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Becoming King

 Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader


Troy Jackson

Introduction by Clayborne Carson


Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011

Paperback. 248 pages. ISBN 9780813133904. $21.95


Reviewed by Cécile Cottenet

Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille


Reissued in paperback as a volume in the "Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century" series, Becoming King (2008) results from Troy Jackson's involvement in the editing of the King Papers, under the editorship of Clayborne Carson. Considering the iconic stature of King, the vast bibliography and the never-ending attention devoted by scholars to King and the Civil Rights movements, such a book was, to say the least, a bold endeavor. As he chose to re-tell the oft-narrated story of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, albeit by way of shifting the habitual focus, Pastor Troy Jackson must have anticipated the many pitfalls awaiting him, as he attempted to write "both a good story and useful history" [2].

Jackson's knowledge of the "countless books" [1] written on the subject cannot be denied, yet his discussion of the scholarly debate is unfortunately relegated to the endnotes. An in-depth analysis of secondary sources within the text would have been a useful addition to the text. Following in the footsteps of Glenn Eskew, who emphasized the role played by the community of Birmingham in the development of the struggle for civil rights (But for Birmingham, University of Alabama Press, 1997), Jackson attempts to contribute to the scholarship on King by looking at the charismatic leader through the lens of a local community. His much-emphasized thesis is concisely summed up in a carefully worded hypothesis in the fifth chapter, "From the long view, King may have gained even more from the boycott than the community did" [143]. Throughout the six chapters of the book, Jackson strives to validate this hypothesis, claiming that King was "born" in Montgomery, where he found the "crucible of a community in struggle" [144], ultimately "taking the lessons of Montgomery with him, as their courage, activism and sacrifice prepared him for the many battles that awaited him" [7], while the benefits of the protest against the segregation of buses "did not extend to the daily lives of most of Montgomery's African Americans" [148] in the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict in Browder v. Gayle. In short, King's leadership is considered almost "accidental", as he himself would emphasize in a December 1956 article in The Liberator,

… the people expect you to give them leadership. You see them growing as they move into action, and then you know you no longer have a choice, you can't decide whether to stay in it or get out of it, you must stay in it [146].

In the course of his demonstration, Jackson does not hesitate to pull down the idol ever so slightly, alluding to King's difficulty in remaining level-headed and not succumbing to vanity in the wake of the 1956-1957 media frenzy. Equally, Jackson emphasizes the importance of the footwork accomplished by Montgomery grassroots activists prior to, and during, the famous year-long boycott. One may wonder if Troy Jackson did not wholeheartedly endorse E.D. Nixon's somewhat bitter assessment of King and the movement, when he expressed concern that "a largely symbolic victory over segregation had overshadowed more significant economic needs in his hometown" [164], implying that King had turned away from local issues in the very aftermath of the protest.

The great attention paid to the footsoldiers, the depiction of the complex networks of colored and white individuals, and interracial organizations, all of whom made the boycott possible, as well as his reliance on oral history, testify to Jackson's microhistory approach. In an attempt to write history from below, he weaves together his own, informed analyses of King's early sermons with Montgomerians' testimonies of the reception of the pastor's forceful delivery. Operating within a chronological framework, the narration "sets the stage" (Chap. 1) for the arrival of King, fresh from Crozer Seminary and Boston University (Chap. 2), who soon develops and proclaims a "Social Gospel" (Chap. 3, "Making a Contribution"), exhorting his congregation and the African American community of Montgomery to take responsibility and act against racial discrimination, without fear of white resistance, sustained by their faith in the love of God. The last three chapters take the reader through an almost hour-by-hour account of the first three months of the boycott and the beginnings of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) (Chap. 4), the pressure borne upon the protest coalition in the final months (Chap. 5, "Living under the Tension"), to the assessment of the economic, social and ideological impact—or lack thereof—of the boycott on Montgomery on the one hand, and on the growth of the Civil Rights movement (Chap. 6, "Bigger than Montgomery"). This closing chapter on the discrepancy between the soaring development of the Civil Rights movement, the increasing power of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957), and the dramatic backlash of violence experienced by Montgomery's African American—and white—communities faced with the "full onslaught of racist resistance to social change" [154] truly brings home the devastating truth.

In his opening chapter Jackson convincingly shows how the stage had indeed been set long before King accepted the pastorship of the middle-class congregation of the Dexter Avenue Church. As the ideology of white supremacy persisted unabated, there arose from black educational institutions—Alabama State College (ASC), the Tuskegee Institute—local and state NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chapters, groups of New Deal Democrats, and Unions, black and white figures, ready to challenge the "social order and tissue" of the South. Particularly prominent in the early 1950s were E.D. Nixon, member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one-time president of the local NAACP, a coalition of white women activists including Virginia Durr, librarian Juliette Lewis, Olive Andrews and Clara Rutledge, as well as the members of the very effective Women's Political Council (WPC), including Jo Ann Robinson. Jackson notes how, contrary to black men who were immediately suspect, or viewed as potential beastly rapists, black women managed to "operate below the surface" [33], succeeding as mediators between the city's authorities and the African American community. In fact he never ceases to stress the part played by women in the complex network of civil rights fighters, paying tribute to those sometimes neglected activists: giving pride of place to Jo Ann Robinson, an ASC professor and member of the Political Action Committee set up by King, he also hints at the MIA's shameful lack of support for Rosa Parks, who suffered from a dire financial situation. For Jackson, women were undeniably "the power behind the throne", and he unabashedly asserts that "no one played a greater role than Robinson" [103] in initiating and planning the boycott once Parks had been arrested.

