If Only the Prolife Movement Were So Favored

February 2002By Maclin Horton

Maclin Horton lives in Fairhope, Alabama, and works in information technology.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” .  By S. Jonathan Bass. Louisiana State University Press. $39.95.. .

As I read this book I found myself considering it from three different points of view, almost as if I were reading three different books. And this was due to no fault of the book, but rather to the fact that it really tells two different stories, while providing an implicit commentary on a third.

The first story is the one which the book principally intends to tell. In Birmingham, Alabama, in the most tense and violent days of the civil rights movement, days which resulted in the city’s being immortalized as the domain of Bull Connor and his dogs and firehoses, a group of white clergymen found themselves caught between white segregationists and the NAACP. These men — several Protestant ministers, a Catholic bishop, and a rabbi — recognized the untenable injustice of racial segregation. They believed that change would and should come, but they desired that it be peaceful, and urged therefore that it should be slow and cautious. Martin Luther King Jr., on the other hand, would soon publish a book called Why We Can’t Wait and had other ideas, as did his fellows in the movement.

In April of 1963, protest marches were building up to the Good Friday march that would land King in jail for parading without a permit. In the midst of the rising tension, the eight clergymen issued a public statement calling for a peaceful, locally determined, and gradual solution to the segregation problem. In so doing, they made themselves targets of opportunity, whipping boys to whom Dr. King could direct the chastisement of his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” They were the putative addressees of what was in fact a public document, never delivered to them but rather to the press, which took them severely to task for the gradualism which made them, in King’s eyes, allies of the segregationists.

Of course the eight were also vilified by the segregationists themselves, hence the book’s ironic title: These would-be peacemakers were in fact cursed from two directions. They endured a significant amount of hostility from segregationists, and most of them found their ministry damaged, some irreparably, because of this hostility, and they remained to some degree resentful that they had been made to appear as little better than bigots in order for King to score points in a public relations campaign. Blessed are the Peacemakers is the effort of S. Jonathan Bass, a history professor at Birmingham’s Samford University, to correct this injustice, to show these men as they really were — their fundamental good will and courage, and their limitations and weaknesses.

In the process of achieving this — which he does quite successfully — Bass must tell the second of the two stories referred to above. This is the story of the Birmingham civil rights campaign, and in particular the extent to which, and the ways in which, it was a public relations campaign. The author is manifestly sympathetic to the movement, but not so much so that he is unwilling to treat it in a manner far short of hagiographical. The title of one chapter, “Eyes on the Press” (cf. the movement’s rallying cry “eyes on the prize”) is indicative of the unsentimental tone.

The fact that the civil rights movement was essentially just and correct does not mean that the assertion of segregationists — that it was the work of “outside agitators” intent on creating a spectacle — was entirely untrue. In fact, using quotations from the leaders and descriptions of the tactics used, Bass clearly shows that the creation of what we now call “media events” was an explicit and important, perhaps the most important, tactical goal of the movement. King and others more or less shopped around the South for a city that would give them the dramatic confrontation they needed; the city of Birmingham stupidly complied. Similar efforts had failed previously in Albany, Georgia, and would fail later in Danville, Virginia. But the intransigence of Birmingham’s leaders, and the violence of racist fanatics, produced the images that helped create the climate of opinion in which civil rights legislation could be passed.

Most people who have given thought to the matter surely understand now that the civil rights movement won its battle mostly in the media. Nevertheless, many seem to believe, half- or un-consciously, that the media narrative (as we would call it today) is close enough to the truth as to make no difference.

But the preservation of that narrative in its pure form requires that the reputations of eight decent men be smeared. To clear away this opprobrium does nothing to impugn the essential justice of Martin Luther King’s cause, and little to diminish his reputation. To say that he and his movement handled the media brilliantly and somewhat cynically is at worst a faint disparagement of their virtue. It is not the business of crusaders to search out all the fullness and complexity of the truth. Such is, however, the business of historians, and Bass has rendered a service to truth here.

Will anyone ever do the same for the prolife movement? — anyone, that is, who will be listened to by the academy, by a respected university press, by the establishment media, by establishment politicians? It is the bitter story of the prolife movement which these other two stories continually suggested to me as I read this book. The civil rights movement could not have succeeded as it did without the help of the press; the prolife movement cannot, it seems, succeed in the face of its opposition.

Though I myself do not have the stomach for the task, it would be an interesting exercise in “alternative history” (fiction based on a speculative premise such as an English victory in the American Revolution) to write an account of the civil rights movement as it might have worked out if the sympathies of the press had been with the segregationists.

Consider the differences. The movement would have been covered only when it could be made to look ridiculous or evil. Few blacks would have been allowed to speak on television except the stupid or vulgar, few white segregationists except the educated and articulate, who would have explained segregation as the right of some people not to be forced to associate with others, and who would have trafficked in euphemisms such as “freedom of association,” which would eventually have become simply “freedom.” (In fact, of course, such euphemisms were used, but they were never accepted by the press.) There would have been an unwritten rule forbidding journalists to point out that white exercise of freedom implied an equal but opposite restriction on blacks. The effort by segregationists to portray laws forbidding it as an effort to impose a private morality on the public would have succeeded, and the press, rather than ridiculing the point, would have accepted it and carefully ignored any argument to the contrary.

The motives of the movement would have been endlessly questioned and disparaged without rebuttal; the label “Communist” would have stuck to it like glue instead of becoming a standing joke against those who applied it. The March on Washington would have received only minimal press coverage, with no pictures at all unless some could be found of participants behaving badly. Had the White Citizens’ Council been clever enough, it might have formed an innocuously named research institute to issue press releases containing copious statistics about black crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, illegitimacy, and so forth. These would have been published as news stories without mention of the group’s political connection.

The term “civil rights” would have appeared only in quotation marks, or preceded by the phrase “so-called.” A white woman claiming to be mulatto would have formed a segregationist group called Negroes for Free Association which claimed to speak for blacks, and most NAACP activities or statements would have been “balanced” in press reports by her criticism and rejoinders. Her organization, while having a miniscule membership, would have been heavily subsidized by wealthy white supremacists, and the press would never have mentioned this, much less questioned it.

And when, after a decade or so of fruitless nonviolent action, segregation remained the norm and a few embittered blacks assassinated a few Klansmen suspected of lynching blacks, the entire movement would have been so demonized and marginalized that for the foreseeable future anyone proposing such a thing as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have been regarded as a dangerous and un-American extremist.

Back to February 2002 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!