The struggle for social and political rights in the United States lurched forward fifty years ago. Ever since his first speech at the start of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. had been insisting, “There comes a time when people get tired.” But in the spring and summer of 1963, black exasperation was boiling over into defiant resolve. As King would describe it in Why We Can’t Wait, this was “the summer of our discontent.”
That interval was packed with dramatic happenings: the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched in April; King’s Good Friday jailing and the iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he began furiously writing while in the darkness of his cell; Governor Wallace’s theatrical stand in the schoolhouse door and the integration of the University of Alabama that followed his scripted yielding to the Justice Department on June 11; President Kennedy’s address to the nation on race that same night, when he belatedly defined the oppression of race a moral issue “as ancient as the scriptures and clear as the Constitution”; and the March on Washington on August 28.
It’s not that everything changed in those volatile days one half century ago. On September 15, in a revenge killing for black impudence, four little black girls died when the Ku Klux Klan bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Major battles like Selma—modern-day equivalents of Antietam and Bull Run—lay ahead. The white backlash in the North had not even begun to gather its infuriated force. Still, it’s not too much to say that the foundations of the nation’s old racial order cracked in the months after Birmingham. Most portentously, movement toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 started to gain velocity and lift.
While these milestones deserve attention, the risks of commemoration are legion. In a culture of celebrity, the temptation of hero worship—some paint King as a Moses who single-handedly led blacks out of bondage with his golden tongue—looms large. Remembrance can invite self-congratulations, marking off the time of louche bondage from the lush freedoms of now. There’s the kindred urge to turn our undeniable progress into the old story of American exceptionalism, at least in its less hubristic version: if not the perfect nation, then at least the ever-perfectible one.
Much of the celebration of “I Have a Dream” is of a piece with this reading of American history: the destiny of democracy made manifest by King’s stirring appeals to the conscience of America. And this much is true: King’s prophecy at the March—his dream that “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters”—endures as one of the glorious moments of American idealism and universalism.
Yet, this reading of “I Have a Dream” is as partial and wrong-headed as the larger narrative of the nation redeemed that it sustains. It glosses over the fact that for King, America was less a redeemer nation than a nation in need of redemption. The feel-good emphasis on gauzy moralism betrays the very meaning of King’s political ministry, divesting the dream of its prophetic edge and obscuring King’s actual appraisal of what it would take for black people to achieve legal, social, and political rights.
It’s hard to square the saintly dreamer with the Christian warrior who appeared before blacks in mass meetings across the South. Speaking at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church just days after he was released from his Birmingham jail cell, his voice tremulous with barely contained anger, King depicted blacks as mainly on their own in an indifferent nation: “Don’t you ever think that anything’s going to be given to us in this struggle.”
King was hardly coy about the limits of moral appeal when addressing white people. Rejoining the eight clergymen who had criticized him as an extremist, King made clear in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that he did not think very many white people had very much empathy for black suffering. “[F]ew members of the oppressor race,” he wrote, “can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.” He rebuked not the vitriol of the Klan but the very core of American culture: All the right-thinking moderates who loved order more than justice and “paternalistically” believed they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” And he offered this hardboiled observation: “Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”
In the end, the appeal to white conscience was only one part of the force field that produced citizenship in those struggles fifty years ago. And in the volatile mix of black insistence and the response of the national state, mass opinion, and the sanguinary spectacles of suffering that ensued from the movement’s collision with the defenders of white supremacy, it was the defiant energy of the young blacks of Birmingham that set the entire process in motion. They were the ones who embodied the vision of “extremists for justice” that King had hallowed in the “Letter.” They were the ones who took up the vocation of suffering King had in mind when he played havoc with conventional notions of reward and punishment by proclaiming, “they can put you in jail and transform you to glory.” And they were the ones who created facts on the ground that the president, the attorney general, and eventually Congress would eventually have to heed.
The universalism of formal law and legislation would emerge less from the persuasive force of the imagery of the American Dream than from the particularity of black pride and defiance. Embracing the identity of his ancestors (“Abused and scorned though we may be”) in the “Letter,” King pronounced his certainty of victory: “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will sure fail.”
