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Charles Marsh

The Chastened Hopes of the Civil Rights Movement

The anchor of King's dream

While virtually every day of the adult life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been scrutinized, there has been little attention in studies of the civil rights movement to the years following the death of Dr. King, the dispersal and collapse of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the dissemination of the movement into inchoate forms of protest and confrontation. It is true that by the end of the 1960s, the white and black volunteers who had worked in the deep South had moved on to other concerns: women's liberation, free speech, the pursuit of an alternative consciousness and above all, the war in Vietnam, which imposed vast demands on the activist energies of the counterculture. Intensified warfare in Southeast Asia made the pace of southern racial progress tedious by contrast in what is often a zero-sum equation for the nation's moral attention. Racial peace in America was still a dream deferred, but the struggle (now "the black struggle") seemed a lot less urgent in view of the daily body counts in Vietnam.

No doubt, the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Alexander vs. Holmes County was a landmark case, and deserves greater attention in civil rights scholarship. The accompanying mandates of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered immediate integration of sixteen school districts in Mississippi and effectively ended legal segregation in the South. Public school districts could no longer avoid compliance with the Brown vs. Board decision by seizing upon the phrase "all deliberate speed" as a means of deferring implementation indefinitely. Still, it was hard to keep America on the edge of its seat with discussions of a "unitary non-discriminatory school system" and the drafting of guidelines for redesigned school districts in rural jurisdictions.

To be sure, a decade of dramatic legal victories had changed forever the public face of the South. In 1970, not only were all remaining school districts finally integrated, but the Ku Klux Klan found itself persona non grata in its own playgrounds, as most of its wizards and henchmen began serving time in federal prisons. In southern towns and cities, black people could take their meals in white-owned restaurants, spend the night in motels and hotels, and borrow books from the public library. Even in Mississippi, the movement "had won significant victories" and a "degree of civility" finally arrived, as the historian John Dittmer wrote in his book, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.1 Dittmer's hopefulness is cautious, however, as the significant victories concealed the secret that little had really changed in the racial shape of daily life. Not even the University of Alabama's Bear Bryantthe head coach determined to win football games by any means necessaryhad yet shown any interest in breaking the unlegislatible color line of college sports. That would have to wait until 1971, one year after a black halfback named Sam "the Bam" Cunningham at the University of Southern California ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns against the Crimson Tide defense and humiliated Bryant on national television. The color bar was broken over the objections of George Wallace.

White racism in America did not end with the collapse of legal segregation in the South, as many northern liberals had naively hoped; but southern segregation did not really end with the collapse of segregation either, if one wanted to press the point. When Lillian Smith wrote in her 1949 memoir, Killers of a Dream, of the tutelage of every white southern child in the triangulation of race, sex, and religion, she could not have foreseen how Jim Crow's inheritance would long survive its legal demise. Perhaps the prospects were simply too unbearable to entertain. Southern school children might become teammates on the playing fields or sit next to each other in classroomsthough they would not sit next to each other in churchbut apart from dramatic moral transformations nowhere in sight, the new familiarity only called attention to the distressing fact that every bridging of the gap deepened the chasm between black and white. Somehow, too, in the course of the fourteen years since the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the two years since King's assassination, the popular impression had formed that the civil rights movement was more about rhetorical provocation, unleashed desire, and perpetual liberation than the difficult work of community building; more about high moral and sometimes highly scripted drama than legal justice and transforming the heart and soul of white people.

The new decade began with America's invasion of Cambodia, the killing of student protesters at Kent State University and at Jackson State University, George Wallace urging his fellow southern governors to defy federal integration orders, and hopes of racial peace deferred. The promised land glimpsed on that fateful April evening in Memphis had vanished into a pale horizon, and the moral reserves of a nation that had once applied its energies to racial equality and reconciliation were now extended elsewhere, and they were running on empty.

For years the civil rights preacher Will Campbell had complained about the civil rights movement's priorities: why had organizers been singularly concerned with access to public bathrooms, coffee shops and waiting rooms in bus stations?2 Why make these places the battlefield for racial equality? They were the last places you could expect to find the men who controlled the social arrangements. If white power was the real culprit, Campbell insisted, then stage sit-ins at the Rotary Club or during the mid-summer debutante cotillion; then seek to reform the culture of the white church. Forcing a short-order cook at the five-and-dime lunch counter to remove the "colored-only" sign was too easy a target; and, in any case, it was not going to bring electricity and plumbing to needy families, alter the subterranean world of feeling and opinion, or halt a retreat of the sentiments and of white people to the suburbs.

