small Civil Rights tour made me admire the difficulty and the courage of the movement all the more.

An hour later, I was in Selma, outside Brown's Chapel where all Selma's protesters gathered. Outside the Chapel, as outside Marion's Zion, is a black granite slab inscribed with the names of those who fought in the movement. Here, too, is a monument to King that says "I Had a Dream." I wondered at this past tense. True enough, historically, King had his dream, but I didn't want to think of the dream being past as well, especially as, at that moment, I was the one white person anywhere to be seen.

To be there, to think about the beatings that cracked John Lewis's skull, that killed James Reeb, to wind through the almost claustrophobic streets of Selma and its sometimes ghostly buildings, to rise over the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus bridge and cruise through the slow rolling barrens and swamplands, to consider the five-day march, their sleeping in fields in the hard wet cold that it seems only Alabama can harbor — well, all that was nothing, really. Just a day's drive. Nothing.

But it made me recall that the marching wasn't just about walking. It was about putting the body in harm, both the more immediate harm of the billy-club or the attack dog and the slower harms of miles of hard clay and cold, about opening one's self, not just to be seen, to be witnessed, but as well to be tracked, followed, perhaps attacked, as Viola Liuzzo was on March 25, 1965, hours after the climactic speech on the Capitol steps in Montgomery.

There, King recalled the martyrs of the movement, including Jackson and Reeb. Liuzzo would go later that night. "In spite of this," he wrote, in spite of their deaths, "we must go on and be sure that they did not die in vain. The pattern of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride toward freedom is the thunder of the marching men of Joshua, and the world rocks beneath their tread."

King said as well:

... it was normalcy in Marion that hled to the brutal murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. It was normalcy in Birmingham that led to the murder on Sunday morning of four beautiful, unoffending, innocent girls. It was normalcy on Highway 80 that led state troopers to use tear gas and horses and billy clubs against unarmed human beings who were simply marching for justice. It was normalcy by a cafe in Selma, Alabama, that led to the brutal beating of Reverend James Reeb.

If we drive, if we tour, if we walk, let it be not, as Williams worries, to take from the movement what King called "a certain kind of fire that no water can put out." Rather let us go in order to keep the stories of that fight from sinking back like footsteps into weathered ground. Let us go to find their footprints and to keep it all from being normalized.

I'm writing this from Denver, where I work, and Monday is Martin Luther King Day. My wife and I plan to join the city's "marade," a march/parade from Civic Center Park to City Park where stands a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. Denver, I suspect, was much more hospitable in the 1960s than either Selma or Marion, so I won't feel the unease I felt in Marion, but we'll still be walking for something, if for nothing else then to make our bodies feel something small we can multiply in imagination into some astonished, admiring disbelief. Or into some astonished, admiring belief.