January 21, 2013


Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. (Richard John Neuhaus, October 2002, First Things)

I am in the minority with my admiration for Ralph Abernathy's 1989 autobiographical account of the movement, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. Abernathy was beyond doubt closer to King than anyone else. After the assassination, he took King's place as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), although he knew as well as anyone that he was no Martin Luther King. His book was harshly criticized for its candor about King's sexual vagaries, but other published accounts had been more explicit on that score. What I think got to many reviewers is that Abernathy refused to toe the line on the leftist ideology of the movement and even, in the early eighties, took a conservative turn, offering some favorable words on, of all people, Ronald Reagan.

His gravest violation of conventional tellings is that he declined to see black Americans as a victim class oppressed by white racism, or to depict the movement as a response of revolutionary rage. As he told the story, King was a privileged son of the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta and he, Abernathy, was the heir of a tradition of black dignity in a rural Alabama he describes in almost idyllic terms. Abernathy was daringly "incorrect," and he paid a steep price for it. "Though slavery as an institution was wicked and foreign to the will of our Lord," he wrote, "it was not uniformly cruel and abusive. Some slaves, in the midst of their degradation, were treated with a measure of Christian charity, just as some prisoners of war have always been treated better than others. In the worst of circumstances, the human heart is still a mysterious variable."

His grandparents were slaves, but did not understand themselves to be victims. "In Marengo County during the first half of the twentieth century, the name 'Abernathy' meant integrity, responsibility, generosity, and religious commitment--and it came to mean that largely through the life and testimony of the black Abernathys. . . . So I feel no shame in going by a last name to which my father and mother brought such character and dignity. It was their name. They didn't just borrow it from a long-dead white man. They paid for it with their exemplary lives and therefore owned it outright when they passed it along to me."

Abernathy says that as a boy he was aware of racial segregation, but to him and other blacks in Alabama it was no big deal if the white folks wanted to have their own drinking fountains and a separate entrance at the post office. What did rankle is that white folk wouldn't call his father "Mister." The demand for white courtesy, and respect for the dignity that black folk knew they possessed--that was the issue in what came to be called the civil rights movement. That was the issue when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a refusal that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott to which Abernathy recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., thus launching them both on a tumultuous course that they could neither anticipate nor control.

A Legacy Not Well Served

That is in largest part the story of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: how a modest campaign for basic human decency somehow exploded into an out-of-control movement that, picking up a curious mix of causes and characters along the way, was perceived as a revolutionary challenge to the fundamental institutions and beliefs of the country and the world. Oddly enough, Marshall Frady's Martin Luther King, Jr. tells much of the story in the same way, although Frady tends to be condescending, at best, toward Ralph David Abernathy. Abernathy is described as "a stocky, slow badger of a man with a drowsy-eyed, drooping face but a droll and rollicking earthiness, who in their special comradeship over the years was to serve as something like King's Falstaff." At another point: "There was already, of course, the dutiful Abernathy, [King's] baggy, dolorous-faced, waggish Sancho Panza [who was] totally steadfast." It was easy to underestimate Abernathy, as I too learned. He did play the clown at times, but at times of crisis there was no one whose intuitive judgment King trusted more.

On the other hand, Frady has a high estimate of Jesse Jackson. In 1996 he published Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, and in the present book he writes: "Jesse Jackson, after founding his own movement organization in Chicago, would eventually convert what was perhaps the largest victory of King's apostleship--the claiming of the vote for all blacks--into two surprisingly impressive guerrilla presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988: As it turned out, this aide who came latest to King, and was perhaps most mistrusted by him, would come closest to developing into his heir as the single most eloquent symbol of pride and hope for masses of black Americans." All the worse for masses of black Americans, in the judgment of many. Frady attempts to excuse even Jackson's smearing of his shirt with King's blood on April 4, 1968 and then going on television to present himself as the anointed heir.

King mistrusted Jackson with good reason, and the following decades have vindicated that mistrust as Jackson has time and again acted as an opportunist, an ambulance chaser, and a publicity hound, who has skillfully exploited the memory of the movement by turning it into a lucrative extortion racket for shaking down corporate America. With a few honorable exceptions, such as Andrew Young, King's legacy has not been well served by those closest to him.

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[originally posted: 1/19/09]

Posted by at January 21, 2013 5:30 AM
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