Thursday, February 09, 2006

Two more volumes to go

I'm going to take a break between volumes of Taylor Branch's America in the King Years, if only because the intensity of the events described is wearing. There are times in Parting the Waters—the siege at Ole Miss and the first of the Freedom Rides in particular—when Branch's narrative is so immediate and compelling that the tension is almost too much to bear. Such sections make clear the value of the many interviews of participants that Branch weaves into the story: they give not only weight and corroboration to other sources, but also nuance. They let us understand what being in the heart of these events felt like.

As an example, here's Branch's account of a dramatic moment at the 1962 Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention:
King’s convention was dull by comparison, as the three hundred SCLC delegates passed resolutions at a closing session late that Friday afternoon. One called upon the Justice Department to correct lapses in the protection of constitutional rights around Albany, George. Another commended James Meredith for courage in seeking to enroll at Ole Miss. King, in the lolling drone of closing announcements, was reminding the audience of major SCLC events ahead—such as Mrs. William Kunstler’s gala December fund-raiser in suburban New York, starring Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford—when one of the white men in the audience walked to the stage and lashed out with his right fist. The blow made a loud popping sound as it landed on King’s left cheek. He staggered backward and spun half around.

The entire crowd observed in silent, addled awe. Some people thought King had been introducing the man as one of the white dignitaries so conspicuously welcome at Birmingham’s first fully integrated convention. Others thought the attack might be a staged demonstration from the nonviolence workshops. But now the man was hitting King again, this time on the side of his face from behind, and twice more in the back. Shrieks and gasps went up from the crowd, which, as one delegate wrote, “surged for a moment as one person” toward the stage. People recalled feeling physically jolted by the force of the violence—from both the attack on King and the flash of hatred through the auditorium.

The assailant slowed rather than quickened the pace of his blows, expecting, as he said later, to be torn to pieces by the crowd. But he struck powerfully. After being knocked backwards by one of the last blows, King turned to face him while dropping his hands .It wa the look on his face that many would not forget. Septima Clark, who nursed many private complaints about the strutting ways of the SCLC preachers and would not have been shocked to see the unloosed rage of an exalted leader, marveled instead at King’s transcendent calm. King dropped his hands “like a newborn baby, “she said, and from then on she never doubted that his nonviolence was more than the heat of his oratory or the result of his slow calculation. It was the response of his quickest instincts. This impression struck a number of others, including perhaps the assailant himself, who stared at King long enough for Wyatt Walker and some of the others to jump between them.

“Don’t touch him!” cried King. “Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him."

We see nonviolence in breathtaking action, nonviolence bred in the bone, nonviolence taken farther than I, certainly, can imagine being able to take it. King truly acted in the spirit of Matthew 5:39:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And the image of King on stage facing down his accuser with love is, in a nutshell, King's understanding of Gandhi and his break with Reinhold Niebuhr's literal interpretation of "resist not evil." King argued that one must resist not evil with violence, but with love. It's so counterintuitive as to beggar understanding—but so is the injunction to resist not evil itself.

Yet King lived it, worked through it, created change with it.

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