Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, and Fractious Unity
Lessons from the civil rights movement for today’s political debates
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” – Duke Ellington
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a classic of American political thought and of American literature more generally. I’ve taught it countless times in my almost four decades of teaching political theory. Almost every time, I’ve also screened and discussed with my students various episodes of “Eyes on the Prize,” the important 14-episode documentary series about the U.S. civil rights movement and its aftermath.
My favorite episode, and the one I have taught most often, is episode 4, “No Easy Walk: 1961-1963.”
I love this episode because it highlights the complexity and fractiousness of the civil rights movement, its ups and downs across time and space, and the constant ethical challenges that its leaders and its activists faced, thought through, argued about, and then acted upon.
The episode begins in 1961 with the Albany Movement in Georgia, foregrounding tensions between Charles Sherrod, the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and considering the tactical weaknesses and ultimate failure of the movement, at least circa the early 1960s. It then segues to its central story: Project C (the “C” was for “Confrontation”), the SCLC’s successful campaign to desegregate businesses in Birmingham, Alabama, making clear the complex local situation, and the broader historical context, in which King wrote his famous “Letter.” It then shifts to the August 1963 March on Washington, emphasizing the enormous challenges, of logistics and of coalition-building, behind the effort that culminated in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Treating the march as an empowering and culminating achievement (something made vivid by the compelling recollections of Rev. Ralph Abernathy), it shifts once again, this time back to Birmingham, and the September KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls, traumatized the movement, and shocked the nation. It ends with the funeral of the four girls, at first presented in silence, and then with the mourners singing “We Shall Overcome.” The final words of the narrator: “They sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ But in anger and in rage, many wondered how.”
A very powerful episode of a very powerful documentary series, about a story that is still unfolding. The upshot of the episode: the movement faced real challenges and experienced real successes, and the obstacles and the dangers were great, and there was much grief and uncertainty and dissension, and the struggle continued.
The episode, and the documentary more generally, makes clear that what we think of as the civil rights movement was a complex and precarious assemblage of national organizations, such as SCLC, SNCC, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP, and local organizations, whether coalitions, like the Albany Movement, or local affiliates, such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. In its treatment of the Birmingham campaign the episode makes clear that while King was the public and media face of the movement, it was local leaders such as Shuttlesworth and important movement organizers such as Wyatt Tee Walker and James Bevel who loomed large in the day-to-day actions that actually drove the movement forward. (Alas, little attention is given to the role of women activists, such as Diane Nash, an important SNCC leader who also worked closely with SCLC in Birmingham, and who was also married to Bevel, a top SCLC official. Nash once remarked “I never considered Dr. King my leader. I always considered myself at his side and I considered him at my side. I was going to do what the spirit told me to do. So if I had a leader, that was my leader.”) It also makes clear that, unsurprisingly, these people were not always of one mind.
The episode indeed begins with a conflict between the strategic perspectives of Sherrod and King, and near the end focuses on the behind-the-scenes disagreement between SCLC and SNCC about John Lewis’s March on Washington speech. While Lewis and SNCC sought to strongly criticize the Kennedy administration’s failure to enforce federal law in the South, thus making civil rights workers vulnerable to violence, King’s sought to strike a more positive tone and persuade the administration to play a more active role. As the documentary makes clear, the intercession of A. Phillip Randolph eventually persuaded Lewis to modify his speech (the two drafts of Lewis’s speech are presented here, along with Lewis’s 2009 reflections on his thinking at the time). But as you can see and read below, the man who was introduced by Randolph that day as “young John Lewis” struck a tone much more radical than King’s tone even in his more “moderate” speech:
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, twelve hours a day. While we stand here there are students in jail on trumped-up charges. Our brother James Farmer, along with many others, is also in jail. We come here today with a great sense of misgiving.
It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill. We support it with great reservations, however. Unless Title III is put in this bill, there is nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstrations. In its present form, this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state. It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people that have been arrested on trumped charges. What about the three young men, SNCC field secretaries in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?
As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a sixth-grade education. “One man, one vote” is the African cry. It is ours too. It must be ours!
We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off of his farm because he dares to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in a home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year. We must have a good FEPC bill.
My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?
Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia? Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted, not by the Dixiecrats, but by the federal government for peaceful protest? But what did the federal government do when Albany’s deputy sheriff beat Attorney C.B. King and left him half-dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?
To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.
I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. For in the Delta in Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.
They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: “Wake up America! Wake up!” For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
Here is how Howard Zinn described Lewis’s speech in “SNCC: The Battle-Scarred Youngsters,” an eyewitness account published in the Nation:
There was one relevant moment in the day’s events at Washington: that was when the youngest speaker on the platform, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), lashed out in anger, not only at the Dixiecrats, but at the Kennedy Administration, which had been successful up to that moment in directing the indignation of 200,000 people at everyone but itself. The depth of Lewis’ feeling and the direction of his attack may have baffled Northern liberals, mollified recently by the Administration’s new Civil Rights Bill, by its bold words and by the President’s endorsement of the great March. But John Lewis knew, because the young SNCC workers in his organization are on the front lines of the conflict, that while the President and the Attorney General speak loud in Washington, their voices are scarcely whispers in the towns and the hamlets of the Black Belt.
