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In this book from the Pocket Biographies series, Harry Harmer presents a concise account of the life and achievements of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.
Although this book does make you appreciate the role King played as a figurehead for the Civil Rights Movement, we are left in no doubt that the movement depended on the brave actions of many other men and women. It is pointed out that the campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the sit-ins were initiated by others, although King gave vital support, providing a focus and bringing things to the attention of the media. I think it is important to remember activists like Rosa Parkes and Claudette Colvin and the Freedom Riders who rode buses into southern states to take part in desegregation. Their stories are also told here, instead of King getting all the credit. However, this book made me appreciate King's ability to express what many black Americans were feeling in a way that made the world take notice. I enjoyed reading excerpts from his inspirational speeches, which are still moving today.
The book begins with King's assassination on 4th April 1968 on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis. His death triggered the worst race riots in the history of the United States of America. "What had brought America to this?" asks the author. He then traces events back to the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, freeing sleeves and making Constitutional amendments to guarantee their social and political freedoms. However, the South resisted progress and deep-rooted racism persisted.
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. I was interested to read that King had a middle class upbringing which perhaps prompted his critics to say he was out of touch with what was happening to blacks in ghettos, but his early experiences of racism are recounted. What comes across is that rich or poor, black people were still not treated as equals.
This is not the portrayal of a 'saint.' King emerges as a somewhat flawed character, the devout Christian minister whose extramarital affairs revealed a degree of hypocrisy. It is also suggested that he plagiarized his PhD thesis. At times we see hints of arrogance. There is reference to King identifying himself with Christ, quoted as saying, "I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha."
However, at other times we see glimpses of private doubts and fears which contrast starkly with King's defiant, confident public persona. Persistent death threats towards one's family would grind anyone down. Harmer presents a balanced picture and I appreciated the fact that I didn't read a gushing tribute to King the icon, but also saw the less commendable features of King the mere man.
The book explores King's philosophy of non-violence, showing the influence of his Christian values but also the impact of time spent in India with the Gandhi Peace Foundation. King's moderate policies are contrasted with the approach of militants such as Malcolm X. It certainly made me ponder the question of how much peaceful protest can achieve and whether there are any circumstances in which violence can be justified. In addition to his personal values, King was astute enough to recognise that any associations with violence would alienate the Congressmen whose support he needed for new legislation.
But was King naïve when he claimed that, "non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people"? There is reference to King condemning black rioters and sanctimoniously calling for a "day of penance" when many believed he should have been focussing on condemning the behaviour that triggered the riots - the beating of a pregnant black woman at a jail near Albany. It is perhaps not surprising that this angered some of the more radical activists.
I was interested to read of King's interactions with President John F Kennedy, which reveal how JFK used the civil rights cause to win Northern black votes, yet snubbed King by not inviting him to his inauguration in January 1961. Lyndon Johnson, his successor, promised firmer action and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. One thing the book makes you appreciate is how legislation is just the start and that attitudes and behaviour do not change overnight. There was plenty of violence and unrest still to come.
The book ends where it began, with King's assassination and asks the question, who was James Earl Ray and why did he plead guilty to the murder then deny his guilt right up until his death? An interesting conspiracy-theory involving J Edgar Hoover, U.S. military intelligence and the Mafia is discussed. It seems that King's criticisms of U.S. involvement in Vietnam represented a dangerous shift to the left in many eyes.
There is plenty of quite shocking detail in this book and at times it was hard to believe I was reading about events that happened in the 20th century, not so long ago. After reading it, I felt a lot of respect towards King for the way he tried to find common ground between blacks and whites, a shared sense of decency and justice, although many criticised him for supporting integration rather than separatism. However, I also felt sympathy for the extremists and could understand why they felt the need to meet violence with violence.
The book offered lots of food for thought and I pondered whether being an idealist is a good or bad thing. I also felt that King's story revealed that race issues cannot be looked at in isolation. The Vietnam protests that King became involved with in later years showed an awareness of the impact of imperialism and capitalism on working people, regardless of race.
For a short book this certainly offers a lot of detail and seems well-researched. A selection of photographs also help to tell the story. If you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement, it isn't a bad place to start. This book is available new from sellers at Amazon from £1.63