Friday, July 17, 2015

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, JR., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, JR., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference"Early morning, April 4th,
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky,
Free at last! They took your life,
They could not take your pride" (Bono, U2).

I learned so many things from this book. For example, that MLK was assassinated at 6 pm, so Bono got that wrong in his lyrics. Then of course "pride" rhymes a bit with "life", so it worked in the song, but other than that, i believe it would be a poor choice to summarize the spirit of Martin Luther King with the word "pride".

"Bearing the cross" is a long book. 800 pages with 170 pages of footnotes. It is, as the cover says, "the most informative life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the most thorough study of the civil rights movement" (from the New York Review of Books). Note that this comment does not express any literary quality, or, for that matter, any reason at all why you should read this book unless you need to do a research on MLK and you don't have access to Google.

The writing is as passionate and infused with emotions as your microwave's instruction manual. Most of the book can be described as a collection of data and facts, organized in chronological order, from Rosa Parks to MLK's death. Many paragraphs begin with "The following day...", or "Later that afternoon..." or even "Twenty minutes later...". That's the level of detail!! Garrow took many years to put this book together, and he had access to an immense amount of hard-copy information, from interviews to newspapers to copies of FBI wiretaps.

Now, this is not a bad thing. In fact, the subject matter is so important and fascinating per se, that it still resounds and shines despite the flat, dry writing. To be fair to the author, at some points he will concede a little dramatization, in the choice of a particular verb or in the semi-emotional conclusion of a chapter. Mind you, we are talking about 1% emotion and 99% cold delivery of facts.

But emotion and drama is precisely what Garrow wanted to avoid. As he says at the end, "by idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves". His goal seems to be the 360 degrees representation of MLK as a man, almost as a reaction to all the hype and drama that seems to engulf and cloud MLK's history.

I can tell you that after reading this book I feel like I know MLK thoughts, feelings and motivations much, much better than what I did before. And that is a good thing.

I can tell you that this man's life should celebrated even more than what it is today, for what it represents. His weaknesses, his womanizing, his over-eating and his vanity, are dwarfed by his achievements and by the historical weight of the civil rights movement. MLK was not the only black movement's leader, he was not the smartest, he was not the first or most original. But he became a symbol. That he accepted to live as such an important symbol for the last 10 years of his life, while thinking of quitting almost every other day, is a remarkable thing.

One thing above everything else differentiated him and elevated his message to real "majestic heights": his relentless commitment to non-violence.

Now, I felt the importance of MLK's religious faith was addressed but not properly highlighted by Garrow. It's understandable, for when you collect an endless series of facts, you won't find much that says "on that morning, he knelt down and prayed for 10 minutes", etc. Unfortunately, Garrow touches on MLK's spiritual side only at the beginning, ignoring it almost completely for the rest of the book. This is in line with the fact-shoveling style of the book, but it pays little respect to MLK's most important relationship, the one he had with God.

Despite the author's lack of interest for the importance that King's spiritual life had for himself and the people around him, the author never forgets to mention that King, whatever he was doing, was always "extremely tired", "exhausted", almost every two pages. It gets ridiculous after a while. Oh, I certainly believe it to be true. Not hard at all to believe. To keep up with his schedule, he was taking some non specified "pills". Again, not surprising at all. Every big political figure, today like in the past, is constantly using medicines and drugs to be able to keep going at that super-human pace.

But if you find the time to write that Dr King was exhausted all the time, had a slight bronchitis on that day, and a cough the other day, why don't you find any time to mention his constant, daily praying, or at least some comments on some religious sermons he held, that was far more important stuff? One time MLK goes on holiday and then he's back on the road for a series of speeches, and again every single thing Garrow describes must be preceded by "despite his exhaustion, King did this and that...". Please give me a break. MLK was a big boy. A 30-something man with the constitution of a bull who, just like thousands of businessmen, yesterday and today, had to fly around and work long hours. Is that so out of the ordinary? I was really baffled by this aspect of the book. Perhaps writing the book became such an exhausting task for Garrow that he found the need to express his own feelings of exhaustion through MLK's life? But I'm overthinking here.

At any rate, I really enjoyed reading this book. This is history at its most detailed, which means you are free to judge and jump to conclusions, but not to invent something that is not true, or to exaggerate things. I found particularly gripping the part about the relationship with the FBI, and the conflict with J E Hoover, who comes across as the Darth Vader of those years.

MLK was a pastor. He came from a privileged background. He was a very gifted and highly spiritual man, who was chosen by history to play a special, unique part. Watching his speeches and interviews (on youtube) after having read this book is a particularly moving experience. Despite being aware of his shortfalls and weaknesses, you are even more inspired and filled with admiration.

And God, what an orator. In the words murmured by JFK immediately after the "I have a dream" speech in Washington: "He is damn good".

No comments:

Post a Comment