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The Divided Soul of The Movement

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

If you don’t know Black history, then you don’t know American history. If you don’t know American history, then you don’t know America. If you don’t know America, then you don’t know yourself.
                           - Ibram X. Kendi


Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

In honor of Black History Month, I spoke with Stewart Burns, the noted Martin Luther King, Jr.  biographer in order to obtain a sense of the historical experiences felt by leaders on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. My aim was to glean lessons for today’s generation of activists who also are attempting to “save America from America” and who operate on the ground in communities that have been most marginalized.

According to renowned scholar Lewis V. Baldwin, Burns’ new 2018 edition of To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Mission and Meaning For America focuses on King as a “divided soul” and, according to critics, is one of the best ever treatments of King’s faith.

This is the conclusion of our two-part discussion on King’s Civil Rights activism.

Perryman: We talked previously about the sense of community and camaraderie among those involved in the movement of the 1960s and 70s that you have also described as a healing experience.

Burns:  Yes, for those activists involved it was camaraderie and close friendships like I had never had before.  Sharing our inner lives, really making ourselves very open and vulnerable and simply having real friends with whom we shared political values, but also sharing other values, including the value of being good to each other despite our having plenty of personal flaws. One of the most important lessons from King and the movement, as a whole, is how vital it is to treat each other with respect, understanding and compassion.

Perryman: There seems to be a noticeable lack of civility today.

Burns: When I see the kind of divisions that are happening among progressives now, the divisiveness over the women’s marches for instance, where some black leaders being accused of being anti-Semitic when people aren't making a clear distinction between being anti-Semitic and being anti-Israeli government.  I’m anti-Israeli government myself, but I’m sure as hell not anti-Semitic, but those distinctions are getting lost. But all this inciting that’s going on, we can’t afford this kind of divisiveness.

Perryman:  Realistically though, wouldn’t you have to also say that there were personal and “ideological conflicts,” if I can use that phrase, in King’s time too? 

Burns:  Yes.  However, King himself was a real role model because he wanted a united movement of people of color and poor whites, which was the idea for the poor people’s campaign, but above all he wanted black people to be united.

An example is when King was helping to lead the Mississippi March Against Fear in June 1966, about the time when Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks first articulated “black power,” a slogan King did not agree with.  King and Carmichael had a so-called Summit Meeting in Yazoo City to try to come to some kind of understanding.  Even though the tempers were hot and there was a lot at stake, they did come to an understanding that they would restrain themselves somewhat when it came to using the slogan on the march and not try to drown out the protesters who were still saying freedom now.  But mainly the two were able to talk, they were able to communicate and they were able to sit around in a room and really hash things out and communicate, even if no resolution was found.  Even that kind of communication is rare.  But King and Carmichael remained friends through it all and maybe even got closer during the times, especially, when Stokely was openly publicly lambasting King, but King never returned it.  King did criticize the black power slogan, but not the essence of it and he was never going to disavow SNCC or break his ties with SNCC activists and he continued to have a close friendship with Stokely.  And Stokely in his own memoir talks about how he revered King, even though he strongly disagreed with King’s nonviolent philosophy but he did not reject King and they continued to be close. 

So it may be that King was the only one who was determined to preserve black unity and not break relationships, no matter how much you might disagree about very important things.  Those relationships were crucial to him and the essence of his nonviolent philosophy. You fight but talk things over and talk things out.

Perryman: You mentioned earlier that King wanted to see this as a black movement, yet it was multiracial, multicultural, and multi-faith, wasn’t it?

Burns:   Well, it depends how you define “movement.”  I like to define it with a capital M.  I like to think of it as a peace and justice movement.  I like to think of it as the way King was starting to talk about it in the spring of 1967, that we’ve got to join the peace movement with the freedom movement, that it has to be both.  So I like to think of it as one big movement like that.  And King certainly saw it as, at least potentially, a broad multiracial, multiclass, movement but it was pretty far from that. I remember being part of it then and the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement as well as those in the draft resistance, we were all trying to figure out what do we prioritize?  Is it going to be peace in Vietnam or is it going to be racial justice?  And we prioritized peace in Vietnam, but there were others, Students for Democratic Society (SDS), in particular, white students who prioritized racial justice even though they were in a position to lead a national anti-war movement they decided they didn’t want to do that, that they wanted to support the black movement.  But that caused a lot of division within SDS.  So there was a lot of division over what comes first or whether we could do both?  King’s belief was that they could do both Civil Rights and peace, but also do economic justice as well.

