My Christian Century interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama, May 14, 1963.]
WHEN representatives of the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and I sat down for an interview with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the courtyard of the Gaston motel in the heart of downtown Birmingham's Negro district on May 14, we found him calm, composed and optimistic — qualities which characterize his leadership of the nonviolent resistance movement which has become the most vital force in the struggle to end racial segregation in the United States.
The day before, he had been able to announce completion of a four-point agreement between Negro negotiators and influential representatives of the white business community. He felt that the accord had marked the end of a month of nonviolent demonstrations that centered attention on a city which Dr. King has described as a symbol of the hard core of southern resistance to integration.
The concessions won by the Negroes — minimal at best — were gradual integration of downtown lunch counters, stepping up of job opportunities, release of prisoners and establishment of a permanent line of communication between Negro and white leaders.
Now Dr. King was ready to assess the effects of the drawn-out campaign.
"This is the beginning of the end of massive resistance to integration," he said. "Other communities will see that insisting on the segregationist position is like standing on the beach of history and trying to hold back the tide."
That was at noon on Saturday. Less than 12 hours later bombs hurled by white men ripped into the Birmingham home of Dr. King's brother, A. D. (likewise a minister), while others tore a gaping hole in the Gaston Motel.
An hour earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan of Alabama had held an open meeting in suburban Bessemer. By the light of two burning crosses they had prayed for the demise of Dr. King and "the Kennedys" and called on God to maintain separation of the races.
The bombing episode was like some 20 others in recent years in that those responsible were not apprehended. This time a shocked Negro community — disillusioned at what was apparently a sign that the agreement with the business leaders would be repudiated, weary after weeks of demonstrations, jailings, attendance at nightly mass meetings — mobilized once again.
They sought to discover whether the arch-segregationist position of men like lameduck Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor was ready to reassert itself in new and even more oppressive ways.
I was at the scene of both bombings shortly after they occurred. At the A. D. King home I witnessed a few minor incidents directed at the police: air was let out of the tires of squad cars and a few rocks were thrown.
But Mr. King, who was at home with his family when the bombers struck, was able to calm the crowd of Negroes which gathered.
Outside the Gaston motel, however, conditions became explosive — largely because in the crowd that formed there were what one bystander described as "Those drunken winos from Fourth avenue": Negroes who had no relationship to the nonviolent movement but who had been stirred to fever pitch by this latest indignity.
The attitude of such Negroes was crystallized in the angry and oft-heard cry "Let's get Bull Connor."
There is little doubt that had Connor been present at that time blood would have been shed. However, members of a Negro civil defense unit and the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., made valiant — and successful — efforts to quiet the disturbance.
Later that evening units of the state highway patrol, which operates on orders from militantly segregationist Gov. George Wallace, moved into the motel area. Both Negroes and white moderates place heavy responsibility on the state patrol for the riot conditions which subsequently developed.
Its members blocked off the area, and during the period of their domination they administered several beatings; as the result of one Mrs. Walker had to be hospitalized. (Significantly, when Pres. Kennedy on Sunday evening dispatched federal troops to stand by to assist local and county law enforcement officers in maintaining order, he did not say that the troops would be available to help the state patrol.) Fortunately, so far no deaths have resulted from the weekend disturbances.
The bombings revealed an ambivalence in attitude on the part of the city's civic leadership. Recently elected Mayor Albert Boutwell deplored the outrage and issued a plea for the cessation of violence. On the other hand, Art Hanes, who continues as mayor on the triumvirate commission which cannot be officially unseated until the state supreme court confirms Boutwell's right to hold office, declared in a public statement that he hoped any drop of blood shed in Birmingham would "stick in Robert Kennedy's throat" (The attorney general is blamed by many segregationists in Birmingham for much of what has happened.)
On Sunday Martin Luther King, Jr., returned from his home in Atlanta, where he had gone on Saturday, and issued a plea for an end to any violence on the part of Negroes. He reiterated what has been a cardinal principle of the nonviolent movement: any blood shed should be Negro blood; any act of violence perpetrated by a Negro serves only to damage the Negro's cause.
