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Beyond the Dreamer

Posted on Jan 15, 2014

By Gar Alperovitz

AP/Jacquelyn Martin

This article was originally published in the January edition of Sojourners and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled with what are best understood as existential challenges as he began to move toward an ever-more-profound and radical understanding of what would be required to deal with the nation’s domestic and international problems.

The direction he was exploring, I believe, is far more relevant to the realities we now face than many have realized—or have wanted to realize.

I first met King in 1964 at the Democratic Party’s national convention held that year in Atlantic City—the occasion of an historic challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the racially segregated and reactionary Mississippi Democratic Party. I was then a very young aide working for Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Sen. Nelson authorized me to help out in any way I could despite President Lyndon Johnson’s effort to clamp down on the fight for representation in the interest of a “dignified” convention that would nominate him in his own right after his rise to the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson didn’t want a bunch of civil rights activists muddying the waters and, not incidentally, causing him problems in the conservative, race-based Democratic South.


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After much back and forth, the Johnson administration offered a “compromise” proposal that the old guard be seated (provided they pledged to support him) and that two at-large representatives of the MFDP also be seated.

Any “compromise” that seated the racist delegates was anathema to the MFDP, many of whose representatives had repeatedly risked their lives in the fight for equality. However, King, who desperately needed Johnson’s help in connection with a broad range of evolving national civil rights issues, proposed accepting the “compromise” after presenting a range of arguments for and against it. The performance was “Hegelian” in its complexity, according to one close witness. “So, being a Negro leader, I want you to take this,” King urged, “but if I were a Mississippi Negro, I would vote against it.”

The MFDP delegates were having none of it. During one meeting King was shouted down, and during another the legendary activist Bob Moses reportedly “tore King up,” declaring: “We’re not here to bring politics to our morality, but to bring morality to our politics.”

My own sympathies were with the MFDP and with the position urged by Moses. Indeed, I went to Mississippi following the convention and toured the state with him—a buttoned up young Senate aide trying to understand the depth of MFDP’s commitment and the deeper source of their radical stance and criticism of King. (We were continuously followed by state troopers; I remember vividly how one patrol car would track any vehicle driven by Moses for hours—especially with a white man alongside in the front seat—and then pass us on to another, endlessly. I also recall sleeping in isolated rural farm houses, many of which had shotguns at the ready by the door.)

The 1964 MFDP event underscores some of the complicated and contradictory pressures King was struggling with—and how he was trying to straddle and compromise in ways he felt appropriate given the national role he was playing at this relatively early moment in the 1960s.

It is also well to remember how strong, indeed vicious, were the ongoing attacks King faced not only from the Right, but from the establishment press. King was routinely and intensely interrogated on his numerous appearances on Meet the Press, perhaps the most important national platform in the pre-internet and pre-cable television era. For instance, an interviewer in 1965 interrogated him about an appearance at the Highlander Folk School: “Dr. King, the AP reported the other day that a picture taken of you in 1957 at a Tennessee interracial school is being plastered all over Alabama billboards with the caption ‘Martin Luther King at a Communist training school.’ Will you tell us whether that was a Communist training school and what you were doing there?” Numerous print journalists were equally relentless. Syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, for example, charged that “[Communist] agents are beginning to infiltrate certain sectors of the Negro civil rights movement ... The subject of the real head-shaking is the Rev. Martin Luther King ... [H]e has accepted and is almost certainly still accepting Communist advice.”

My second encounter with King involved his opposition to the Vietnam War, something he did not express publicly for a substantial period. He began to speak out against some of the most egregious aspects of the war as early as 1965 when, in an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he called for an end to U.S. bombing—and ran into opposition from his primary political base.

Many religious leaders of the more traditional parts of the civil rights movement strongly believed that any challenge to Johnson and the war would burden the movement with far more than it could sustain. King’s own organization, the SCLC, disassociated itself from his position by adopting a resolution carefully confining the organization’s actions to the “question of racial brotherhood.”

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