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Alabama on My Mind

A blues reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr.

This past week was the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.

King is ever-present in our public consciousness, related to the iconic status he has assumed over the years, and to the fact that his birthday is celebrated as a national holiday every January. Recent days have seen the publication of a number of interesting and important commentaries on the meaning of his life, and death, and the legacies of his activism and leadership in the struggle for civil rights and for social justice: Eddie Glaude, Jr.’s discussion of the “whitewashing” and possible “resurrection” of King’s legacy; Michael Eric Dyson’s reflection on the tight link between faith and action for King; Jelani Cobb’s piece on King’s assassination, the ensuing violence, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) Report on violence, and the current mobilizations against gun violence linked to the March for Our Lives; a piece by Holland Carter on the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; a piece by Salamisha Tillet on recent documentaries on King that offer deeper insight into his complex life and politics (she also notes the relative absence of women civil rights leaders from these narratives: “the largely patrilineal tradition of black activism portrayed here overlooks those girls and women of color who have long been at the forefront of social justice movements”).

Mychal Denzel Smith has written a particularly powerful piece on “Is King All That We Are Allowed to Become?,” in which he notes of King’s iconic status:

But the fantasy of such a figure is an effective way of dismissing black youth culture as some perversion of a true black culture, one built by men like King, and therefore that culture need not be treated with any measure of care, understanding, or respect. If King’s philosophy, tactics, demeanor, and style are the standard, the people who fashion themselves as serious political thinkers have no reason to engage anyone who is not mimicking King. As such, they can limit the parameters of the debate to their sanitized, cuddly version of King’s politics. And without an infusion of differing viewpoints, the status quo is protected, and American institutions can continue their oppression unabated.

NPR ran an important report on “The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike: King’s Last Cause For Economic Justice,” and John Nichols writes in the Nation about how “Dr. King Knew That Labor Rights Are Human Rights.”

At a time in which both racial and socio-economic justice are under siege and at the same time the country seems buoyed by a wave of social movement activism — March for Our Lives; the Women’s March; Black Lives Matter — King’s legacy is very much alive. Among the many themes presented by King’s legacy, two seem particularly important now, especially in their connection: King’s compelling advocacy of non-violent resistance to injustice, and King’s growing belief in his later years that the struggle for justice would be longer and more arduous than his earlier struggles against Jim Crow suggested, and would require more ambitious mobilizations and more radical challenges to the harms caused by racism, militarism, and capitalism.

My colleague William E. Scheueurman has just published a new book that speaks to these concerns. Simply titled Civil Disobedience, it outlines, in a clear and readable way, the range of ways that civil disobedience has been conceived over the past hundred years. Scheuerman lays out four ideal types of contemporary civil disobedience: “divine witness” (M. K. Gandhi and M. L. King), “liberal” resistance to the unjust exercise of political authority (John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin), “democratic deepening” (Howard Zinn, Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas), and “anarchism” (Thoreau, Robert Paul Wolff, A. John Simmons). He explores the nuances of each type and the ways that they intersect. He then considers the relevance of these various conceptions to thinking about a number of important contemporary struggles, including Black Lives Matter, Occupy and alter-globalization movements, and hacktivism and digital forms of disobedience. While discerning merit in each conception, Scheuerman leans most strongly toward the “democratic” approach. The book, published in relatively inexpensive paperback by the trade press Polity in its “Key Concepts” series, is an excellent teaching tool. It also furnishes an interesting angle on King.

King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of the most important texts in the history of modern thinking about political obedience and disobedience. Scheuerman focuses on the ways that King, a Black Baptist minister and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, draws heavily on religious themes, images, and arguments (and by linking King with Gandhi, he also makes clear that Christianity is not the only religious tradition that can inspire civil disobedience). At the same time, King’s “Letter” is surprisingly eclectic and pluralistic, drawing on a wide range of sources and making an argument that is political as well as moral.

Its religious dimension is crucial. King was a believer in the healing power of a certain kind of love or agape, as both a means and an end of political action. The “Letter” presents a redemptive narrative of American history. It also emphasizes that forms of personal introspection and “purification” must precede any effective practice of civil disobedience. In The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch writes about “the spiritual discipline against resentment,” and of the preparation to sacrifice in the name of a higher cause, that King promoted.

