In the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow gives an incredibly thorough account of the latter years of Dr. King’s life, and the development of the Black Freedom Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, to The Poor People’s Campaign and King’s death in 1968. Over 150 pages of notes and a bibliography, including several hundred interviews, exposition of several of King’s writings, and remarkable documentation of FBI files on King and the Movement, all provide the content for Garrow’s 624-page account of the Civil Rights leader’s life during the Movement. The title of the volume alludes to the central theme in the book: Martin Luther King was a man with a strong sense of self-sacrifice, informed by his theology of the cross, as something “that we must bear for the freedom of our people” (148). That is, Garrow’s King emerged as a Civil Rights leader, not because of ambition or a messiah complex, but because the movement was “thrust upon him” and his deeply seated religious principles required him to respond (229). Yet, this man of noble principles was also no saint. In my opinion, the greatest value of this volume, as stated by King’s sister, is that it “demythologizes one of our heroes” (625). The two-fold goal of this essay is to provide an exposition and a critical evaluation of Garrow’s interpretation of Martin King and the Black Freedom Movement, and to argue that Dr. King and the Movement can provide invaluable resources and inspiration for social change today.
As indicated above, Garrow dedicates relatively few pages to the pre-Civil Rights years of Martin King. Still, we learn that as the son of “a strict disciplinarian” and Southern Baptist Preacher, King had a “long personal heritage in…the black church” (32). Yet, despite his early immersion into the black church, King was initially “decidedly ambivalent” about following in his father’s ministerial footsteps (37). King’s mother and grandmother imbued him with a strong sense of self-love and care, which undoubtedly gave him the confidence to pursue his dreams of intellectualism. King reported that his childhood was spent in “a very congenial home situation…where love was central” (33). Outside of the home, however, King could not be shielded from the racist reality of life as a black person in the South (35). Two racial incidents that were truly painful for King were the time when a childhood friend who was white abruptly told him they could not be friends due to their races, and when as a high school student he was forced to give up his seat on a bus for a white person. A decade later King recalled, “It was the angriest I have ever been… From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person” (35).
Garrow documents how King’s college experience changed both his ambivalence toward the ministry and his attitude on race (37). King recalls how he overcame his skepticism with religion when “I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape” (37). Highly influenced by liberal theologians and the social gospel movement, King would eventually decide to take up the call to be a minister of the gospel with a strong sense of social justice. Challenged with the Christian call to love one’s enemies, King struggled with how he could “love a race of people who hated [him] and who had been responsible [for earlier traumatic experiences]” (38). Garrow quotes King’s confession that, he “did not conquer this anti-white feeling” until he got to know white students through interracial groups in college (38).
Garrow’s first chapter chronicles how King was thrust into the movement after completing his dissertation while pastoring at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery. King would emerge as the unlikely president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, partly due to his status as a “newcomer.” Recalling his first public address as president of the new organization, King would write that he “became possessed by fear [and] obsessed by a feeling of great inadequacy” (23). This feeling of inadequacy was a theme that Garrow alluded to throughout the evolution of King as a national Civil Rights leader. A key corollary to this theme was a profound religious experience that King would tell over and over again. During a time of deep distress and desire to “escape the pressures the MIA presidency had placed upon him” King had an experience in his kitchen, in which he responded to fear through prayer:
I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. No never alone. (58)
Throughout the rest of the book, Garrow would repeat this theme of King’s reliance on his faith to overcome the internal and external challenges of the Movement.
Garrow’s subsequent chapters describe “The Birth of SCLC” and Southern initiatives, including Albany, Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington. Drawing upon myriad examples from the NAACP’s initial competitive resistance to the budding young “star in the South,” to tales of disorganization and even the misappropriation of Movement funds by higher level officials, Garrow characterizes the Movement as being rife with internal conflict and at times with egotistical personality clashes. Garrow attributes King’s ability to emerge as a leader in this contentious Movement partly to his “practical application of the Hegelian method” through which he would mediate highly contentious meetings by providing a solution upon which all could usually agree (464). The biography states, “One of [King’s] greatnesses…was his ability to master, to orchestrate a group of individuals that probably pretty much approached egomania” (464). It was also helpful that Garrow explained how King’s fascination with Hegel’s dialectical method of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, provided him with a philosophical framework for integrationism, in which seemingly opposed groups (i.e. black/white, Jew/Gentile, rich/poor) could be united into a Beloved Community (46). Despite its flaws, the Movement left an indelible mark on the Universe’s bend toward justice. More importantly, Garrow’s portrayal of the Movement challenges any notions that Dr. King was the sole or even the most important person involved in the development of different initiatives and subsequent Civil Rights victories.
The most exciting chapters, for me, were the final four chapters on Chicago, the Meredith March, Economic Justice and Vietnam, and the Poor People’s Campaign. These chapters give a keen insight into the evolution of King’s social and political thought. Furthermore, they offer a treasure trove of strategies for the church and American society to engage in broad and inclusive movements for revolutionary change (484). Upon visiting the slums of the northern cities, witnessing the destruction of urban riots caused by the deplorable conditions of America’s ghettoes, and confronting even worse and violent resistance to change in the North, King began to see that the Civil Rights gains in the South had done very little to improve the conditions of millions of poor blacks in the ghettoes (440). Thus, King began to call for “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society”—something akin to democratic socialism (567). As King’s scope extended to economic issues, they also extended to issues of world peace and global disarmament, mostly spurred by his growing conviction that he could no longer preach non-violence at home, while his country committed great acts of violence abroad.
Toward the end of the book, Garrow seems to focus more on the conflicts within and between Civil Rights organizations, the Movement’s loss of momentum, the criticisms of King both within and without the Movement, and the negative toll that all of this was taking on everyone’s morale, especially King’s. Garrow reports that even though King was able to perform when he needed to give a speech, toward the end of King’s time he would become increasingly depressed. Garrow attributes some of King’s heartache to his battles with “inner demons.” Indeed, as stated above, King was no saint, and his extra-marital affairs, and “sexual athleticism” were things that even King alluded to as causing him great internal conflict. Garrow’s careful, yet truthful, exposition of King’s deep flaws is commendable and integral to understanding that one does not need to be “holier than thou” to make the world a better place.
As I reflect on what King and the Movement mean to me, the Church, theology, and America, I believe they represented the best of both Christian and American democratic ideals. They demonstrated that a commitment to love and justice was neither a passive nor a violent one. Rather, a commitment to these principles requires a commitment to bearing one’s cross. I am reminded of Jesus in Gethsemane, where he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). This prayer encapsulates King’s theology of the cross as a divinely inspired commitment to freedom for all. King’s theology is absolutely necessary for the church today to remain true it its purported principles. As King’s dream of justice and equality is far from actualized, as the New Jim Crow, urban ghettoes, and young black lives such as Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin continue to be persecuted, America must recommit itself to King’s dream, lest it shirks its commitment to its democratic ideals.
Bearing the Cross not only provides a deep look into its subject, it also offers a counter-narrative to “mainstream” conceptions of King as a “‘rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero’ whose comfortable, present-day image bears little resemblance to the human King or to the political King of 1965-1968” (625). To anyone today who has that impulse “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8), I would urge you to read this volume because it shows that “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement” (625). To paraphrase the book’s Epilogue: If we could understand that one of our greatest symbols for social justice was a human being as ordinary and as flawed and as unlikely a legend as any one of us, then maybe, we in the church or broader society could stop waiting for a great charismatic personality to lead us toward justice, and we could start asking ourselves, “What can we do to pursue justice, love, and peace?”