Book 2: Middle Passage (1963-1966)


Good Friday, April 12, 1963

Things looked bleak for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the stumbling Birmingham movement. Everything was going wrong. It was bad enough that the start of the Birmingham campaign had to be postponed twice—first until after the March city election, then until the April 2 runoff in which ex-lieutenant governor Albert Boutwell trounced Public Safety Commissioner Theophilius Eugene “Bull” Connor for mayor. But Connor, refusing to step down, was proving a cannier adversary than the movement had counted on.

Born in Selma, sixty-five-year-old Connor had started out as a railroad telegrapher and baseball radio announcer in the 1920s, earning his nickname for “shooting the bull” not his shape. After serving as a state legislator, in 1937 he was elected public safety commissioner, one of three (as in Montgomery) who ran the city. His baptism as a savior of Jim Crow came in November 1938, when the liberal Southern Conference for Human Welfare held its founding meeting in downtown Birmingham. Its focus was New Deal-style economic reform. But when Connor announced that “White and Negro are not to segregate together” and his men dragged a rope down the middle of Municipal Auditorium, he compelled the group to make an issue of segregated seating—all the more so when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pulled her folding chair out into the aisle as a protest but was not arrested. During the next quarter century Connor tacitly encouraged Ku Klux Klan bombings to block integrated housing and buses, letting the KKK do the dirty work. Now the Klan was backing off for a season to let Connor conquer a Negro invasion by official methods.

The early April sit-ins at downtown department stores got off to a lackluster start, partly because stores closed their lunch counters. The store boycott that had started several months before limped along. Notwithstanding SCLC executive director Wyatt Walker’s meticulous planning of every last detail, including the number of seats in each lunchroom, within less than a week after the kickoff on April 3 SCLC leaders altered their strategy from sit-ins to protest marches (and even considered canning direct action in favor of voter registration). The city’s black preachers and other African-American leaders were overwhelmingly resistant to SCLC’s civic confrontation. They claimed lack of consultation, but in fact they hoped that Boutwell’s new regime would make protests unnecessary. In his marathon meetings with black moderates King managed to turn some of them around.

The sit-ins and marches garnered a respectable three hundred arrests during the first week, but Connor got a midnight injunction from a cooperative state court judge banning further protests. He had overheard King on a police bug announce to a Wednesday mass meeting that he would be arrested on Friday.

“Everyone in the movement must live a sacrificial life,” he had said at St. James AME Church. “I can’t think of a better day than Good Friday for a move for freedom.” Next day at a press conference Rev. Ralph Abernathy raised the stakes: “Almost two thousand years ago Christ died on the cross for us. Tomorrow we will take it up for our people and die if necessary.” The specter of King’s jailing finally put the Birmingham protests on the front page of the New York Times, a badly needed lift. But was he bluffing?

Things got worse on Maundy Thursday. SCLC’s bail funds were hitting bottom when the bail bondsman reported that the city had put him out of business. Suddenly the cost of bailing prisoners jumped tenfold. Moreover because contempt citations could be prosecuted in superior court, the potential bail would be much higher than simply for parading without a permit. King’s advisers felt he had a higher responsibility to leave town and raise cold cash as only he could.

When he met with local leaders and SCLC staff on Good Friday morning to decide what to do, “a sense of doom” pervaded Room 30, King’s small suite at the Gaston Hotel. Owner Arthur G. Gaston, Birmingham’s only black millionaire, and King’s father were among those present. “I looked about me,” King Jr. recalled, “and saw that, for the first time, our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. No one knew what to say, for no one knew what to do.” An atmosphere of utter gloom, Andrew Young recalled.

A staff member broke the somber silence. “Martin, this means you can’t go to jail. We need money. We need a lot of money. We need it now. You are the only one who has the contacts to get it.”

Did it occur to anyone in the stuffy room that King’s “one-man team” approach to leadership, especially his one-man moneymaking show, had put them all in this untenable dilemma? He was still the six-year-old organization’s only dependable fund-raiser. “If you go to jail,” the staffer continued, “we are lost. The battle of Birmingham is lost.” But if he did not go to jail, after making a public pledge, the nation’s eyes upon him, the movement might die a less honorable death, and his leadership, already fragile, might be undone. Judges could then shut down any constitutional protest with the stroke of a pen.

Neither King nor SCLC could afford to lose in Birmingham. The future if not the survival of both were on the line. It was do or die in Birmingham, then the most segregated big city in America.

“I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt,” King later wrote, “alone in that crowded room.” For the first time in his leadership career, the thirty-four-year-old preacher faced the prospect of going against the majority consensus of his team. Only Walker and Fred Shuttlesworth urged jail. All the other local leaders were adamantly opposed. Chain smoking, King paid close attention to their objections. Compassionate listening was one of his ways of defusing stressful conflict.

Ever since in his Montgomery kitchen he was baptized in the power of prayer and had plumbed the depths of his faith, King sometimes sought to re-create that experience when crisis struck, but usually in private or with intimates. This time he made a show of his faith. Without a word he retreated to his bedroom and closed the door.

