The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968. Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age: the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle. King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt. This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum: there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.
King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years. I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others. Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles. He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.
What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett. The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited. I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.
Vinay: At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960. I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.
Rev. Lawson: I think that’s reading into it.
Vinay: You think it’s reading into it?
Rev. Lawson: It’s also something else. Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.
Vinay: Can you say more?
Rev. Lawson: How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.
Vinay: Was he at that time?
Rev. Lawson: Oh, absolutely.
Vinay: Already? In early 1960?
Rev. Lawson: Oh, yes.
Vinay: Undisputedly so.
Rev. Lawson: Undisputedly so. I watched it.
Rev. Lawson: I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be. Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world. He was not the chosen one. I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way. They said it then.
Rev. Lawson: They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way. King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work. They rejected that idea, and said no to that.
It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible. That’s excluded from these [academic] books. Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism. It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed. It does not arrive with tactics in place.
Vinay: Yes, it’s a process.
Rev. Lawson: It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new. We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds. I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.
Vinay: I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.
Rev. Lawson: Yeah.
Vinay: I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.
Rev. Lawson: In Atlanta.
Vinay: In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.
Rev. Lawson: What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself. That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’
Why? Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together. They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta. His father is a member of that group. King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to. Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time. They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta. King is hesitant. He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.
King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership. That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta. Now the students do not understand that. I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.
King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that. Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that. Others close to him had no about that. He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.
Vinay: Yes, all of them, right.
Rev. Lawson: Now none of that is in these books.
Vinay: Yeah. Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who. Mohandas.
Rev. Lawson: Yes. Mohandas K.
Vinay: Gandhi, yes. Mohandas K.
Rev. Lawson: That’s right.
Vinay: He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.
Rev. Lawson: Yeah.
Vinay: He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.
Rev. Lawson: He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.
Rev. Lawson: He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.
Vinay: Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.
Rev. Lawson: Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is. Exactly. You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies. It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think. In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around. You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.
Vinay: Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments. Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia. Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.
Rev. Lawson: Yeah, it’s locally started.
Vinay: Right yeah. It’s locally started, locally initiated.
Rev. Lawson: That’s right, it’s locally started.
Vinay: SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.
Rev. Lawson: By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany. I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.
Rev. Lawson: He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.
Vinay: Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following. It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this. Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany. The perspective then generally amounts to the following.
Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany. Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India. In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here. This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …
Rev. Lawson: Yes, I know the story.
Vinay: That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story. The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably. Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there. Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?
Rev. Lawson: Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff. It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling. When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.
There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves. How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked. One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard. Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.” He said that boldly years ago to me.
King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure. Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable. I don’t know them myself. King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.
Informative. I read up on the civil rights movement before coming to the US but don’t recall reading about Pritchett.
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I really enjoyed reading this! I thought the section about MLK not being the chosen one so fascinating as I never really thought of it like that. Whenever I read or learn anything about MLK it’s as if he was born to be a leader yet for someone so close to him say to say otherwise is baffling. I also found the comparison to Gandhi extremely relevant as people think in order for you to express your voice and your voice to be heard, you have to go through the suffering first hand. Yet both of them rejected this idea as they were followed even if they hadn’t suffered the most in terms of how they grew up. Gandhi’s 1930 salt satyagraha was when he really made his mark and although he had 100,000 other Indians that were breaking the law an arrested with him, it was a pivotal moment for him as a nonviolence instigator.
Might it be durst to be said with confidence that an event has taken place (be it a protest march or a sit-in, as in the case mentioned in the interview between Professor Lal and Reverend Lawson) if it is not covered in the press? Like the sun on the obscure sky, it might eclipse, yet being shadowed by overcast weather, it will recede. Social movement leaders comprising here Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bewel – each of them worth perpetuation, further going to Stokeley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown have diverged widely on civil rights tactics, but they all agreed that fluctuations in the social organism should be enlightened in the press. It has become apparent to both proponents of violence and advocates of nonviolence that violence itself and violent rhetoric are the most effective means of getting the attention of journalists.
Even Mahatma K. Gandhi himself – the great adept and inspirer of the non-violence movement – understood this very well. He was extremely concerned about all the events he organized to be heard beyond India – in the UK and America, maintaining about the value of the British violent measures, since they attract the attention of the press. This is the paradox of nonviolence: the protesters themselves may be supporters of nonviolence, but their protests must provoke violent action in response. If both sides do not use violence, then nothing interesting will come of it. Martin Luther King regretted this more than once, however, having met Lauri Pritchett, he realized that this was reality and there was no way to get away from it.
