Tangent #5 by Dave Sim

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(All quotations in Tangent V are from David I Garrow's Bearing the Cross, William Morrow and Company, New Yonk, 1986. Used without permission)

Before MIA became more widely synonymous with "missing in action," it was, first, the acronym of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization which - on the basis of the May 17, 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka (which held that the segregationist doctrine of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional) - campaigned to desegregate the city buses of Montgomery, Alabama. The Association chose to do this by means of a boycott of the Montgomery City Lines buses by its Negro patrons, insightfully grasping the fact that the greatest leverage possible in effecting change in a capitalist society is the withholding of capital (the Negro population of Montgomery represented fully three quarters of all bus patrons in that city).

The MIA was composed of leaders from the Montgomery Negro community, many of whom were Baptist ministers. While the means (the boycott) and the end (desegregation) were clear, this was Alabama and the conquest of their own individual and collective fear was, clearly, their most pressing on-going concern. When word came that newspaper photographers would be attending an early MIA mass meeting, some of the ministers seemed reluctant to volunteer as speakers. E. D. Nixon, a past president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) rebuked them angrily:

Somebody in this thing has got to get faith. I am just ashamed of you. You said that God has called you to lead the people and now you are afraid and gone to pieces because the man tells you that the newspaper men will be here and your pictures might come out in the newspaper. Somebody has got to get hurt in this thing and if you preachers are not the leaders then we have to pray that God will send us some more leaders.

The presidency of the fledgling MIA devolved upon a young minister named Martin Luther King whose call to the ministry, by his own admission, "was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity". He had previously existed in "a state of scepticism...until I studied a course in [the] 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." (italics mine)

Now of course, I was religious. I grew up in the church. I'm the son of a preacher..my grandfather was a preacher, my great grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy's brother is a preacher, so I didn't have much choice I guess.

The first time that Martin Luther King addressed the Montgomery Improvement Association, he told them, "We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action."

If it was true that conquering their own fear was the largest concern of the MIA membership, it was certainly no less of a pressing imperative for the Association's young president. A critical moment arrived for him on the night of January 27, 1955 when his faith in himself and his ability to serve in his new capacity was at a low ebb. The phone rang, the latest in a series of anonymous callers to the home he shared with his wife and baby daughter "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we're going to blow your brains out and blow up your house." As Martin Luther King recalled it later:

I got to the point that I couldn't take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, you can't call on Daddy now, he's up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can't even call on Mama now. You've got to call on the something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.

And I discovered, then, that religion had become something real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it. I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But, Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this, because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak"

And it seemed, at that moment, that 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 unto the end of the world" I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

The King house was bombed several nights later, as King addressed the congregation at Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church. In his own words, King "accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it"

Addressing the crowd which had gathered outside his home, a crowd which (not surprisingly) threatened, at any moment, to turn into an unruly mob, King said:

I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them...if I am stopped, this movement will not stop... if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.

An ancient schism, as old as humanity itself, began to form within that "movement" hard on the heels of these extraordinary events. To me, it was a schism exemplified, on the one hand, by the comments of Jo Ann Robinson, president of Montgomery's Women's Political Council:

The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It's not a one man show. It is not the preachers' show. It's the people. The masses of this town, who are tired of being trampled on, are responsible. The leaders couldn't stop it if they wanted to.

... and on the other, by the words of Reverend Glenn E. Smiley, a white official of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and an expert on non-violence and the non-violent stratagems of Mahatma Gandhi. Writing to friends, Smiley described his first interview with Martin Luther King as "one of the most glorious, yet tragic interviews I have ever had." He went on to say that

I believe that God has called Martin Luther King to lead a great movement here and in the South. But, why does God lay such a burden on one so young, so inexperienced, so good? King can be a Negro Gandhi, or he can be made into an unfortunate demagogue destined to swing from a lynch mob's tree.

After addressing one of the early Montgomery Improvement Association mass meetings himself, Smiley also wrote

Religious fervor is high and they are trying to keep it spiritual. Not once was there an expression of hatred towards whites and the ovation I received when I talked of Gandhi, his campaign, and then of the Cross, was tremendous. They want to do the will of God, and they are sure this is the will of God.