The protests in Birmingham constituted a turning point in our national life. Nothing that transpired in the wake of that victory refuted the critique of moderation and praise of creative tension that King had laid out in the “Letter.” Instead, events validated its key points: The limits of moral appeal by itself to secure deliverance; the selfish immorality of privileged groups; the need for blacks to rely on themselves, even as they welcomed the aid of friends; and the power of the spectacle to galvanize the state to act on behalf of the suffering. But it wasn’t just sympathy for noble, suffering victims that moved the nation. Violence and the white fear of black retaliation pushed events forward too. While that ran counter to King’s elemental faith in nonviolence, it was an extension of the “Letter’s” declaration, “freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The power brokers who really mattered in Birmingham were not the downtown merchants but the larger group of business leaders on the Senior Citizens Committee. King was “poison” to them. They wouldn’t sit down to negotiate seriously until they passed a specific threshold of pain. As late as the morning of the day of the settlement, their patience was running down, and they were ready for more draconian solutions.
At the May 10 mass meeting in Birmingham, King’s cryptic “I got this from a source that I can’t reveal” indicated that he was privy to the details of the Senior Citizens Committee’s thinking. He seized his chance to let his black audience revel in their sense of power and to take a voyeuristic peek at the secret recesses of the mind of “dignified segregationists.”
“Don’t let anybody fool you,” King said. “They may try to say that they planned to do all of this anyway.” Actually, the negotiators “had ’bout given up . . . ’cause those business and professional leaders were sayin’, ‘We’re tired of these niggers, and there’s nothing to do but tell the government to send the National Guard here and get this thing under martial law. . . . These niggers are just not gonna stop and we just can’t, we’re not goin’ to put up with it. . . .’ And then they had the lunch hour.”
King was alluding to the exuberant festival of black liberation that burst forth on May 7. Using stealth and deception to avoid police detection, thousands of students—King described this Dionysian uprising as “square blocks of Negroes, a veritable sea of black faces”—swarmed the downtown and inundated the white mandarins. “And when they got out for lunch”—King continued, his down-home, singsong inflection full of bemused sarcasm—“and saw all those Negroes standing on the sidewalk singing ‘We shall overcome’ and they ‘Won’t let nobody turn me round,’ I heard that when they got back in there after the lunch hour, they started sayin’, ‘Now, let’s see, I think we could grant part one, and they moved down to part two and extended that.’”
With laughter sweeping through the church, King eased up a bit on the clowning. “Now I’m saying this in a humorous vein, but I’m very serious. Do not underestimate the power of this movement. And these things would not have been granted without your presenting your bodies and your lives before the dogs and tanks and the water hoses of this city.”
Indeed, the power brokers wouldn’t have been in the room if Burke Marshall, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, had not been carrying out shuttle diplomacy between black and white leaders. As David Garrow recounted in Bearing the Cross, King feared that the administration was more keen on “quieting racial trouble” than “winning greater racial justice.” But a wary Andrew Young, one of King’s key colleagues, was won over by the laconic corporate lawyer whose constitutional scruples had kept the Justice Department from intervening in local Southern upheavals. “Burke deserves a lot of credit,” Young told me recently; Marshall’s personality was perfect for the task. He was quiet and modest, very unthreatening, “almost Southern,” a funny way of describing a son of Groton and Yale. “It wouldn’t have worked if he came in pushing the Alabama crackers around.”
As adept as he was, Marshall had help from others in Washington. Cabinet members, administration attorneys, and even the president himself got in on the act, calling connections ranging from the head of U.S. Steel, to the heads of national chains like Sears, of which a branch store was a target of the sit-ins. At an especially dicey point in the negotiations, one of the members the president had leaned on spoke up and appears to have tipped things back toward settlement.
Kennedy’s dispatch of Marshall also vindicated the “Letter’s” conviction that moral appeal by itself would not effect real change. At the May 10 mass meeting, King was utterly alert to the upheaval’s effect on the president and the more jaundiced motives that were also shaping his turn-about. “When things started happening down here, Mr. Kennedy got disturbed. For Mr. Kennedy has to sit around tables of the world. And sometimes Mr. Khrushchev is on the other side. He is battling for the minds and the hearts of men in Asia and Africa. Some one billion men in the neutralist sector of the world. And they’re not gonna respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of the color of their skin. Mr. Kennedy knows this.”