The tension between Lewis and King in 1963 was real. Both were deeply religious young African American men trained in theology, committed to nonviolence, and determined to place their minds and their bodies on the line to advance the struggle for civil rights. And yet they disagreed, about the kinds of grass-roots efforts that might be required, about the extent to which the Kennedy administration ought to be chastised and pressured, and about the role of indignation and anger in politics. Lewis was angry, and this was clear both in his words and in his way of speaking them. The difference between Lewis and King can be described as “generational”; and though King was himself far from old, the leaders of SCLC were largely ministers, whereas the leaders of SNCC were students who saw themselves as part of the broader rebelliousness of young people at the time. But it was, at a deeper level, a difference of strategic emphasis and political disposition. Lewis was clearly more radical, King more “moderate” — but only in a broader political context in which neither was moderate at all, and both were committed to what King called a “creative extremism” of justice.
And yet in spite of their disagreements, they worked together, and their organizations worked together. Whatever differences separated them were not effaced through such cooperation. The differences remained, and they surely made cooperation sometimes very difficult. But they also made the cooperation necessary.
I think there is a lesson in this: that it is possible for those committed to social justice to sustain a healthy tension between disagreement and agreement; to work together across their differences, even if and when these differences may involve some measure of personal antipathy (I have watched the section of “Eyes” where Charles Sherrod speaks about King dozens of times, and it seems pretty clear to me that he did not like King, and that the feeling was likely mutual); and to develop and express a kind of agonistic respect for one another, in the course of disagreeing as well as the course of agreeing.
This lesson is all too relevant now.
It is relevant to controversies surrounding this past weekend’s Women’s March. It is relevant to the recent controversy surrounding the Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights Institute’s sorry decision to award its Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award to Angela Davis, and then to respond to some public criticism of Davis’s radical positions by revoking the award.
And it is relevant to the ongoing debates within the Democratic Party about the future of the party, regarding the meanings to be attributed to the recent “blue wave,” and the extent to which the party should reinvigorate itself at the base, and move to the left, and if so how. These debates will surely become increasingly fractious and acrimonious as the large number of announced or prospective candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination begin to jockey for position. Many of the hopefuls are women. Some are African-American or Latinx. If Bernie Sanders runs again, there will be at least one democratic socialist; and on the party’s left, there is already vigorous debate about whether Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, or perhaps even Sherrod Brown, best represents a progressive vision of economic justice. (Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara thinks it’s clearly Sanders; in the New York Times, Steven Vogel makes the case for Warren; and writing in the Nation, William Grieder thinks it might well be Brown. In New York magazine, Eric Levitz recently published a terrific discussion of why these differences should not be exaggerated).
I personally think that it is much too early to know which candidate is best. I would like to see who actually winds up running for the Democratic nomination, and I would like to see the actual candidates debate and compete. The choice will not be binary. And, due to the success of Sanders in 2016, and the success of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in 2018, there are already quite a few competitors advancing a progressive vision of socio-economic and environmental justice. In my opinion, the competition is necessary, as a way of “testing” the programs, the campaigning acumen, and the electability of the candidates. It is obvious that many are already lining up behind one or another candidate. This too is good, and it is part of the process whereby the political contest will unfold.
What is not good is for anyone involved in the contest to imagine that only they are on the side of justice or equality or progress.
We need to be able to disagree, sometimes strongly and passionately, without demonizing each other or tearing each other apart.
We need to allow for some to stand for “experience” and some for “novelty”; for some to speak as “rabble rousers” and others as “deal makers”; and for some to emphasize issues of class and others issues of gender or race.
As I think today, on Martin Luther King Day, about the events depicted in “Eyes on the Prize: No Easy Walk,” I am struck by the extent to which effective and morally compelling social and political movements must bring together many different kinds of people, and must combine deep moral conviction, the willingness to act together on behalf of common values, and the thick skin necessary to endure friction and to accept and even embrace a fractious unity.
Listening to the blues can help us to appreciate this.
John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is a somber minor blues written in November 1963, after the September KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Coltrane was inspired by King’s “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” delivered at the September 18 funeral of the four murdered children. “Alabama” is mournful and also soulful. As the tempo picks up, and the band locks into the rhythm, it conveys a strong sense of commitment to moving forward. But it then returns to a slower and more somber feel, as if reminding listeners of the moral and even spiritual core at the heart of the moment and the movement:
Blue Mitchell’s “March on Selma” is also a blues, but a very different one, an up-tempo shuffle played in a major key. Recorded in July 1965, within months of the famous, arduous, and dangerous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that helped lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the tune is propulsive and suggests the simple and even joyous forward movement that many activists of the time might well have experienced:
Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” was first recorded in the studio in 1957. A tribute to the Haitian Revolution, the song was one of many songs that Mingus wrote and recorded in support of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Mingus said this of the tune:
Haitian Fight Song, to begin with, could just as well be called Afro-American Fight Song. It has a folk spirit, the kind of folk music I’ve always heard anyway. It has some of the old Church feeling too. I was raised a Methodist but there was a Holiness church on the corner, and some of the feeling of their music, which was wilder, got into our music. There’s a moaning feeling too in those church modes. . . My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’
The tune is loud, and the music is surely heard. Like many Mingus arrangements, it also has a fiery and explosive feel and includes elements of counterpoint and cacophony. These features of the tune are especially well conveyed in this version, recorded in 1991 by the Mingus Big Band. This band plays together, but rarely in unison. The tune moves forward but in a complex way. The lines are sometimes hard to follow, and it might even sound like the musicians are playing at cross purposes. But they are not. They combine complex compositional structure and improvisation to create a powerful, fractious unity, the kind of unity that we need now in our politics more than we have needed in a long time:
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.