Martin Luther King
BY GEOFFREY HODGSON QUERCUS, £25
Courage knows no boundaries of time, race or country but a certain preacher called Martin Luther King Jr had to summon up all his reserves of it as he stood before a huge assembly beneath the great, stone feet of Abe Lincoln’s memorial in Washington in 1963.
Expectations were great among many Catholics and Christians of all denominations that he was going to play oratorical tunes on the theme of racism in America. The crowd – watched by soldiers and police primed for trouble – was peaceful, well dressed, enjoying songs by folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in the warm summer breeze.
They were not going to be disappointed by King, as Godfrey Hodgson reminds us in his new biography. In fact he was about to embark on one of the greatest addresses of the 20th century, drawing on his experience as a Baptist preacher in Alabama and his studies at Boston University, as well as his first-hand knowledge of the bubbling cauldron of resentment growing against segregation in the southern States.
And he was well aware of turmoil in the background. For Patrick O’Boyle, Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, had threatened to withdraw the support of the Catholic Church, which represented about a quarter of all Americans, unless one of King’s more aggressive allies, John Lewis, toned down his own speech in which he had planned to attack President Kennedy’s draft civil rights bill as “too little too late”. At the last minute Lewis relented and a more placatory draft – minus the threats of a Black Power uprising – was hammered out on a portable typewriter. It wasn’t Lewis the crowd had come to hear, though. It was King. And they hung on every word as he stepped up to the microphone and began to speak.
He was then 34 years old, smartly dressed in Ivy League style with a broad mouth under a well-trimmed moustache. Most remarkable was his thrilling voice and choice of words, which combined Old Testament grandeur with a populist fervour, long a feature of traditional black Christianity. We hear echoes of it today in President Obama, even though his background is very different. Then, it was music to the ears of all who yearned for change – the estimated crowd of 300,000 and the millions watching on television.
King began by trying to reach out to all audiences with both sermon and political argument – to the powerful up the Washington Mall on Capitol Hill, the powerless on southern plantations, the angry in northern ghettos and the many southern whites reluctant to lay down their prejudices.
He quoted from famous American texts, from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Next, an idea came into his head and he began to improvise with fluency.
“I have a dream,” he said. And the dream was 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.” And that his own four children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
His technique was to launch a torrent of words then pause, leaving the audience momentarily in suspense. He quoted Isaiah to propel his rhetoric. “Every valley shall be exalted,” he cried. “And every hill and mountain shall be made low... and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” The climax came with a resounding call to let freedom ring on the day “when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands across the nation and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” The speech was a cardinal moment in the modern history of America. It can easily be argued that Barack Obama could not now be President without it. Because of it, President Kennedy laid before Congress an amended civil rights bill that did not become law until he was assassinated. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, a southerner himself but no racist, ensured that the politically risky legislation passed in 1964.
The following year Johnson successfully persuaded Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, allowing southern blacks the vote. Time for change, as Obama has promised. They were changing very fast in America in the mid-Sixties. The pragmatic Johnson pushed through schemes committing America to full racial equality. A War on Poverty began with a public relations campaign churned out by enthusiasts using Xerox machines. Yet rapid change can unravel fast. Many felt – as they do with Obama today over healthcare reforms – they were being pushed too hard. Even those holding liberal views began to believe that King had started a movement that would begin to discriminate in favour of black people at the expense of whites, which they thought was profoundly un-American. As parts of the civil rights movement transmuted into Black Power they began to feel afraid. And there were many ready to play on those fears, including Alabama’s combative Governor George Wallace.
By 1965 the Vietnam War was hotting up and beginning to turn people’s attention away from civil rights in all its forms. LBJ was forced to siphon off funds for the fight against Communism in a distant country.
In April 1968 Martin Luther King was dead, killed by a white assassin, paying the price for the non-violent movement he had created. But his “Dream” speech lives on. For America has transformed itself since 1968, partly because of King’s confrontations with southern racists and the manner of his and Jack and Robert Kennedy’s deaths. As the poet reminds us: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”