Equal to Jackson's fondness for Robinson is his bias towards E.D. Nixon. Although he was acknowledged by Montgomery's African American community as a forceful leader, tirelessly working towards voter registration and negotiating with city officials, Nixon, who had early contemplated the presidency of the MIA, stood in the shadow of King with whom he maintained friendly relations. His vernacular English, his popular background, his bold public stands on white racism, made him a controversial figure, who could not possibly have played the unifying role accepted by King. Jackson's focus on Nixon is at times endearing, if slightly didactic; more pointedly, it once more bears evidence of the detrimental class divisions within the African American community of Montgomery that sometimes threatened to hinder King's resolution to engage in social and political action.

Indeed divisions in the city of Montgomery did not only run along race lines, as illustrated in Chapter 3. While segregation continued to be the rule at funerals, celebratory events and in buses, the Christian community was also divided on race issues, as King did not fail to notice:

The Southern Baptists in Alabama were aware of thechallenges facing the South but were unwilling to take a clear stand on any of the big issues, including school segregation, White Citizens Councils, or even the verdict in the Emmett Till trial. [82]

Passivity among white as well as black men prevailed, and King himself led a congregation that was not easily moved to action. Indeed, the majority of professional African Americans that composed the Dexter Church congregation had for years learned that the strategy for survival was based on acceptance of segregation, and entailed "keeping the peace at any cost" [128]—which for King was an unacceptable, "obnoxious" type of peace. King ultimately bridged the gap between black communities, to mediate between classes; for Jackson, King's education and background made him the best candidate for this unifying mission, as he "combined the education and pedigree of the most accomplished black professionals in the city with a heart for connecting with working-class people" [83]. Still, Jackson insists that, just as the people of Montgomery had enabled "King's nonviolent leanings to the surface in the first place" [120], the sources of King's leadership were Montgomery and the protest: "Because the people of Montgomery were willing to walk, King had the opportunity to lead" [86].

However strong his determination to turn the boycott into a highly significant, and even seminal, moment in Martin Luther King's ascension to national leadership, Troy Jackson also acknowledges various influences in the more classically biographical pages of his study.  He readily recognizes the much-needed lessons in the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence provided by NAACP member Bayard Rustin during his visit to Montgomery in February 1956, shortly after the bombing of King's home. Jackson suggests that King was then clearly "on edge" [118] and in need of peace, as his reported words strongly attest,

Somebody told me a whale puts up its biggest fight after it has been harpooned. It's the same thing with the Southern white man. Maybe it's good to shed a little blood. What needs to be done is for a couple of those white men to lose some blood; then the Federal government will step in. [118-119]

King had been exposed to the philosophy of nonviolence and the message of God's love during his undergraduate years at Morehouse College, in his conversations with College President Benjamin Mays, but had not as yet closely examined the teachings of the Indian leader. Jackson in fact plays up Mays's influence on King's homiletics, testifying to the striking parallels between the two men's sermons, emphasizing how the young preacher repeatedly expanded on some of Mays's themes such as the detrimental psychological self-portraits of black people, the ideology of racial uplift and the necessity to lead the fight for civil rights right there in the South. Yet his demonstration, based on close scrutiny of King's early sermons, is somehow rendered less forceful, when he fails to point out as convincingly the later influence of King's professors at the white elite Crozer seminary and Boston University. This discrepancy apparently stems from Jackson's intention to stress the weight of the African American religious tradition in King's education, at the expense of white theologians and philosophers cited by King himself as important influences. In his essay "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence", King had indeed named Walter Rauschenbusch, Marx, Nietzsche and Reinhold Niebuhr as central to his intellectual development. Jackson evidently agrees with the idea expressed in Lischer's The Preacher King, Keith Miller's Voice of Deliverance and James Cone's Martin and Malcolm in America, according to which these thinkers "merely provided systems and language for deeply held beliefs King had developed years earlier from the African American Baptist church" [47]. Jackson also shares in Mervyn Warren's belief that the black church had been King's "conscious ancestral home, continually feeding and flavoring his religious and educational development" [35], but some of his conclusions on the black religious tradition seem hasty, as when he plainly asserts that "the commitments to loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek were deeply rooted in the African American Christian tradition" [144].

In this respect also, Troy Jackson's work is a book with a thesis, or with theses, and may be commended for raising anew points of contention on the origins of King's homiletics, and his detachment from Montgomery following the historic Supreme Court verdict of December 1956. Jackson does not say if he was "redeemed" in the eyes of some of the frustrated activists of Montgomery, when in 1967 he joined the Poor People's Campaign... As for his claim that "the African American people of Montgomery allowed him to participate in the boycott in the role of president and spokesperson of the M.I.A." [96], it sounds excessive, even if King himself repeatedly acknowledged that his experience in Montgomery did convince him to see nonviolence as more than a method, as a "commitment to a way of life" [185]. Eventually, the title of Troy Jackson's book is misleading, for certainly its chief interest lies in his efforts to make a community come together again, and to spotlight lesser-known and forgotten civil rights grassroots activists, emphasizing the "power[s] behind the throne".



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