This dimension of King’s vision is captured in John Coltrane’s famous song “Alabama,” a mournful minor blues written in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. As Jarvis DeBerry writes: “There are no lyrics in ‘Alabama,’ but the song doesn’t need any. One feels the sorrow of a funeral pouring out of the bell of Coltrane’s tenor saxophone. And despite the absence of words on the recording, it has long been rumored that the musician’s musical phrasings were crafted to mimic Martin Luther King Jr’s cadence” in his eulogy for the slain girls. And as Matt Micuci observes in Jazziz: “Coltrane was inspired by Martin Luther King’s speech, delivered in the church sanctuary three days after the bombing, and patterned his saxophone playing on it. Like the speech, ‘Alabama’ shifts its tone from one of mourning to one of renewed determination for the struggle against racially motivated crimes.”

Here is King’s eulogy:

Here is a 1963 live performance of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”:

King was a moralist and a religious ethicist. But he also understood that a “spiritual discipline against resentment” was more than a form of individual edification; it was a means of individual and collective empowerment in the struggle against injustice and for human rights — which he grounded in God’s law, natural law, and the Declaration of Independence. His political vision thus combined a certain austerity with an exuberance about acting together in concert, what Hannah Arendt in On Revolution called “the joy of public happiness.”

Blue Mitchell’s “March on Selma,” a buoyant and straight-ahead blues, captures this:

The March on Selma surely involved an inspired form of collective action, something highlighted in the recent theatrical film Selma, but also in original footage of the march:

At the same time, the marchers also came up against a powerful limit — the organized and brutal power of the segregationist state of Alabama:

The civil rights movement was constantly coming up against such limits, underscoring the long-term and political nature of the challenges facing the struggle for civil rights. Eyes on the Prize is a brilliant documentary, and its episode on Birmingham, “No Easy Walk,” is perhaps its best segment. Here it is:

The documentary makes very clear how profoundly political was “Project C” in Birmingham, and indeed the movement more generally. It surely involved moments of individual and group spiritual devotion and faithfulness, and it just as surely involved moments of passionate community-building, and brave and enthusiastic collective resistance to injustice. But it also involved complex coalitions between national civil rights groups (SCLC, SNCC) and local leaders (Fred Shuttlesworth); very deliberate strategic and tactical planning (led by Wyatt Tee Walker); and a great deal of fractiousness, including moments of over-reaching, and then pulling back. While “Project C” successfully channeled the indignation of Birmingham’s African-American community in non-violent directions, there were moments when crowd restiveness and anger at police violence almost threatened to spill over into violent confrontations (there is a particularly poignant moment in the film when James Bevel recollects how he was able to talk down a very angry crowd).

This is perhaps the most important lesson of the leadership of King, and the SCLC, in Birmingham, Selma, and throughout the South: that beyond the nobility of the civil resisters and the exemplarity of the peaceful demonstrations and marches, the movement was a pluralistic and agonistic coalescence of differences in the name of a common cause.

This coalescence is beautifully exemplified by Charles Mingus’s “Prayer for Passive Resistance.” Composed in honor of the 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, the tune combines solemnity, passion, and a kind of “organized chaos” for which Mingus’s compositions were known. While Blue Mitchell’s “March on Selma” is a very straightforward and straight ahead 12-bar blues, there is nothing straightforward about Mingus’s blues here, which includes complex orchestration, changes in tempo and dynamics, and changes in the underlying bass-driven rhythm:

It will take a new, Mingus-like coalescence to counter the current effort of the Trump administration to turn back the clock on civil rights, civil liberties, and constitutional democracy itself. As I have argued elsewhere, neither a simplistic “identity politics” nor a reductive “class politics” nor a bland “communitarianism” will do. What is needed is nothing less than what William E. Connolly, in his important new book Aspirational Fascism, has called a “struggle for multifaceted democracy under Trumpism.” As Connolly suggests, there is no blueprint for such a struggle. History can furnish us no solace, for it offers no simple lessons. Moreover, the past is past, Trump-inspired nostalgia about “making America great again” to the contrary. But the past does furnish shining examples of brave, creative, and ethically-sensitive struggle for human rights and democratic equality. We can be inspired by them, and we can learn from them. What King said in 1963 is true today: “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” Beneath the boil that is Trumpism lies much poison and ugliness. We have our work cut out for us.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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