Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Article Reaction: OAH Magazine of History: Martin Luther King Jr. [Will Clarke]

William Clarke
Article Reaction: OAH Magazine of History: Martin Luther King Jr.
HIST-394/01: Comparative Freedom Movements
Prof. Rachleff

Clay Carson, the onetime civil rights activist, and current director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project and Professor of History at Stanford University is mainly concerned with separating Martin Luther King the myth from Martin Luther King the man. In particular, he wishes to challenge the popular notions that the movement began and ended with MLK Jr. Rather Carson is concerned with giving Dr. King his proper due while recognizing the vastly important contributions of grassroots organizers. “I have attempted to balance the perspective of the foot soldiers of the black freedom struggle against that of the visionary leader who bet articulated the struggles enduring ideals” (page 6) Carson states. Throughout the four articles by Carson that appear in the publication, he makes a constant effort at recognizing both Martin and the many lesser known contributors to the struggle.

Carson’s articles conflicts with Bearing the Cross by ardently protesting studies of the Civil Rights movement that too heavily focus on King and his contributions. Garrow, despite his meticulous research, was narrating the events with King as his departure point. Bearing the Cross is a biography of King, and therefore is limited in its analysis of the movement as a whole. Garrow, while appropriate for his purposes, too often forgets the historical forces that helped propel Dr. King to his positions of fame and power. According to Carson, Garrow does eventually agree that “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement” (page 8), but his effort ultimately falls short of truly representing Dr. King in the context of the greater grassroots effort.

In his third essay, Carson offers a narrative of the Montgomery Bus Boycott asserting that “a King centered perspective of the Montgomery movement is misleading in ways that also distort understanding of the subsequent decade of southern African American struggles” (page 13). Carson feels that this event in particular must be understood as the work of a diverse group of grassroots organizers, rather than the exclusive work of a few heroic leaders. In my mind, one of the main failures of Garrow in his retelling of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is his almost total lack of biographical work on Rosa Parks and the other main organizers of the MIA. Garrow tends to portray the relationship between the NAACP and King as being often contentious. Instead, Carson tells us, many of the Montgomery organizers who worked with King “were self-reliant NAACP stalwarts who acted on their own before King could lead” (page 13). Through his concentration on King, Garrow seems to have omitted important information on those who stood alongside of King throughout the struggle. Carson does not wish to devalue King’s contributions but rather to place them in the correct historical context.

In his final article entitled The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcon X, Carson speaks to the relationship between the ideals espoused by Dr. King and the more militant views advocated by Malcolm X and the nation of Islam. While King’s rhetoric of nonviolence and Malcolm’s pro-violent oratory were initially seen as conflicting, even by Malcolm and Martin themselves, Carson paints the two ideologies entirely different. Carson contends that, rather than occupying the two extremes of the Black civil rights movement, Martin and Malcolm supported much more adjacent beliefs. Martin sought to balance the need for militancy and the need for nonviolence while Malcolm believed most strongly in violent opposition. Furthermore, Carson explains how the views of each man were strongly influenced by the historical factors of childhood and adolescence. Carson particularly focuses on the latter period of Malcolm’s life, after his split with the Nation of Islam, when he seemingly came to a point where he saw the value and strength in King’s ideas. Carson speaks to the beliefs of Malcolm and Martin were both equally as important to the movement and empowerment of the African American. Once again, this is where Garrow’s work seems to be limited. Garrow hardly mentions Malcolm X in Bearing the Cross. While, superficially, it may seem that the relationship between Malcolm and Martin was tenuous and fleeting at best, the relationship between their ideas cannot be ignored. Both remain tremendous figures amongst African Americans and their posthumous relationship necessitates a firm evaluation of both, often simultaneously. Garrow’s failure to meaningfully include Malcolm X is a void in the narrative of Martin Luther King. It seems, such failures contribute to a general lack of comprehensiveness that exists in studies of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.