When he came out half an hour later to face the befuddled group, he was wearing a pressed blue-gray work shirt over his white dress shirt, and crisp blue jeans with cuffs rolled up. The denim outfit was meant both to show solidarity with poor blacks and to back the downtown store boycott by challenging the need to buy new Easter clothes..

“I don’t know what will happen,” King said grimly to his colleagues. “I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act.” He turned to his closest friend.

“I know you want to be in your pulpit on Easter Sunday, Ralph. But I am asking you to go with me.” As he had in Atlanta during the bus boycott, Daddy King pleaded with his son to avoid an arrest that might kill him. Like seven years before, Martin would not be swayed, neither by his father nor by other elders in the room.

“I have to go,” he replied. “I am going to march if I have to march by myself. If we obey this injunction, we are out of business.” Exasperated, his father rued, “Well, you didn’t get this nonviolence from me. You must have got it from your Mama.”

No one doubted he meant business. The group joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Since the 1960 student sit-ins the slave spiritual rephrased by black South Carolina textile strikers, then polished by Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan, had become the movement’s battle hymn. A few blocks away at Sixth Avenue Zion Hill Church fifty protesters were also singing freedom hymns as they patiently awaited their leader.

An hour later King, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth led the trained protesters out of the church toward downtown white Birmingham. A growing crowd gathered around, joining in their chanting and singing, as they marched by black Kelly Ingram Park, boundary of the two Birminghams. Connor and his cops were waiting with paddy wagons. As if of one mind the column of twos suddenly turned, sidestepping the police blockade. Police caught up with them, motorcycle cops roaring to the front and ordering a halt. King and Abernathy fell to their knees in prayer. Burly cops grabbed each preacher by his shirt back and shoved them roughly into a paddy wagon. Police had trouble distinguishing protesters from onlookers, arresting a larger number than had marched out of the church. Shuttlesworth had not intended to go in this time, but he was swept up in the confusion. The crowd of several hundred cheered their heroes as they filled up the wagons.

At Birmingham city jail King and Abernathy were removed from the larger group that was stuffed into a drunk tank; each was locked in solitary confinement. King’s cramped cell was completely dark. He had a cold metal cot without mattress, sheet, or blanket, and a filthy seatless toilet. Terror trumped his shock and disgust.

“Those were the longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours” of his life, he wrote later. “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” He feared that this might be his tomb, no bigger than Jesus’s stone tomb in Jerusalem that he had once prayed within. Would this be his Golgotha? Would he never again hold his baby Bernice, born a week before? The Montgomery movement had been born just after his first child, Yoki, had entered the world.

During his first two days of trembling darkness, when he was not praying or dozing fitfully, he could look back over seven years of daily facing death. The only time he had felt death embrace him was when in Harlem a deranged black woman stabbed him in the chest, September 1958—but God had let him survive the wound a hair from his heart. His fear of death had become a companion, a soul mate, which energized him while it also wore him down. Fear was intertwined with aching guilt for subjecting his wife and children, and parents, to the apparent inevitability of his death. Many times since December 1955 he had daydreamed about leaving the movement in others’ hands. More than once he had resolved to do so. He had wanted out. But he always reminded himself of his covenant with the holy spirit, his midnight vow of January 1956 to fight on no matter what. Leaving the movement would mean betraying his faith, betraying his Lord, and leaving himself spiritually more alone than he was now physically in the “hole.”

But what bruised fruit his leadership had netted since the bus boycott triumph. SCLC’s voting rights campaign of the late 1950s, which had such potential, had fizzled, perhaps because he had not paid enough attention. During those early years he believed that his main job was to commit the uncommitted through oratory, to spread the political gospel like a black Billy Graham for justice, and always to raise money. It wasn’t until the startling lunch counter sit-ins of winter 1960 that he learned he must act with his body as well as his voice, and that black voting was not sufficient. And next year the freedom rides led by CORE and young SNCC members showed him that he was not alone in staring down death. SNCC activists who wrote wills before heading on a bus from Montgomery to Mississippi were upset when he refused to join them, after urging them onward. To derisive laughter “De Lawd” told them that he must choose the time and place of his Golgotha. De Lawd was the nickname SNCC people had given him, only partly in jest.

Then came humiliating defeat in Albany, the southwest Georgia city that Bernice Johnson Reagon, born and raised there, called the “mother lode” of the movement, in which singing was as powerful as marching and sitting in. SNCC’s resentment toward King for his moral caution was deepened by his men’s grabbing the helm of the Albany movement, then jumping ship when it ran into shoals. SCLC had earned a reputation for bringing a big media show that spotlighted King, then leaving town with the cameras, abandoning local people to fend for themselves against sheriffs and the Klan. Notwithstanding his sacred pledge, King might have already resigned from the movement for an ivoried college or seminary had the young militants not kept relighting his fire.

What King hated most about jail, and being alone, was the suffocating self-reproach he conjured up.

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