MLK’s Campaign Against “Un-Christian” and “Un-American” Blacks
A Renegade History of the United States
by Thaddeus Russell
2010 Free Press
(This book review is divided into three parts. Part III discusses Martin Luther King’s little publicized campaign to rid black people of “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits.)
For me, the most interesting section of A Renegade History of the United States is the chapter about Martin Luther King and his little known campaign to persuade so-called “bad niggers” to embrace the puritan work ethic and cult of responsibility and sexless self-sacrifice that has characterized the dominant American culture. In 1957 Reverend King launched three projects simultaneously: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to coordinate a nonviolent campaign to desegregate buses across the South, the Campaign for Citizenship to campaign for voting rights and a church-based campaign to rid African Americans of what King referred to as “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits. In 1957 he delivered a series of sermons condemning blacks who led “tragic lives of pleasure and riotous living” (see Problems of Personality Integration). In 1958 he wrote articles in Ebony and published his first book, Stride Towards Freedom, in which he claimed black poverty was as much due to laziness and a lack of discipline and morality, as to institutional racism. He also condemned rock and roll.
The Role of Violence vs Nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement
Russell also weighs in on what has become a hot issue in the “diversity of tactics” debate in the Occupy movement. He lays out compelling evidence that 1) only a tiny minority of southern blacks participated in King’s nonviolent movement and 2) it was “bad niggers” and violence, rather than King’s nonviolent campaign, that won the first major civil rights victories in 1963. According to Russell’s careful review of Birmingham police records, the years between 1958 and 1963 saw a dramatic escalation of incidents in which black residents of both sexes punched, kicked, bit, stabbed and shot white residents who infringed on their freedoms, even in minor ways. He describes a number of these incidents in the book.
He also points out that the most famous image of the civil rights movement – of Bull Connor spraying protestors with a fire hose – culminated a week of rioting during the first week of May 1963. These weren’t nonviolent protestors being hosed but black rioters who, over a week, had injured nearly a dozen cops with rocks and bottles and who were arming themselves with knives and guns. The official history books quibble over the identity of the black people Bull Connor attacked with fire hoses, describing them as “bystanders,” “onlookers,” “spectators,” or “people along the fringes.” Yet police records make it really clear that Connor was dealing with a full blown race riot his officers were unable to quell.
Why the Chamber of Commerce Negotiated with King
According to Russell, this record of increasing black violence in Birmingham and other southern cities casts King’s famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” in a totally new light. In it he gives the Birmingham city fathers a clear choice: they can negotiate with him or face growing civil unrest.
“[I]f they [our white brothers] refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.”
Russell also quotes a fascinating Wall Street Journal interview with Sidney Smyer, the president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Smyer brokered the deal with King and the SCLC. The Chamber of Commerce president talks of the desperation of the Montgomery business community to end the racial violence, owing to its extremely negative economic impact.