I just finished reading Hampton Sides’ Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., a recounting of the assassination of the famous civil rights leader through the perspectives of the people involved in the run-up to and aftermath of King’s slaying. I highly recommend this book for its extensive background on King’s assassin – the hermetic convict James Earl Ray – and its fast-moving report of the events in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Meanwhile, I have been watching the 1987 miniseries Eyes On The Prize, which chronicles the Civil Rights movement from Brown vs. Board of Education to the Selma-Montgomery marches. It tells a gripping narrative of key events in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in the South, through news footage and first-hand accounts by marchers, activists, politicians, and other figures involved in the struggle for freedom, for better or worse. It’s interesting learning about the development of the Civil Rights movement while reading about the MLK assassination, which in retrospect became the nadir of the movement and end of a transformational yet tumultuous chapter in civil rights history.
Watching the progression of the movement up close, via the documentary-style footage in Eyes On The Prize, has been fascinating and a bit distressing. The violence and unmitigated bigotry of the white communities that black citizens had to face every single step along the way never fails to bewilder me. Maybe it’s my modern bias speaking here, but only one generation in the past, fire hoses and attack dogs and police brutality and miscarriages of justice met anyone — mostly black freedom fighters but also sympathetic white activists — who sought equal protection under the law. That troubles me greatly.
Those freedom fighters needed a hefty load of courage to face that persecution and risk of death for the sake of the Cause. Men and women like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Minnijean Brown, Medgar Evers, James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and countless others risked life and limb (and often lost them) in an uphill battle for rights we take for granted today.
It makes me wonder what I as a white middle-class male would have believed or done if I were transported to 1960s Mississippi. Would I have linked arms in an anti-segregation march, or would I have been one of the townsfolk lining the street cursing out the marchers for upsetting the peace? More likely, I probably would have been in the middle — sympathizing with the pursuit of basic civil rights but not outwardly acting on or against that pursuit’s behalf. Moderation is key, the saying goes, but in this case it wouldn’t be enough. The people featured in Eyes On The Prize decided to fight for their lives and the lives of others but without resorting to violence, facing an opposition that was armed and very invested in keeping the status quo. Those men and women chose liberty over life. How many of us could make that choice?
I ask these questions because I’m trying to sort through them myself. I’ve written before about how the orthodoxies we have today may be considered antiquated or even pernicious to future generations looking back. With this in mind, I think it’s important not to judge previous times too harshly without fully understanding the context and realities within which they lived. Since what I know of the Civil Rights movement generally consists of the remnants of a few years of history courses, I hope I will continue to learn about it in order to better understand the struggle of the people it involved.