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Religion & Race in the South

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Edited by James Melvin Washington

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 676

Price: $22.50

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville writer, as well as Book Review Editor of the NOR. He is the author of Tried as by Fire: Southern Baptists and the Religious Controversies of the 1920s and other books.

Also reviewed:

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. By C. Vann Woodward. Louisiana State University Press. 158 pages. $12.95.

Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative. By M.E. Bradford. University of Georgia Press. 178 pages. $15.95.

In January 1986 the Alabama legislature voted to observe the third Monday of each year in commemoration of two heroes of the South. Such dual anniversaries are not uncommon below the Mason-Dixon line; Virginia, for example, reserves a day annually to honor Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. But Alabama’s legislators added a new twist to a familiar theme: the January holiday celebrates the birthdays of General Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. Did the flawlessly conservative lawmakers suddenly turn radical? Or did they cynically seize upon a clever ploy to placate the state’s black voters? Never at a loss for words, Time opined that the event underscored “the contradictions of the South.”

The Alabama legislature hardly acted precipitously. King died nearly 20 years ago, and he has long enjoyed the esteem of most Americans. His assassination in 1968 removed a bothersome irritant from the American conscience; spared further pestering from King’s importunate demands, Americans piously wel-comed the fallen black leader into the nation’s pantheon. King’s shocking death proved to be his most effective act, for James Earl Ray’s violent deed made it impolitic to oppose black equality openly. Everyone — save, of course, a few obdurate white Southerners — paid lip service to the cause. White Americans con-gratulated themselves for having extirpated bigotry; by 1986 even President Reagan, never exactly a champion of black rights, could claim Martin Luther King’s mantle. King dead is infinitely more palatable than King alive.

We demand that our heroes be faultless, for only immaculateness will properly serve the national self-image of innocence and righteousness. Thomas Jefferson, a cunningly partisan politician who evoked merciless hatred from many of his opponents, is transformed into the Sage of Monticello. Abraham Lincoln, a crafty manipulator of the race issue, is transmogrified into Father Abraham and enthroned in godlike magnificence in a Greek temple beside the Potomac.

This urge to sanitize our heroes has already begun to benefit the Rev. King. Hagiographers toil sedulously to remove the tiniest blemish from his image; his widow and former associates guard his memory jealously and invoke his name reverentially. A black girl in Tennessee, recently asked by a reporter to name a figure worthy of comparison with King, responded unhesitatingly, “Jesus Christ.” “Brother Martin,” martyred saint who died for fraternité, liberté, egalité, enters the Elysium inhabited by Jefferson, Lincoln, and a chosen few.

James Melvin Washington’s A Testament of Hope — nearly 700 pages of King’s “essential writings” — bids to define the sacred canon. Rather than infallible wisdom, however, the writings reveal a startling propensity for wrongheadedness. Though King hailed Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” as a formative influence on his own thinking, the ghost of Walter Rauschenbusch haunted his theology. The fundamental elements of the Social Gospel are all there: evil resides in institutions, not in the human heart; the spread of Christian charity nudges mankind up the slope of progress; society can be Christianized and the New Jerusalem brought to earth through human endeavor. As a good Social Gospeler, King denounced war and turned his ire on the debacle in Vietnam. Out of his dismay with American foreign policy came suspect in-sights: “We have,” he intoned, “committed more war crimes than almost any nation in the world.” Embracing what passed in the 1960s as serious intellection, King blamed Third World poverty on America and her allies, and prophesied that the emerging nations of Asia and Africa would teach the white man how to live in peace and justice. He prescribed nonviolent resistance as the cure for world strife; what had worked in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma would play equally well in Moscow, Peking, and Prague. The nostrums, pieties, and platitudes that the Left often substituted for critical analysis flourished luxuriantly in the mind of Martin Luther King Jr.
Strange as it may sound, I too, like Washington, come not to bury King but to praise him — but not because he is a larger-than-life figure chiseled in marble. King’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 boosted him to world prominence and encouraged him to pontificate on matters that lay beyond his province. His admirers have enshrined his every utterance and have created a hero removed from the arena of his true greatness — the South. As the leader of Southern blacks, he accomplished enough — with or without the Nobel Prize — to guarantee lasting acclaim as one of the 20th century’s most illus¬trious individuals. He was Southern born and bred, and here — in his native land, in the maelstrom of civil turmoil and the struggle for black rights — one finds the source of his enduring fame.