The key moment, King explained, came when “the Associated Press got a picture of a dog biting a young man and that man didn’t have his hands out, and he didn’t have his hands up, and he didn’t have a knife in his hand. . . . And when that picture went all over Asia and Africa and England and France, Mr. Kennedy said, ‘Bobby, you better get your assistant down there and look into this matter. It’s a dangerous situation for our image abroad.’”
King’s account was not far off the mark. But the front page New York Times picture of a police dog biting Walter Gadsden had aroused something in Kennedy beyond concerns about America’s image. The morning after Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor’s rampage, in the privacy of a meeting at the White House, the president said the picture “made him sick.” Kennedy sounds befuddled: He decries the black situation in Birmingham as “intolerable”; he exudes frustration (“what law can you pass to do anything about [local] police power”); he concedes, “we have done not enough [on civil rights]”; yet he careens, “but we have shoved and pushed . . . and there’s nothing my brother’s given more time to.”
“If I were a Negro, I would be awfully sore,” the president acknowledged. And then, as if responding to King’s argument in the “Letter” that when whites said “wait” they really meant “never,” Kennedy added: “I’m not saying anybody ought to be patient.” Validating King, he conceded the importance of disruption. “And this may be the only way these things come to a head. We’re going to end up with the National Guard in there and all sorts of trouble.” Kennedy went on to chide so-called liberal journalists who had been “telling me . . . ‘Isn’t it outrageous in Birmingham?’ and I said, ‘Why are you over there eating at the Metropolitan Club?,’” a genteel bastion of the privileged classes that was as welcoming to blacks as most of Birmingham’s white churches.
Later that month before a large crowd in Los Angeles at Wrigley Field, King granted that Kennedy “has done some significant things in civil rights. . . . But we’ve got to remind him that he isn’t doing enough.” King had an inspiration: Since on June 11 Governor Wallace was going to “present his body by standing in the door to preserve an evil system, then President Kennedy ought to go to Tuscaloosa and personally escort the students into the university with his body.” That, concluded King, “would be a magnificent witness.”
Kennedy never made that witness, but things were moving quickly under the rippling force of Birmingham. As soon as he returned to Washington from Alabama, Marshall could see that “everybody’s mind was turned to the future and they thought this pattern of Birmingham . . . would recur in many other places. And it did that summer. And the president wanted to know what he should do . . . to deal with what was clearly an explosion in the racial problem that could not, would not go away, that he had not only to face up to himself, but somehow bring the country to face up to and resolve. And during the week after that, that’s what he decided to do [on civil rights legislation].” (Oral History Interview of Marshall, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, section 980100.)
The strategic approach to what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in jobs, public accommodation, and housing, was decided just as quickly. Desperate for relief from the public clamor, Attorney General Kennedy headed out of town for a speaking engagement. The flight gave him and Marshall a chance to mull over the bill’s provisions and points of congressional contention. Could such a bill be constitutional? Kennedy demanded. Marshall replied, “I thought it could be justified under the Commerce Clause [rather than the Fourteenth Amendment].” The interviewer Anthony Lewis broke in: “Commerce Clause even at that early moment?” to which Marshall replied, “Yes. Right from the beginning, in my own mind. And so that was the end of it.” Said Kennedy, “Well, we’d better go see the president when we get back.”
The making of modern America into a full-fledged democracy emerged from this motley mix of the improbable and the idiosyncratic: a setback in Albany, Georgia, that made King and his colleagues hungry for a victory in Birmingham; a theory of lawbreaking associated with an Indian seer; a redneck police chief who lost his composure; the grainy black-and-white image of a seemingly vicious dog; the mirthful truancy of students; a president’s frustration; and the legal instinct of a shy assistant attorney general.
This was the grand sweep of history that the eight white clergymen who had provoked the “Letter” with their criticism of King as an extremist had trouble absorbing. None of it would have happened save for the movement’s fervent faith and physical courage. It would not have happened if King and Abernathy had been cowed by all the right-thinking white people, from the New York Times to the Kennedy administration, who kept urging that they “wait” and be “patient.” Above all else, it wouldn’t have happened if the black people of Birmingham had not steeled themselves with verse after verse of “I Woke Up with My Mind Stayed on Freedom,” burst through the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and descended into the streets of meanness.