It is worth noting from the interview, that Martin Luther King was not the chosen one, but was indeed an unwitting leader with its consecutive and notorious burden. When the SCLC selected the city for a nonviolent resistance campaign, Pritchett was the Chief of Police for Albany, Georgia. Little Albany, with seventy-five thousand inhabitants, about a third of whom were people of color, was the largest settlement in the area, and it is there where local black population, decided to start a voter registration campaign. The registration campaign also included the desegregation of public buildings, including bus stations, which sparked massive protests, and Martin Luther King made a proposal.
This has all been indeed challenged by non-violence, as there has never been a case when polite and even delicate sheriffs used force. Pritchett had the ability to forestall any action by the protesters, (as he had informers among Albany’s black community). Even after the arrest of MLK, the latter was released from the prison, allegedly thanks to a bail from an “unidentified Negro”. As we know from the history, it’s been merely a cunning plan of the sheriff, as no ransom was paid.
As is written, the Albany campaign was a disaster. After Albany, civil rights leaders learned to avoid “Pritchetts” and choose cities where police officers were particularly zealous and where bosses were vicious and fickle. Thus, I think it is important to pay attention to the sheriff, as his deep knowledge on the history of India and Gandhi’s activity was helpful for him to rule out the conflict. I personally also believe, that it was not a failure, but a fruitful lesson, considering that the math was made and further activity of the monumental Martin Luther King altered the course of the history.
I found this post incredibly interesting! When I have learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in the past, he is portrayed as a man who immediately stepped into leadership and somewhat initiated the Civil Rights movement. While he was an incredibly powerful leader, I found it intriguing to hear about how he did not want to rise to a position of leadership in Atlanta, as he would have to contend with the traditional Black leaders in the area. Not only did Martin Luther King have to deal with so much hatred and disdain in that people believed his beliefs to be too radical, but he also encountered criticism for not being radical enough, which is something I did not realize before. Additionally, I found it intriguing how his belief in nonviolence so closely overlapped with those of Gandhi.
Very interesting article, Professor Lal! Following the passing of John Lewis, I read his autobiography Walking With the Wind and I can’t help but see the similarities and differences between Lewis’ and Lawson’s presentation of Martin Luther King Jr.
One similarity is, of course, the deference and respect that Lewis and Lawson have for Dr. King. Lawson refers to King as unquestionably the leader of the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 60s. Lewis talks at great length about how King serves as both an inspiration (before they met) and an important source of support (later on). Even when Lewis discusses issues where he did not see eye-to-eye with Dr. King, the sense that Dr. King had good intentions and fought for justice is unmistakable.
A key difference I’d highlight is how Lewis and Lawson saw King is regards to the establishment of the movement. Lawson presents King as a (for lack of a better word) radical force within the movement whose primary interaction with the traditional leadership of black politics in the South is one of passive antagonism. He wants to take the movement in a different direction without having to engage in a costly battle with the powers that be in the black community. Tied in with that is the emphasis on Dr. King’s youth and sudden rise to fame. Meanwhile, my impression of Lewis’ writings is that Dr. King occupied the center of a spectrum of point of views on tactics. SNCC occupied one end of the spectrum, the position of mass action; the other end favored legal action and was primarily represented by the NAACP. In the middle lay Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC. Lewis, when he represented the SNCC point of view, seemed to view Dr. King as an ally which seemed to side with either the SCLC or SNCC on an approximately 50/50 basis.
The differences between these points of view are particularly thought-provoking when you consider that Lewis was a student of Lawson’s teachings directly. I would imagine there are any number of factors which I am ignorant of that might account for these differences between these two leaders (to whatever degree that the differences exist outside of my interpretation, of course). One guess I might make would come down to the difference in generation. Lawson was around the same age of Dr. King, while Lewis was over a decade younger. Other differences might include professional perspective (Lewis went on to serve as a politician while Lawson continued as a pastor), time the views were articulated (Lewis is 1998, Lawson in 2014), and intended audience.
