Bearing the Cross deepened and enriched my understanding of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement of his era. David Garrow’s aim is clear: to demystify King and the civil rights movement by a simple telling of the facts. Generally, Garrow is hesitant to draw meanings or interpretations from the narrative, he simply lays out the history. This is the book’s strength, but it also presents a drawback for the reader, because at many points the reading is dry and lifeless. Despite this, I would still recommend the work. This demystified account illuminates much of value for the contemporary world.
King was a very charismatic leader with many personal gifts: an orator, a brilliant intellect, a calm and measured personality, an easy way with people, and a deep and committed moral sense. Because of his many gifts, King took the spotlight and represented black America during the civil rights years, for better or worse. As a spokesman, he could mobilize a movement, articulate to an ignorant white audience the extent of black suffering, and speak to the non-ignorant white power structure that militantly sought to keep blacks subordinate. Yet this central role for King also took its toll. Hence the theme of Garrow’s book is the title: bearing the cross. King saw himself as someone who must suffer. As a Christian, he identified with the sufferings of Christ with a hope that it would produce a better world.
King, though, was no saint. Garrow matter-of-factly relates that MLK was a womanizer who had many sexual partners, some who were long-time girlfriends as well as many one-night-stands. The stress on King was enormous. He faced death constantly throughout his time as the movement leader and encountered stress in every area of his life, including within his own movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). His sexual liaisons were one of his outlets for stress.
I don’t condemn a person for having multiple sex partners, in and of itself (although King was clearly deceptive with Coretta, his wife). I can understand how sexuality became a release for King, and perhaps an addiction, to get him through the pressures of his position. I was a bit disturbed, however, by his misogyny. Garrow’s account clearly presents King and the SCLC movement as chauvinistic, even to the point of not taking possible sexual abuse situations seriously. In this, of course, they were consistent with their time; but it is quite jarring to find such a perspective from King that is so obviously inconsistent with the rest of his prophetic ideology. While he was well ahead of his times on civil rights, violence, and economic inequality, he failed to see the critical nature of deconstructing America’s oppression and subjugation of women.
King was aware of his own shortcomings. This is reflected in his speeches and sermons. “Each of us is two selves, and the great burden of life is to always try to keep that higher self in command. Don’t let the lower self take over…there is a civil war going on within all of us.” Spiritually, King felt he possessed conflicting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde drives, passions and desires that pulled him away from the life he wanted to live and the virtues he wished to embody.
I appreciated learning a good deal about the details of the civil rights movement. There were many strokes of genius by the movement, but there were many mistakes made, particularly in the management of the organization. It is understandable, of course, because these were people who were learning to lead a protest movement as they were doing it.
Howard Zinn in his People’s History is critical of the movement because it centered on King’s personality, because it seemed to compromise at times, and most of all because it did not simply let loose the full force and power of the people. I could see the validity of this criticism as I read through Bearing the Cross. King, though, clearly saw himself as a mediator: to try to draw attention to the plight of blacks to the white power structure. As a minority movement, there could have been mass violence against blacks. King sough to use the media to dramatize the suffering of blacks. They would march and protest, nonviolently, and endure suffering in order to appeal to conscience of the majority. This quote by King is particularly informative of his philosophy:
“The main objective is to bring moral pressure to bear on an unjust system or a particularly unjust law. The public at large must be aware of the inequities involved in such a system. In effect, in the absence of justice in the established courts of the region, nonviolent protestors are asking for a hearing in the court of world opinion. Without the presence of the press, there might have been untold massacres in the south. The world seldom believes the horror stories of history until they are documented via mass media.” (ca. 1960)
Because King’s nonviolent movement depended on participation by the mass media, it seems a distinctively modern form of social change. Gandhi’s approach was similar, and today we see the nonviolent protests in the Middle East seeking to capture the attention of sympathetic world powers on their behalf.
As my final observation, I learned in this reading that there was intense opposition in northern U.S. cities to racial integration. We often assume that the most intense hatred and obstinacy came from the South. This is not true. When the SCLC marched in white Chicago neighborhoods, they received as much or more hatred and opposition. Whites in the north were, to some degree, more ideologically receptive to the idea of integration, but many whites were just as hateful when threatened with the reality of change and of giving blacks more substantive power and economic opportunity.
Although King may be rightly criticized for compromising at certain points, my impression is that as he aged, toward the end of his life, he became more militant and more compassionate to the needs of the oppressed. Rather than becoming lost in his own iconic status, he was genuinely humble and continued to relate to the frustrations of the lower classes. For example, shortly before he died, he was organizing a poor people’s campaign to strike at the heart of the American economic system, which has always relied on inequality and class distinctions. Despite skepticism and opposition from both outside and inside the movement, King was committed to leading a movement for those left out of the circles of American prosperity and opportunity.
King saw that many of America’s problems were interconnected and came back to a lack of economic power. To me, this is instructive for our time as well, because from all the data I have seen, we still live in an era with as much or more inequality as exited in King’s day.