Unfortunately for Reverend, or, rather, Doctor King, his people and his movement, Smiley's influence was quickly overshadowed by that of Bayard Rustin, a known communist sympathizer, a suspected Communist Party member and a homosexualist who said of the MIA: "The movement [in Montgomery] is strong because it is religious as well as political. It has been built upon the most stable institution of the Southern Negro community - the Church." Most of Bayard's comments, not surprisingly, amount to damning with faint praise. To the faithful, the Church is a stable institution only insofar as it is sustained by the abiding faith, of its members, in God. That is, the Church as "institution" is not the same thing as the Elks Club, The Times of London, Westminster or the American Communist Party. To view it as such is to endeavour - tactically - to diminish its infinitely larger and infinitely more significant role in human affairs to a commonplace, mundane and-tactical-level. Not surprisingly this is always the approach secular interests take in describing the Church. Note Rustin's description of the movement as "..religious as well as political," as if the two forces were of comparable validity - as opposed to Smiley's view of the early MIA as a Christian enterprise seeking to do the will of God in the area of racial injustice. "We must keep God in the forefront," as Reverend King said.

One of the foremost potential problems that the movement faced - and which was not widely known until much later - was Dr. King's womanizing, his manifold acts of adultery. It is almost inconceivable to me that someone could consider himself a good Christian and a minister of the Gospel and conduct himself in his personal life the way Dr. King did. Although the secular-humanist-socialists he allowed into the SCLC could remark with equanimity (as one staff member did) "I watched women making passes at Martin Luther King. I could not believe what I was seeing in white Westchester [County, an affluent New York satellite community] women...They would walk up to him and they would sort of lick their lips and hint and [hand him] notes...After I saw that thing that evening I didn't blame him," his behaviour was, obviously blameworthy. It seems to me that the sort of precautions taken by the evangelist Billy Graham of never communicating with women, one-on-one, unless there was a staff member present - "present" as in being self-evidently privy to any conversation however quietly whispered and intercepting any communication - should have been taken in Dr. King's case. This is not foolproot of course. As any experience with women will tell you a) a slut is a slut is a slut and b) there is no slut quite as bad as a rich, white slut. But, clearly, for a minister of the gospel message of Jesus Christ measures should have been taken.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy was assaulted in his church office one night and badly injured by a man who claimed that Abernathy had had an intimate relationship with the man's wife. This prompted Los Angeles pastor J. Raymond Henderson to caution King that he must avoid "even the appearance of evil. One of the most damning influences is that of women. They themselves too often delight in the satisfaction they get out of affairs with men of unusual prominence. Enemies are not above using them to a man's detriment. White women can be lures. You must exercise more than care. You must be vigilant, indeed."

Presumably, Rev. Henderson's warning had some effect - at least in the short term - to judge by the following event:

In mid-September King traveled to New York to speak at several churches to stimulate interest in the Youth March. That same week, his book [Stride Toward Freedom] was published and King made a number of appearances to help promote it. One of those was a Saturday autographing session at Blumstein's department store in Harlem. King, surrounded by friends and admirers as he sat on a chair in the book depantment, was suddenly approached by a middle-aged black woman who asked, "Is this Martin Luther King?" King looked up and replied, "Yes it is." Quickly, the woman pulled a sharp seven-inch Japanese letter opener ftom her handbag and slammed it into King's upper left chest. The shocked onlookers grabbed the woman, and the store security officer handcuffed her. King was fully conscious and remained calmly seated in the chair until an ambulance arrived. With the weapon protruding from his chest, King was driven to nearby Harlem Hospital. As a team of doctors prepared for surgery, police officials brought the assailant, Mrs. Izola Ware Curry, to the hospital for King to make a positive identification. A loaded pistol had been found in her purse, and her incoherent comments indicated severe mental illness. After King identified her she was taken away to a mental hospital...King would hove a scar, in the shape of a cross, right over his heart, but otherwise would suffer no lingering ill effects.

I'm sure that, from the vantage point of my largely feminist readers, I attach too much significance to the fact that - because he was immobilized by this vicious assault - the Youth March marked the first time that his wife, Coretta, "stood in" for him and that it was Coretta King and Ella Baker who set up a temporary movement office inside Harlem Hospital during Dr. King's recovery.