This is a very thoughtful comment. There is much that is common to all three: King, Lawson, and Lewis. But there are differences–not that these divide them, but they put a different complexion on how each situated himself and how they are in turn situated by us who look back at them. King and Lawson are much closer in age; Lewis is about 12 years younger than Lawson. Lawson saw himself as a contemporary and equal of King, quite rightfully so; Lewis was more the disciple, the student, even if he went on to win greater fame than Lawson. But there are more substantive differences: Lewis’s career as a Congressman signifies a different relationship to the ‘law’, to the idea of America, and to what he views as ‘the American dream’. Lawson doesn’t much believe, I would say, in ‘the American dream’; he is also far more critical of capitalism. King was not sensitive to questions of capitalism at first but towards the end of his life he began to embrace questions of economic inequality and became more of a street fighter for labor, too. And then of course King and Lawson both had an identity as men of the church, so to speak, and so they have a different relationship in some ways to the teachings of Jesus. One could go on in this vein. I encourage you to look deeper into these issues, if you have the time and the interest.
The way people like Pritchett label their actions as nonviolent always leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Despite the physically unharmful nature of imprisonment; I always find hearing about unjust sentencing such as this rather unsettling. In my mind, there is quite a cost. I think you can make a connection between imprisonment and harm inflicted in terms of time. In both scenarios the victim pays a cost in time, healing time or waiting time. Both scenarios waste a resource that is finite and nonrefundable.
To further examine I would like to make a comparison between two cases. One in which violence were to cause paralysis and one in which someone is imprisoned for 40 years. Assuming these people are at the same age, I would argue the two punishments carry similar weight in the life changing implications. Some might go so far as to say paralysis is better because that person retains some aspects of freedom. From this example I would like to turn to the idea that what the Sheriff has done is nonviolent and therefore justified. I would like to make a claim that what he did is almost a violent act in itself; not on the levels of tear gas and canine attacks, but to a lesser degree.
One final clarification I would like to make is that I don’t believe this blog post makes any argument to justify his actions or paint them in any sort of light. However, I do wish to share my sentiment on this as it did come up in the conversation.
Hi Cameron, I’m of course not at all claiming that Pritchett was being nonviolent. That would be a bit absurd and I think you recognize that. I’m pointing rather to the fact that he is clever enough to understand that nonviolent activists had embarked on a strategy of filling up the jails. And Pritchett effectively says, well, I’ll lock you all up, but I’m not going to let you use your stint in jail as a means to martyrdom. I’m going to disperse you in jails across the state and render your strategy ineffective. In other words, racist that he was, Pritchett nevertheless was a cunning strategist in his own right.
I enjoyed this article and thought the discussion on how geography played a role in Martin Luther King’s success was interesting. As Lawson explained, if MLK had been from Atlanta, where traditional Black leaders already were, and promoted these new tactics, it would’ve appeared like he was undermining them. I did not think about how this played a role in MLK’s success as a leader before this article. Now, however, I definitely agree with Professor Lal’s statement that it was fortuitous that MLK started his political career in Montgomery, as if it had been in a more politically active place like Atlanta, the solidarity behind using non-violence as the strategy of protest may not have been as strong.
I thought it was fascinating to read the conversation with Rev. Lawson as through his statements, we can see that there are a lot of assumptions made about King’s life in history textbooks. I really liked how he described Martin Luther King as not being “the chosen one”, as it makes this huge martyr’s journey seem more human. Also, I never regarded geography to be a heavily weighted factor in King’s career, however it was interesting to see that had King not been based in Montgomery, he might not have been able to follow through with some of his ideas. I never knew that King said he would never initiate any movements or ideas in Atlanta, but this makes sense because, as Rev. Lawson pointed out, Atlanta had already been organized by older and more traditional black leaders. Had King started something in Atlanta, it would seem as though he was undermining traditional ideals, and he would have to justify himself to the reverends and leaders who were already established in Atlanta.
I really enjoyed reading through this interview! I find the part of the interview about how Martin Luther king was “not the chosen one” nor was he supposed to become the leader rather intriguing. In part due to how naturally he seemed to take on the role of leader of the Civil Rights movement and also in part due to how much faith and how much support he garnered as a leader. When looking back upon the bus boycott and King’s installation as leader, one would never be able to tell he was only a young man of 26. I can only imagine the sudden shock of going from being an advocate for the rights of your people to being the face of the entire movement after an unexpectedly effective bus boycott. I feel as if you can’t think about the Civil Rights movement without thinking of MLK, and yet to think that he was never supposed to emerge as leader of the movement in the first place.
This title of “chosen one” is also interesting to me. We often see the use of this phrase in movie to refer to someone as a world’s savior from the evil desires of darkness, or someone who is meant to bring light back into a world once darkened by shadows. It is not hard to understand why MLK would be referred to as the “chosen one”: as the undisputed leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, as said by Lawson, many African Americans saw hopes of achieving equal rights through him. To them, he was, in a way, their savior, the one who would bring light back into their world. However, I do not see it this way. To me, MLK was more of an inspiration, a father figure of the civil rights movement that encouraged others to fight for their equal rights and to fight for their own light. While I believe he possesses the qualities of what one would consider a “chosen one”, I do not believe he represents this entity. People followed his words because they believed, they protested because they had faith in his words that they had the possibility too bring change. I think MLK served as the inspiration that drove people to become their own “chosen one” and bring back the light for their people.