On Monday he led a group through pool halls and streets in the disturbed area, repeating the call for nonviolence.
The Birmingham situation raises the question of the future of nonviolence as a tactic in the struggle for justice under the Constitution. Argument over the tactic has been intensified by the outbreak of violence in Birmingham, by the presence on the scene of Black Muslim leaders, and by the widely publicized remarks on television and elsewhere by Malcolm X, Black Muslim spokesman who considers nonviolence a cowardly evasion. So far the Muslim movement seems to have made little impact on the south; its leaders' presence here was largely ignored. And as for Atlanta, a Negro observer there notes: "They are here, of course, but they are making little headway."
Dr. King estimates that 90 per cent of Birmingham's Negroes are committed to "tactical nonviolence" — nonviolence resorted to as a strategy in obtaining civil rights and equal opportunity. Actually about 3,000 people have received training in nonviolent workshops and accepted the "ten commandments for volunteers," among which are these: "Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love" and "Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart."
At a mass meeting following the Saturday night bombings one speaker unwittingly revealed the ambivalence which must surely affect all but the most saintly adherents of the movement when he cried to a responsive audience: "We're going to love the hell out of these [white] people!"
As in other southern cities, minor but provocative acts on the part of Negro onlookers at demonstrations — rock throwing, for instance — have led the general public wrongly to assume that the nonviolent movement is responsible. Though it seems possible that the movement does serve as a catalyst releasing pent-up resentments among Negroes outside its ranks, it is unfair to suggest that members of the movement have participated in violent acts. And its leaders have taken all steps within their power to restrain any possible violence by other Negroes.
The basic question is whether the movement can continue to be the mainstay of the fight for Negro rights in the south.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is committed to the nonviolent approach, and Dr. King, its leader, has accepted nonviolence not just as a tactic in the current struggle but as a way of life. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which has given front line support to many demonstrations in the struggle for racial justice in the south, is committed to nonviolence — as its name implies — but some observers consider it more militant and impatient than the parallel organization; apparently the younger generation of students wants more rights in less time.
In our interview on Saturday we asked Dr. King to comment on our observation that among some of his young lieutenants there exists a pride and color-consciousness that may lead them to draw away from white persons rather than try to work with them. He replied: "There is this new race pride not only among my lieutenants but among the Negro race as a whole — a great sense of dignity and even destiny, a new self-respect. Within the vast majority of Negroes, however, there is reasonable self-restraint. I do not believe this majority would exchange black supremacy for white supremacy. That would be to exchange one tyranny for another."
Asked about the conviction of some white people that for the present there is a need to "go slow" in the fight for integration, Dr. King said that the shape of the world today does not permit the luxury of such relaxation: "We see the new nations of Africa and Asia moving at jet speed toward independence and, on the other hand, we seem ourselves to be moving at horse-and-buggy speed just to get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter."
No doubt another reason Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference cannot afford to "go slow" is the pressure from younger elements in the nonviolent movement. Still another may be the fact of life Dr. King has acknowledged in public references to the Black Muslim movement: that movement symbolizes the Negro's utter impatience with the white man's hypocrisy, paternalism and bigotry — impatience which could erupt in the future, as it has in the past, in full-scale displays of raw force.
This is more likely in the northern cities where the Black Muslim movement is strong than in the south. Dr. King believes the risk of serious outbreaks is intensified by the white man's unwillingness to change the status quo in response to peaceful overtures from the Negro community. It may well be that white people who criticize his strategy will have reason in the future to look back longingly on his leadership — for there is little question that the American Negro is determined to gain his rights by some method. The tide of racial justice is indeed sweeping in on the beach of history. Efforts to hold it back are likely to serve only to change its character, intensify its force.
This thesis is being illustrated in Birmingham today. Only recently white residents were maintaining that "our Negroes were just fine" until Dr. King came to town. Some of them still hold that view. But a prominent white attorney with whom I talked said: "You just can't say that the Negroes are contented when they are willing to let their children go to jail."
And a white woman at whose car a rock had been thrown as she drove near the motel after the bombing expressed surprise: "I didn't know niggers were like that. I thought they just stood back."