It was shortly after this that Reverend King was quoted as saying, "I don't want to own any property. I don't need any property. I don't need a house. A man who devotes himself to a cause, who dedicates himself to a cause doesn't need a family."

Very unusual for a husband to even allow himself to think, let alone say out loud.

Of course (no great surprise) he got a house. And then a bigger house. Stanley Levison was quoted as saying:

The house troubled him greatly. When he moved from a very small house to one that was large enough to give the growing family some room, he was troubled by it and would ask all of his close friends when they came to the house whether they didn't think it was too big and it wasn't right for him to have. And though everyone tried to tell him that this big house wasn't as big as he thought it was - it was a very modest little house - to him it loomed as large as a mansion and he searched his own mind for ways of making it smaller.

Meanwhile, back at Ella Baker:

Ella Baker, along with Rustin and Stanley Levison, constituted the third in a trinity of socialist-secular-humanist influences which lobbied intensively for Reverend King to confine himself to the role of Dr. King. Again, unfortunately for Reverend King, his people and his movement, she soon attained the position of associate director of the newly founded outgrowth of the MIA, the SCLC (The Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Originally a socialist-centred Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation (Rustin's tactical "logic of the next step" move to expand the Montgomery bus boycott into a pan-Southern action) it was only through the insistence of Reverend King that the word "Christian" was incorporated into the title. Rustin had warned that such a move would discourage the non-religious from participating. Again, unfortunately for Reverend King, his people and his movement, that proved not to be the case.

When the SCLC foundered in a period of inactivity, a group of students, on its own initiative, began "sit-ins" at segregated lunch counters in North Carolina and soon thereafter organized themselves into the SNCC (The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) of which Ella Baker appointed herself a kind of socialist-secular-humanist den mother while still attached to the SCLC executive. She warned the students that the SCLC would attempt to take over their movement and insisted, in good secular-humanist-socialist-proto-feminist fashion, that the students be left to function without any adult supervision (you know, that "out of the mouths of babes" thing).

While underminhag the SCLC in the minds of the SNCC students, Ella Baker continued to "serve" in her role as acting executive director (I would assume that Rustin, Levison and Coretta had pressured Martin Luther King to advance Ella Baker to such lofty heights in what was now a Christian organization only in the most ostensible sense), a position which she would ultimately resign:

Baker's departure, however left a legacy of strained feelings [emphasis mine] in its wake. She had never held King or Abernathy in high regard and, once she had formally left the organization, she made no secret of her attitude. Baker had found them unwilling to discuss substantive issues with her as an equal [emphasis mine] and unreceptive to any critical comments she might offer. To James Lawson [an SCLC staff member], the root of the problem was simple: "Martin had real problems with having a woman in a high position." Baker also did not support a "leader-centred" appmach to organizing a movement and felt no special awe for King. "I was not a person to be enamoured of anyone," she noted. The ministers of the SCLC, on the other hand, thought Baker was haughty and aloof with what they felt was a disdain for anyone who was a black male preacher. The resulting bitterness would not mellow with time.

In fairness to Baker, she did warn King early in her participation with the movement that "we are losing the initiative in the Civil Rights struggle in the south, mainly because of the absence of a dynamic philosophy or spiritual force" [italics mine]. Had King "stayed the course" - keeping God at the forefront of the movement through maintaining exclusively Christian leadership by Christian leaders (ministers and pastors) in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (I mean, duh) - the outcome, I suspect, would have been very different. Alas, such was not to be the case.

It amazes me that, even with the religious experience in his kitchen in 1957, so much of Martin Luther King's efforts remained wholly and completely secular, humanist and socialist in nature. In his meetings with Vice-President Richard Nixon and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, his tone is always that of a Labour negotiator, a quasi-socialist, with nary a word said by him about God, nary an effort made to communicate as a minister of the Gospel to wayward Christians (Kennedy and Johnson being rather more wayward as Christians go, one would guess, than were Nixon and Eisenhower). Had Nixon, as an example, been addressed as a Quaker: "Mr. Vice President, how can you as a white Christian gentleman deny to your black Christian brothers the rights and freedoms which you enjoy?" it seems to me that it would have left a good deal less "wiggle" room. "Let my people go." Reverend King as Aaron, addressing Richard Nixon as Pharaoh. There were any number of approaches that made more sense when standing on the moral high ground (as Martin Luther King surely was) than to function as a secular-humanist-quasi-socialist mouthpiece for a run-of-the-mill Marxist like Bayard Rustin. Certainly, Martin Luther King had demonstrated, time and again, his oratorical skill in the striking - just so - of the "right note," le mot juste - and nowhere more exaltedly than in his "I have a dream" speech delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963.