I was raised in Atlanta for a majority of my life, and often when we have learned about MLK, we talk about his connection to Atlanta. We have maybe briefly touched upon traditional black leadership within the city, but never to the context of learning the relationship between the leadership and MLK. I find it admirable that King still respects the traditional Black Leadership in being hesitant to participate in sit in protests in Atlanta. As an Atlantan resident, I wish this part of King’s leadership was taught more in schools, as Lawson says, students, teachers and even he himself at the time do not understand the consequences of King potentially bypassing the traditional leadership at the time. I feel as if this is an important insight into MLK’s character that would help a lot of people understand some of the choices he made.
Thank you for a fascinating interview! This article inspired me to re-watch Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” Speech in DC. Both this article and the speech certainly reinforced my image of Dr. King’s amazing talents in public speaking evident in his use of anaphoras, total conviction to the cause from his repeated jailings following Gandhi’s footsteps. However, what this interview showed me that I didn’t know before was another dimension to the civil rights movement, namely an internal difference in methodologies amongst the African American civil rights leaders were the traditional leaders wanted to change through policy whereas MLK wanted direct action. This further supports the idea that Dr. King was not supposed to be the “chosen one”, which made his accomplishments all the more significant.
I was most struck by the mention of MLK’s humility in his acknowledgement that he could not initiate a civil rights movement entirely on his own and needed to incorporate the wisdom of the Church into the framework of NAACP, but that these ideas were rejected. While we read about these movements as if they went off without a hitch, the Reverend makes it clear that very little of any social justice initiative is planned beforehand, and much of the outcome is dependent on how well the leader can adapt to the changing circumstances. King effectively needed to reconcile the pressure he received from white government officials as well as criticism from traditional black leadership in order to satisfy his own community and enact change.
This was a wonderful read! Prior to analyzing your discussion with Rev. Lawson, I was not aware that Martin Luther King Jr. was already such an influential figure in civil rights as early as the middle of the 1950s. While I was certainly well aware of the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that took place in 1955, I surprised me to discover that MLK became a leader seemingly overnight because of it. Being only 26 years old when he became a leader, I cannot imagine how polarizing it was to the traditional Black Leadership groups depicted in the interview to see an individaul calling for direct action at such a young age. On top of that, the position MLK was put in at the time was a very difficult one. MLK became a crucial leader in the movement for civil rights due to the unanticipated success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He went from supporting civil rights to being a leader of the civil rights movement in a rather unanticipated manner, highlighted by Rev. Lawson stating that MLK was not meant to be “the chosen one.” Another thing that I found interesting was how Atlanta’s views on civil rights differed quite a bit from the beliefs held by MLK at the time. Knowing how much of an impact MLK had on civil rights in the following decade, I am quite inclined to research what groups like the traditional Black Leadership in Atlanta thought of the actions MLK helped carry out in the 1960s. In conclusion, this interview certainly peaked my interest and it has inspired me to research more about the many viewpoints that were held during the Civil Rights Movement.
Before reading this blog, I was not aware of the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was not initially accepted/readily welcomed into the civil rights movement in the United States. I did know, however, that prior to his death, King Jr. was largely disliked among the masses in the United States. Both of these notions are quite astonishing to me, seeing as he is one of the most widely revered figures today. Knowing King’s background also makes this interesting, as he grew up in a relatively well-off family (financially) of ministers. With this, MLK Jr. never really belonged to a particular group: he was an outcast in the eyes of the generally poorer black community in which he lived and he was of a different appearance from those who he and his family preached to. Seeing as this lack of belonging continued into his young adult years makes me wonder how he was able to gather such a large following relatively quickly. If, when he first joined the civil rights movement, he was not accepted by the large figures of the movement (NAACP, black traditional leaders), how did he amass so many individuals to join in his boycotts and marches? Also, considering his idea of nonviolence, he definitely had other opponents who wished to solve injustice in a more rash, destructive way. On top of that, he was fighting for a small minority in which many powerful Americans disliked. These matters make me respect MLK Jr. even more and really opened my eyes to the difficulties he faced.