When King established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 it vowed “To Save the Soul of America.” King failed to save America’s soul, but he did redeem the white South, or, at least, dragged it kicking and screaming onto the road toward redemption. For three centuries white Southerners had subjected their black brothers and sisters to the stringent rule of, first, slavery and then segregation. Always, of course, there had been kindly whites who had refused to take full advantage of an evil system. But when blacks contemplated this long history of oppression, they found ample reason for bitterness, anger, and vengefulness. By the 1950s they had begun to stir restively under their yoke.

Into this situation stepped Martin Luther King Jr., a young and unknown Baptist preacher from Atlanta. Important black leaders preceded King, and others would come after him, but in the first crucial decade of the civil rights movement he, above all others, set the tone of the black cause. Forging from the teachings of Christ and Gandhi a method and philosophy of nonviolent resistance, he inspired the black people of the South to rise up in angerless revolution. He sought no triumph over whites; always he urged his followers to be magnanimous and gracious in their gains, to display no vindictiveness toward their antagonists who clung desperately to the remnants of a dying order. Pitting “soul force” against physical force, King reminded blacks that they sought “redemption and reconciliation” rather than to reverse the roles of oppressor and oppressed.

King loved the South ardently and he never lost hope in its “marvelous possibilities.” After suffering the savagery of Bull Connor’s billy clubs, dogs, and fire hoses, he could still say: “I like to believe that Birmingham will one day become a model in southern race relations.” He understood that although Southern whites and blacks had lived on opposite sides of a racial divide, they had also, paradoxically, grown accustomed to one another, had accepted the other’s presence, and, in the midst of cruelty and injustice, had sometimes formed interracial bonds sealed with mutual affection. No Southern conservative ever penetrated more successfully to the core of Yankee hypocrisy than did King. He was never fooled by protestations of amity and good will from Northerners who conveniently ignored the ghettos that festered only miles away from their opulent suburbs. King refused to abandon faith in integration or to relinquish hope for a reconciliation that would bring white and black together to transform the South. One of the bitterest disappointments of his life came when the Black Power movement burst onto the scene preaching violence and racial animosity. “The black man needs the white man,” he wrote in 1967, “and the white man needs the black man.”

It takes two to integrate, and if Southern blacks, following King’s example, were willing to forgive, forget, and strive to build a just society, whites were reluctant to forsake time-tested mores. King knew that successful integration depended in part on Southern liberals. They were a rare breed, scattered throughout the South, fragmented in their efforts, but not without influence, for their ranks included the courageous newspaper editor, the respected college professor, the small-town attorney, the stray preacher or two, and even a politician now and then. They had existed in the South since the late 19th century: beleaguered, isolated, cautious, loath to alienate themselves from kith and kin, they had nonetheless managed to nurture a vision of better times; they too, like King, had a dream.