I have a dream that, one day, every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be mode straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together...

It is hard to imagine any occasion in human history when the words of the fourth and fifth verses of Isaiah's monumental and awe-inspiring 40th chapter had so resonated with the souls and minds of so many people in one place and in one time than on that glorious sunlit August afternoon.

Let freedom ring... When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negno spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

Reportedly, Coretta King was furious in the aftermath of The Speech that she was not allowed to accompany King to his meeting with President Kennedy. I suspect that she had focussed her attentions upon an earlier reference in The Speech to "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers" and that her female nature - typically and misguidedly - believed this reference to black and white children had some analogous application to black men and black women, white men and white women. That is, if the Reverend Martin Luther King belonged in the Oval Office that afternoon, so did his housewife).

Anyway, it did amaze me that a man like Martin Luther King - who was capable of writing The Speech and who had been assured that Jesus would never leave him alone in his pursuit of righteousness, of truth and of justice for his people - would think that a socialist lightweight like Bayard Rustin had anything to teach him about what to say and how to say it in the Oval Office.

But, this is my last word on gender, so back to the "ladies".

The checkers-playing tacticianettes do not, ordinarily, surrender a high-profile position such as Ella Baker enjoyed in the SCLC without bringing in a replacement tacticianette. Such seems to have been the case and the SCLC board soon welcomed to its ranks Marian Logan, a New York fundraiser (friend to the lip-licking? ally of the note-passing?), as Ella Baker turned her attentions, more or less full-time to the radical, unsupervised and wholly secular SNCC.

[The low, nearly bestial nature of the SNCC was always typified for me by its one-time leader James Forman's assertion that "if the powers that be are unwilling to let my people sit at the table of government, we stand ready to knock the fucking legs right off the table," both for the mockery it made of the "Non-violent" part of the SNCC's name and for his vulgarity in saying so in the Beulah Baptist Church.

Yes, sorry, back to the "ladies". Quite right.]

What interested me about Marian Logan was that she circulated a memo to the other members of the SCLC Board in advance of the Poor People's March on Washington (which Martin Luther King whole-heartedly favoured, a position in which he was virtually alone of the SCLC executive):

"I doubt very seriously," Logan wrote, that the Washington actions would have any positive effect on Congress. "If anything, the demonstrations may well harden congressional resistance and create an atmosphere conducive not only to the victory of reactionary candidates in the coming elections, but also to the defeat of those candidates who are, or would be, friendly to the social and economic objectives of our struggle." Logan was also concerned that King and SCLC would not "be able to preserve the non-violent image and integrity of our organization" once the protests got under way. Given the "explosive potential of the situation," serious violence would be inevitable. "You say, Martin, that you 'will use disruptive tactics only as a last resort'...but you understand, of course," Logan asserted, "that in view of the likely police response to these disruptive tactics, you are in effect saying that you are prepared to court violence as a last resort." Logan was also "troubled and unhappy [emphasis mine] at how inadequately" the planning had been handled so far "It does not appear to me, or to anyone with whom I have talked, that an adequate job has been done." And "there is the question of objectives. Have they been clarified? Have you worked out what you will accept, short of your total objectives...?"

In response to Logan's admonitions, King phoned her almost daily for more than a week in an unsuccessfull effort to persuade her to withdraw the complaints, which she had sent to the entire SCLC board. Andrew Young joined in the attempt, writing Logan and her husband, Arthur, that "we are too far gone to turn amund" on the campaign. "This is very much a faith venture..." [emphasis mine)

King's reaction seems, to me, disproportionate. And yet he persisted, seeming to believe that there was some greater level of importance to the memo than revealed on the surface, as if...as if the actual conflict between himself and Marian Logan was taking place on some loftier plane of existence, some more crucial battlefield than a difference of opinion between an organization's president and one of its board members.