The rise of the private "Christian" seg-academies was but one manifestation of an expanding range of creative options that fortified the walls of social segregation. The claim recently set forth by some African American intellectuals that the real winners of the civil rights movement were the white Republicans who came into power during the 1980 presidential election may be an exaggeration, but it is also a completely understandable response to the depressing fact that the shifting legal landscape of race left unchanged too many of the supporting structures of white supremacy. The movement had unsettled the world of working and middle class whites even as the privileged classes continued their bridge games without interruption. "The ultimate solution to the problem of race," King had said, "lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable."3

National conviction for racial peace languished. As something called a civil rights establishment emerged in response to diminished public concern for racial justice, the piecemeal work of social reform and renewal was largely abandoned. Activists seeking the hard-earned rewards for years of sacrifice and struggle abandoned the poor neighborhoods and communities that had once been at center stage of the civil rights story. One could not really blame these men and women for cashing in on their overdue promissory notes. Nonetheless, as members of a generation of creative and skilled black (and white) activists moved out of poor communities and into networks of political influence, non-profit work, cultural and academic leadership and corporate boardrooms, no one took their place in the freedom houses and community centers.

"In America of the late 1960's, with its congested cities and streets, its high crime rates, its guns and knives, its instant communications that pipe reports of civil disturbances into every household, its divisions and strife, its overbearing technology, its mass culture, mass education, and mass government, history seems to cry out for a new tradition that would provide a nonviolent means for change and for expression and protest." This was the observation of New York Times reporter John Herbers in his essential book, The Lost Priority: Whatever Happened to the Civil Rights Movement in America?, published on the eve of 1970s. Herbers continued, "Martin Luther King and his nonviolent armies seemed for a time to have implanted this kind of tradition. Anyone who followed the civil rights movement could not escape the feeling that here was a spirit that could enlighten the country. In those days they talked of saving not only themselves but the soul of America as well, and after some of the great movements they would talk about saving the world with nonviolence. But nonviolence as a national and mystical movement … died."4

No doubt, some of the missionary zeal needed to die. The presumption of a chosen few saving the nation and the world with nonviolence seemed but a progressive Protestant rendering of Billy Graham's saving the world for Jesus, minus the football stadiums and altar calls. The real hitch was that while redeeming the soul of America may have sounded like a good way to capture the nation's moral imagination, short of illuminating the spaces of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, the call seemed increasingly to lead no where in particular.

Other banners flew in the chaotic winds. For a few humorless children of the movement, the emerging culture of sensitivity-training configured the zones of white redemption. In and out of the seminar room with tears shed and minds "conscietized," absolution had never been so easy. A few wasted hours and a declaration of white depravity was a small price to pay for the centuries of slavery and American apartheid. But not only was the new race therapy a lot easier than organizing in poor communities, it presupposed the utter naiveté of King's vision, as it coolly dismissed the vision of beloved community as an illusion of the unanalyzed soul, now consideredin the case of the white soulracist all the way down. No one was quite sure where to go from here.

But one thing seems clear to us now. If America is ever to renew its search for beloved community, the nonviolent armies will have to return to those abandoned places of the nation and the heart where the "mystical" remains alive. The convictions and commitments that animated the movement will need to be rescued from ambiguity and equivocation. Dr. King's final eschatological intensities"Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools"confront us with a severe and chastened hope.

Yet the story will never be complete until we confront the difficult truth that King's final apocalyptic judgments also register a slight demurral on his own sinfulness and complicity in violence. Like the biblical prophets, King had called the nations to repentance; they shall see and be ashamed of all their acts of oppression, he said with unforgettable fury. But King kept the finger pointed on the dark powers around him while mostly avoiding the prophet's harder truth: that the sin outside remains always the co-conspirator of the sinner standing here. "There is none upright among men, they all lie in wait for blood," says the prophet Micah, who beckons us to "go up to the mountain of the Lord", so that the Lord might teach us "in his ways" and we may "walk in his paths." The prophet Amos lists the sins of Israel's neighbors and the terrible judgment awaiting them"For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped up women with child in Gilead, that they might enlarge their border"but he does not stop until he also lists Israel's own. "For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoesthey that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted."

The same God who preaches the "good news to the poor" and proclaims "release to the captives," "recovery of sight to the blind," and "liberty to those who are oppressed," also "desireth truth in the inward being." It is not only the "great house" that is smitten into fragments but the "little house" as well. Let us not forget that Jesus did not call prophets but disciples, ordinary people willing to lay down their nets and journey through dust-ridden towns. The dream, unanchored in the disciplines of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, becomes an evasion of love's duty in the everyday.

Charles Marsh is professor of religion at the University of Virginia and director of the Project on Lived Theology. This essay is excerpted from the book, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, by Charles Marsh. Copyright 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

1. John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 424.

2. Will D. Campbell, Interview with the Author.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967), p. 100.

4. John Herbers, The Lost Priority: Whatever Happened to the Civil Rights Movement in America? (Funk & Wagnalls, 1970), p. 207.

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