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Response to Review no. 460

I would like to thank Dr Joe Street for his thoughtful, perceptive and overall fair-minded review. Rather than highlight our many points of agreement, I will here focus upon and engage with our differences. I feel that many of Street’s misgivings stem from a misunderstanding of the aims and scope of the Profiles in Power series – although I would be the first to admit that this is not entirely his fault. My brief in writing the book was to locate King within the context of the broader forces of the times, centred on the theme of power. The job at hand, then, did not call for an in-depth rounded biography of King but rather for a contextualisation of his leadership within the civil rights movement. I accept that the choice of the series to label the book by the name of the person alone is misleading. A much better title would have been Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement since this is in effect what the book is about, as Street picks up on throughout his review.

Another defining characteristic of the series is that it is based principally on secondary sources and not on archival research. Some books in the series, notably Richard Carwardine’s volume on Abraham Lincoln, have been allowed to stretch that remit and that has probably muddied the waters about the intentions of the series as a whole. It is not therefore the constraints of ‘British academic life’ as Street suggests, but rather the demands of the series that accounts for the absence of archival research. Nevertheless, I do not think this absence is particularly significant. Most of King’s important sermons, speeches and writings, as well as other materials, are readily available and I used these sources where appropriate throughout. Moreover, King’s life has been extensively and exhaustively researched by a number of scholars, most notably in three benchmark works in the 1980s: Adam Fairclough’s To Redeem the Soul of America, which offers a neat interpretive analysis of King and his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in around 400 pages; David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, which almost doubles Fairclough’s number of pages in a more detailed exposition; and Taylor Branch, who in two volumes, Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, doubles Garrow’s number of pages yet again, with the final volume in the trilogy still in the pipeline. (1)

Given this research, I do not think that we need another big book on King. And as Peter Ling’s recent c.350-page biography of King demonstrates, another trawl through the archives twenty years later reveals nothing materially new, although I agree with Street that the book does provide a nicely nuanced and subtle update of the story. (2) We do need a succinct study of King that can critically engage with this much larger body of scholarship, together with the numerous works on the civil rights movement as a whole, and act as an interpretive gateway to them. That is the book I have written.

Under the circumstances, with roughly only 200 pages to play with, my task was always going to involve fitting the quart-sized histories of King and the movement into less than a pint pot. Doing so proved an interesting exercise in thinking about what material to include and what to cut. My helpful guide was the theme of power. I agree with Street that King presents particular problems in this respect, since he came from a powerless section of the United States population and his very goal was to redress this lack of power. I therefore decided to narrow my focus to King’s and the movement’s engagement with power with the stated aim, as Street notes, of demonstrating ‘how King translated [his] ideas, influences and abilities into action, by formulating a strategy to pursue social, political and economic change for blacks’.

Street then goes on to criticise the book for not engaging further with these ‘ideas, influences and abilities’ enough, principally the themes of King’s ‘oratorical genius’, ‘the pulpit and Christianity’ and ‘King’s intellectual history.’ He is right that I do not give these elements of King as much coverage as many other works (and he is equally correct that I no not ignore them). To put it bluntly, the reason for these relative ‘omissions’ is that in the final analysis I do not believe that King talked, prayed, or thought an end to segregation. I understand that all of these were important attributes of the man, but I believe that what ultimately set King apart from his peers – many of whom could speak just as eloquently, were just as spiritual, and could think just as deeply as King, if not more so – was his ability to harness all of these things together and, crucially, to translate them into a coherent strategy for action in the pursuit of power. This is no doubt heresy to some and I would have welcomed the space and opportunity to spell this argument out more forthrightly in my book, but within the constraints of the medium, I had to rely on narration as interpretation. This again is a failing that I accept.

I do not, however, think that this makes King, as Street suggests, ‘more prosaic than prophetic’. If it does make King more of a ‘secular political leader’ than ‘a spiritual leader’ then I have no problem at all with that. Indeed, I welcome it. Certain attributes of King have been claimed and explored (and sometimes exaggerated and glorified) by scholars for complex and often well-intentioned political and cultural reasons. My hope is that a new generation of King scholars – and I think I am right in claiming that I am the first person to write such a study of King who was actually born after King’s assassination – will have a greater sense of historical perspective that will focus less on King’s alleged superhuman qualities of voice, spirituality and intellect, and more on what I believe was absolutely central to his importance: his engagement with and his direct action against the injustices of the day. Street is right that I agree with movement activist Ella Baker that leaders who can fulfil prophetic justice are more valuable than those who can merely prophesise it. Baker’s comments in 1960 warned of the damage that prophetic leadership could mean to the movement although King, as I stress in my book, by gradually reaching beyond the prophetic tradition to merge it with more secular political traditions, went on to prove that Baker’s earlier judgement of him needed revising by the end of his life. In this respect, King’s 1956 meeting with the radical African American, northern, Quaker, pacifist, socialist, homosexual Bayard Rustin, who was a far cry from the black southern Baptist church’s ideal poster boy, and who would remain one of King’s key advisors for much of his life, was an influential moment in King’s longer term development as a leader. I thought I had made that clear in my book.

Although I generally agree with Street’s analysis of the development of King scholarship, I think that he misses out some important early studies. My ‘new generation’ scholarship is resonant with this ‘early generation’ scholarship, particularly David L. Lewis’s King: A Critical Biography, which was first published in 1970 and still remains relevant today. (3) Lewis’s book, as the title suggests, offers a much more critical and searching, although still sympathetic analysis of King than later works. This is in part because, unlike later scholars, Lewis judges King –quite rightly in my opinion – principally as a movement activist rather than as a transcendent spiritual leader. This is a reflection, I would contend, of how many movement participants themselves viewed and judged King. After all, this was a ‘civil’ rights movement. Revealingly, as King’s canonisation crystallised in the years after his 1968 assassination and he became a national hero and movement icon, Lewis’s second edition of his biography in 1978 pointedly dropped the ‘critical’ and became simply King: A Biography. (4) I want to put the ‘critical’ back into the scholarship and to reclaim King from national popular mythology back into history. I believe, along with Michael Eric Dyson, Vincent Harding, and other King scholars, that this will deliver a more representative and accurate benchmark of King’s value and legacy. We should not confuse the popular reconstruction of King with the historical reality. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the 1963 March on Washington, which Street chastises me for not making more of, is a perfect case in point. As a recent study acknowledges, ‘Between 1963 and 1968, few people spent substantial time talking or thinking about what King had said…At the time of King’s death [the speech] had nearly vanished from public view’. (5)

I have said more than I intended to already so I will stop there. I am pleased that Street thinks I am successful in meeting the modest aims of my short book on King and the civil rights movement and I am grateful for his well-made and well-taken comments. If, beyond that, my book and Street’s review provoke wider debate on how King’s life and legacy is presented, the more the better.

 

Notes

1. A. Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens, Georgia, 1987); D. J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, 1986); T. Branch, Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–63 (New York, 1988); T. Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (New York, 1998).

2. P. J. Ling, Martin Luther King, Jr. (2002).

3. D. L. Lewis, King: A Critical Biography (Urbana, Illinois, 1970).

4. D. L. Lewis, King: A Biography (Urbana, Illinois, 1978 reprint).

5. D. D. Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation (New York, 2003), p. 239.