Sometime later

King returned to New York City and went to the home of Marian and Arthur Logan, where he argued with Marian into the early-morning hours about the memo she had distributed to SCLC's board. King was depressed and exhausted, and downed drink after drink as he pressed her to withdraw her objections to the Washington protests. The Logans had spent many similar evenings with King when he had wanted to talk and drink until dawn, seemingly unable to find any rest in sleep, but this night was different and worse. King was unwilling to accept Logan's position and talk about something else. His mood changed repeatedly as the hours passed, from tension to calm, and then back to barely restrained anger and thmughout it all he betrayed unusual anxiety with one hand tightly holding his frequently refilled glass and the other clenched into a fist with his thumb ceaselessly rubbing against the other fingers. It seemed that King was "losing hold," Marian Logan recalled.

I suspect that that is what happened. In some very real sense, that night King did "lose hold" of the Civil Rights movement and it passed from his hands into those of Marian Logan and her secular-humanist confreres, the checkers-playing tacticianettes, the proto-feminists-in-waiting.

Over the next few days, King continued to phone Marian Logan on almost a daily basis. Finally, on a rain-ravaged night in Memphis he delivered a speech:

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But, it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But, I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And so, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

"Sweat streaming from his brow, and his eyes watering heavily, King moved to his seat. Some thought him so overcome by emotion that he was crying..."

Early the next evening, Martin Luther King was shot to death on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel.

Of course, Marian Logan's memo could have been just that: a memo. Perhaps it was nothing more...real...than that. Perhaps it was - as it appeared on the surface - that Marian Logan merely had some...hard questions...for Dr. or Reverend Martin Luther King. Hard questions that he had been evading since the early days of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Hard questions: not the least of which was "how non-violent can a movement be that knowingly courts violence as a means (television coverage) to an end (social change)?"

Or perhaps her hard questions were, in some context, latger still, so large that they caused the Civil Rights movement to slip from the hands of Martin Luther King, minister of the gospel message of Jesus Christ, a man chosen by God (can any believer, in retrospect, believe otherwise?) to bring equality and justice to the men of his race, to "speed up the day when all of God's children - black men and white men" (italics mine) might attain to the promise housed within the preamble to the United States Constitution that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." (italics mine)

...and through her memo, her hard questions, Marian Logan was the instrument which caused the Civil Rights movement to pass from Martin Luther King's hands - at the very threshold of destiny, on the very cusp of fulfillment, at the very dawning of that too-long-delayed day - first enunciated as a promise in the Constitution, clarified, subsequently, by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and, finally, made inevitable by the enshrining of the 13th Amendment abolishing, in 1870, slavery's last outpost on this continent...

...so that 1970 might evermore have been associated as both a centenary and a fulfillment of the black man finding his long-promised and too-long-delayed "place in the sun" of full equality with his white brothers: "Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last"...but instead...


1970 would come to be synonymous with the onset of feminism, wherein the black man found his Civil Rights usurped by those who hold, instead, these poisonous, fairy-tale "truths" to be self-evident: that black men are interchangeable with black women and white women, that black men are interchangeable with homosexualists; that black men are interchangeable with children and with infants, that black men are interchangeable with babies, that black men are interchangeable with cats and that black men are interchangeable with dogs.

Because of a) my choice to not reprint "Tangent" in the Form & Void trade paperback (although it is relevant - so far as I'm concerned - to the "Recondite magazine" portion of Ham and Mary Ernestway's story), b) the fact that I have no plans in the foreseeable future to publish any collection of my essays and c) mindful of the fact that issue 186 (despite being universally deplored by male and female feminists) is one of the few Cerebus back issues to sell out virtually overnight:

I hereby waive all trademark and copyright considerations to the essay and authorize any and all individuals to reproduce the essay in any form, print, electronic or otherwise provided that that reproduction is of the complete work and not excerpts from it (which are authorized for journalistic purposes or as raw materials in another creative or journalistic work).

Dave Sim
Kitchener, Ontario
March 16, 2001

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