In the early 1930s a young man of this persuasion headed for Chapel Hill to embark on graduate study in history at the University of North Carolina. The descendant of Arkansas slaveholders, Vann Woodward had somehow resisted the dic¬tates of regional conformity; he loved his homeland with a Faulknerian passion, not only for what it was, but for what it might be as well. The career begun in Chapel Hill 50 years ago — a career recalled with grace, wisdom, and insight in his new book, Thinking Back — would lead Woodward to use the scholar’s pen to promote understanding of the South’s tangled past. Along the way, he would add his voice to the black cause and inspire scores of young Southerners to seek in their homeland’s history the courage to answer King’s call for “redemption and reconciliation.” Now approaching the age of 80, Woodward epitomizes the Southern liberal at his best.
Although Woodward’s brand of liberalism has gained strength in the South since the 1950s, the key to further prog¬ress in race relations lies with the region’s conservative spokesmen, men who reflect the sentiments of most Southern whites far more accurately than do the Vann Woodwards. In the past decade M.E. Bradford, professor of English at the University of Dallas, has emerged as one of the most important conservative thinkers in America. In Remembering Who We Are, a collection of his addresses and essays from 1970 to 1984, he outlines a conservatism that, unfortunately, offers little encouragement to those who seek to improve understanding and cooperation between the races.

As a disciple of the Nashville Agrarians of the 1930s, Bradford roots his conservatism in the specificities of time and place, in long-honored traditions and deeply embedded customs and loyalties. To “remember who we are” compels us to adhere to the ways of our ances¬tors, and braces us to resist the disintegrating forces of modernity.

To support the conservative life of the South, Bradford urges a political realignment that would unite traditionally Democratic farmers and factory workers with the Republicans who populate the South’s proliferating suburbs. The Democratic Party would then be reduced to a permanent minority in the re¬gion, dependent upon blacks and the thin ranks of liberal scalawags. “It is better,” he contends, “that we forget about the black vote as such.”
Ironically, by vesting his hopes in the Republican Party in this way, Bradford betrays the Southern Agrarianism he professes to uphold. The South’s Republicans — heirs of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, and Calvin Coolidge — clamor for economic development and lust after the idols of the marketplace. Other than the preservation of Southern accents and a modicum of good manners, they care not a whit for tradition. Atlanta embodies their dream of the future, and the bulldozer is their chosen vehicle for the trip to Utopia. This troubles Bradford, to be sure. Furthermore, he recognizes the difficulty of persuading farmers and factory hands that bankers and corporate executives are their friends. But he thinks their reluctance can be surmounted by invoking the solidarity symbolized by the Lost Cause. “I have seen,” Bradford writes, “a county carried by two choruses of ‘Dixie’ played from a loudspeaker on a moving flatbed truck.” The Stars and Bars snap in the breeze, the strains of “Dixie” prickle the spine — the rednecks cheer, the bankers smile with relief, and the blacks scurry for cover.

Moreover, Bradford fails to apprehend that Southern blacks rank among the most conservative people in America; their devotion to church, family, and land make their alliance with Northern liberals no more than a marriage of convenience. But if their natural conservatism is to flourish, they must be given something to conserve; they must be granted a stake in society. Booker T. Washington, a man of impeccable conservative credentials, asked for no more nearly a century ago; the white South refused his modest request then, and one fears that Bradford’s coalition would continue that refusal.
Bradford is a devout and dedicated Christian, a Southern Baptist, but his religion does not suffuse his political thinking. The Rev. King decried the failure of the South’s white churches to rise above the mandates of society; every Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, he pointed out, the South exhibited segregation in its purest form. Southern Baptists, the region’s dominant religious group, have been notable for what one of their own historians called “cultural captivity.” They lent their voices to the defense of slavery, and supported segrega-tion as God’s appointed plan for racial coexistence. They have consistently permitted their society to dictate to the church, instead of letting the church judge the social order. White Baptists turned a deaf ear to King, choosing rather to vent their moral energies against such social “evils” as dancing, drinking, smoking, and gambling. In search of motes, they have been blind to beams.
The South remains a bastion of conservatism, both of the traditionalist and Reagan varieties. Only upon that conservatism can a better order be founded; there are too few Vann Woodwards to ground hope in Southern liberalism. Martin Luther King Jr. never forsook his dream that “one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” We have yet to translate that dream into reality. To have done so, one hopes, will someday stand as the supreme achievement of Southern conservatives; Lee-King Day in Alabama is a start.


© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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