Birmingham just now is in a state of shock, and one element in that shock is the sudden realization that Negroes are willing to fight for their rights.
The use of large numbers of children and youth in last week's demonstrations is cited by the Rev. Will D. Campbell, one of the most perceptive Protestant observers of the racial struggle, as a decisive factor in bringing the accord reached by Negro leaders and white businessmen. Not only did the children fill up the jails; they presented a grave problem for law enforcement officials, who were aware of the explosive reaction that would follow news that fire hoses and dogs had been turned loose on defenseless children. But was this strategy ethical?
In our Saturday interview Dr. King emphasized that the children and young people took part on their own volition, and that they had been trained in nonviolence and discipline. He further justified the step by contending that the experience would have educational value for children and youth "Who have the right to responsible protest against a system which is as harmful to them as to their parents."
A headline in Monday's Birmingham News read: "City Pastors Deplore Racial Violence . . . Urge Peace." That sums up the position of most local pastors; they have indeed spoken out — for maintenance of the status quo and a return to "peace." Almost uniformly they have failed to conceive of their ministry as one which calls for proclamation of racial equality under both human and divine imperatives. Significantly, not one of the ministers quoted in the Monday newspaper story mentioned the question of racial justice.
There is a small nucleus of white persons in Birmingham, many of them related to the Alabama council on human relations, from which a different voice has been heard. But that voice has been largely unreflected in the local news media and so far as the people responsible for it know, it has not been reported in the national press. On April 14 nine Birmingham pastors — five white and four Negro — issued a public statement:
We, an interracial group of Christian ministers speaking as
individual citizens, wish to express our concern over . . . the ongoing
problems in race relations in our city. . . . We would reaffirm the
constitutional right of every American citizen to demonstrate peaceably
for what he believes to be his just rights. We would further affirm the
rightness of the aims of all who seek equal employment opportunities and
equal access to all public facilities regardless of color or creed.
These aims we believe to be rooted .. . in the historic Christian
teaching of the oneness of humanity in Christ."
The statement concluded with a call to elected officials and "other persons of influence" to open communications with "responsible Negro leaders" and urged "all citizens to speak and act for justice honestly and without fear in their various spheres of activity." The ministers who signed: Paul E. Cosby, Joseph W. Ellwanger, Robert Brank Fulton, Harold D. Long, Louis L. Mitchell, Ervin R. Oermann, J. E. Robinson, G. L. Terrell and H. C. Terrell.
Of different nature was the refusal of the executive committee of the city ministerial association to endorse the terms of the four-point agreement drawn up by the Negro leaders and the white businessmen. They had been asked, along with other civic groups, to do so.
At this writing the most pressing question in the complex situation is whether the state supreme court will decide in favor of the city government headed by incumbent Mayor Hanes or that headed by more moderate Mayor-Elect Boutwell. If the decision goes to Hanes, the crisis will continue, probably in aggravated form.
Another major question is whether Gov. Wallace's resentment at Pres. Kennedy's intervention will develop into a feud such as existed between the President and the governor of Mississippi during the racial crisis at that state's university.
Then there is the ever present possibility that violence will break out again — though the proximity of federal troops has served to ease the fears of Negroes and whites alike. Finally, there is the very real issue of whether in the end victory for the principle of nonviolence will be achieved in Birmingham.
Gains have indeed been won — at great price — by the Negro community. Its members are apparently willing to continue nonviolent resistance if the terms of the agreement are not carried out within the time limits set. As to that agreement, reliable voices in the white community indicate that the business representatives were sincere in their negotiations with the Negro leaders. It is still uncertain, however, whether the city government eventually seated will cooperate in implementation of the steps agreed on.
Of one thing there is little doubt. Dr. King is utterly correct in his belief that the segregationist is standing on the beach of history trying to hold back the wave of the future. The more determinedly the waves are held back now, the more resounding will be the crash when they finally over-sweep the sand castle which is the illusion of white supremacy.
Copyright © 1963, by the Stephen C. Rose and the Christian Century . Posted with permission from the May 29, 1963, issue of the Christian Century.
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