This conversation is eye-opening to me, as I have not heard many accounts of King’s conflicts with the traditional Black leadership in Atlanta. The idea of King eclipsing the established leadership is as Rev. Lawson says: often misunderstood and misrepresented by books. The common narrative does push King as the leader of the entire movement and disregards the troubles he had with the contemporary established movement. I also knew previously that King drew ideas from Gandhi, but I did not know too much about Gandhi status as an outsider too. I find this parallels drawn in this conversation to be very thought provoking.
It particularly struck me how Reverend Lawson pointed out how King was considered “Not the Chosen One.” Most texts present him as a sort of unanimously voted upon leader of the Civil Rights Movement, so it was surprising to me to read that he was seen as an outsider. I think in terms of social justice and activism, a fresh perspective or younger face of a movement can be beneficial in presenting new ideas where progress may have stagnated or faced a blockage. It’s very unfortunate that we were unable to see what King could have contributed had he lived longer and developed more as a leadership figure.
Event though some believe that the Albany incident was a failure for King, it shouldn’t undermine the importance of this event. The people who took part in the movement didn’t accomplish their goals; however it was still a drastic event that helped create an efficient structure for upcoming nonviolent movements. Later on, in Kings letter from Birmingham Jail, we learn that in any nonviolent movement there are four steps: collection of the facts, negotiation, self purification, and direct action. In Albany, the people participated in direct action, including sit-ins, boycotts, and etc. I believe that direct action is vital in a nonviolent movement. Finding a way to initiate tension in a nonviolent manner, in my eyes, is the most respectable action that an organization or a people can do. Similarly, King believes someone who is willing to go against the status quo, in a nonviolent way, and accept that punishments for their action, is someone who is deemed for high respect; someone who truly understands the steps that need to be done for change. Therefore, I believe that what happened in Albany was essential in the development for nonviolent movements.
I think this was a very illuminating interview. My prior knowledge and teachings about Martin Luther King went into detail about what happened, what he had accomplished, and his ideals for equity, but had never really approached his ideology behind nonviolence and the struggles he faced even within those on “the same side”. It was interesting to see how Black leadership disagreed with his methods, and how he didn’t try to start or participate in any programs in Atlanta to not cause troubles. That idea that “he isn’t the chosen one” was a thought I had never thought of before but makes sense. The opposition that occurred from other leaders seemingly stemmed from the idea that he wasn’t doing it right, or that it wasn’t supposed to be him. It really showed some new light on some of the struggles he faced.
I find this very interesting for its discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s age and the pressure he faced from the NAACP. I did not know much about his rise, but never assumed that it happened so young. And, after the civil rights movement, especially not having lived through it myself, it has seemed that mass nonviolent opposition and civil disobedience is the obvious choice for a political movement of oppressed people. So, to learn that the NAACP was against King’s ideas is surprising to me. I never thought of King as a “chosen one” also – I always assumed he worked hard for the goal of becoming the leader of his movement. It is sad that he came to this position on accident, only to be killed for it later.
I really appreciated the interview format of this article. It had a sense of personable character that allowed the reader to connect with Lawson, and indirectly MLK. Lawson’s comparison of King’s hardships in Alabama was a fantastic connection to Gandhi. It is crazy how King and Gandhi’s lives and service ran so parallel to each other. Knowing Gandhi’s influence on King and the civil rights movement, I wonder if their similarities as leaders is a reflection of their similarities as people.
Lawson’s remarks in this interview really offer some incredible insight into the conscience of Black social activism during the Civil Rights era. Though I already knew of MLK’s nonviolent direct approach to civil progress, I found it unusual that he was regarded by some as insufficiently radical. The textbook representation of MLK paints his activism as fundamentally radical because of the context he operated in, one that was largely defined by the liberal progress of American political institutions rather than changes in the social and racial dynamics of the country. I was also intrigued by the chasmic relation that characterized MLK’s interaction with Black traditional politics in Atlanta. MLK was a force of radical action, and Black traditionalists at the time deemed such action a recipe for quagmire because, I think, they believed America was not ready for a change of radical scope. Interestingly, this reflects the current political climate in the United States. The advent of identity politics and what conservatives label “woke” progressivism has created, as highlighted by news commentators every day, a polarizing environment where sweeping social action is rare and in cases where it does happen, partisan. This was precisely the case with MLK and his experience in Atlanta. But as you note explicitly, the fruition of systemic change is a process that requires both careful methodology and oftentimes practical lessons from perceived failures. And the difficulty in concluding such a process is what, I believe, makes MLK a transformational figure in the history of civil rights in America.