Perryman: Today, with racial justice, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movement, the Me Too and others, there seems to be a similar historical context.  

Burns:   It’s certainly gotten more complex, more complicated, but also I think more hopeful because with this multiplication of issues, concerns, demands and goals, it at least potentially can broaden the movement and I think it has. So now, if studies were done, I think you’d see as many or more participants at the grassroots than ever before or at least more than in the 1960’s.  So King was also struggling to figure out how to link and support these different movements. It can get very, very difficult.

At the very least, it seems to me that what King would call a true alliance would have to include…from taking it from his concept of triple evils and sort of bringing it up to date - racism, poverty, militarism and climate change.  So those might be the big four issues that a coalition would have to build itself around, but its extremely important to incorporate how we treat each other and extremely important to incorporate not just women’s rights, but commitment to eliminate gun violence, violence against women and LGBTQ people as well. Today I think there would be five or six major goals or areas of agreement whereas 50 years ago there were only two overriding issues.  There was the Vietnam War and there was racial justice.

Perryman: Scholar Walter Fluker has a model of ethical leadership from the black perspective that includes three elements – community, civility and character. Conceptually, you have talked about community and civility within the Movement. What about the importance of character?

Burns: I think that there’s so much narcissism, selfishness and narrow mindedness and that’s something else that King struggled with and has a lot to teach us about. He gave sermons - and was always speaking to himself more than to anybody else - asking ‘How do I overcome my self-centeredness, my selfishness?’  Because he knew that no one could be a movement leader or a serious movement participant who would let his or her ego run the show and he would even talk about how even self-sacrifice could be an egotistical thing if you don’t kind of keep it under control.   I’m sure he was speaking about himself, and King was not a positive role model in every way, as we know. His hierarchical philosophy of leadership, his authoritarian leadership, his attitude toward women, his extramarital relationships, yes, there’s a whole lot, but he would be the first to admit, and would publicly say ‘I’m a sinner like all God’s children.’

Perryman: Young people were at the core of the Movement’s leadership. King, himself, was only 26 years old when he took the reins.  Does the prominence of young people in the Civil Rights Movement indicate that maybe it’s time for older activists to perhaps pass the baton?

Burns: There are lots of new leaders emerging and I think that there just needs to be a process of mutual give and take and learning and education.  So I would hope just the younger folks would be more willing to learn and the older folks would be more willing to share what lessons they have to offer, but not in a way that’s overbearing or arrogant, but to realize that the younger folks are the ones who really are going to have to carry the torch.

Perryman: And finally, women like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and others were leaders of the Movement who were seldom acknowledged. However, that seems to be changing, as women leaders today are much more highly visible.

Burns:   Yes, I hope that a majority of the new leaders are women and there are an awful lot of incredible role models out there and there are qualities of leadership that women tend to have, being more collaborative, less ego and all that kind of thing. However, on the other end there are lots of problems that female leaders are having with those issues as well, and some feminists might say that to the extent that women are replicating some of the bad aspects of male leadership. I think that we all have struggles with our egos and with our ambitions, and I think women might have less of a problem with that, in general. But I do think that women’s leadership is going to be very important and at the forefront of multiracial, multiclass collaborative leadership.

Perryman:  Thank you. 

Ed. Note: Highly regarded historian of the Civil Rights Movement, author or editor of eight books, Stewart Burns served as an editor of the King Papers at Stanford University, where he also taught U.S. History. His first book Social Movements of the 1960s (1990), still in print, has been the most widely used college text on the subject. His documentary history of the Montgomery bus boycott, Daybreak of Freedom (1997), was made into the HBO feature film Boycott (on which he consulted), winner of the NAACP Image Award in 2002. 

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at drdlperryman@centerofhopebaptist.org



Copyright © 2019 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 02/14/19 07:44:27 -0500.



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