On Wednesday April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,
I’ll be among those, But I’ll be doing it from Alabama, just down the street from the still blindingly all-white state capital in Montgomery. That’s where the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church still stands. There in 1955 Dr. King began the career which ended, at least in embodied form, with a bullet fired in Memphis.
At Dexter Street, Alabama State University will conduct a day-long program on the anniversary, and they invited me to join a panel.
When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.
Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.
One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color.
That second march, by the way, is still going on.
I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.
But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.
Let me explain.
In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.
And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.
“Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”
Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned.
“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”
His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”
“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.
I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.
Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops.
The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.
That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.
Several years later, while doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis.
All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.
This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.
But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.
I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.
On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?
Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.
When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:
On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.
At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.
Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.
One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.
There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)
Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective. Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.
The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.
The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.
But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.
Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.
I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.
Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”
After pondering it, I decided to quote it in full as a post, with some responses. Liz’s comment is in bold italics, and it is interspersed with my responses in standard font, with occasional emphasis.
It’s now half a year or more after this piece was first posted, and I have some thoughts and testimony and questions to lift up.
1. WHITE SUPREMACY. In this post there’s an implied question about the rightness or appropriateness of the use of the phrase “white supremacy” when referring to today’s Quakerism. I myself first disliked the word, but since it was used heavily by Friends of Color, I knew I was being Called into living into my discomfort, rather than insisting that my discomfort be eased by challenging the Friends who used it. White Friends are not the only ones who are voices and instruments of the Counselor, and sometimes the Light pierces my heart with Truth I do not wish to know. I would ask white Friends who are uncomfortable with naming white supremacy within our current practices/processes to ask a series of “Why” questions or “What’s at risk if…” questions. “Why do I get uneasy with that phrase? What’s at risk if I accepted it? Why are Friends of color using that phrase, why now?”
My response: It’s hard to respond to “implied questions” that I have not in fact asked, so I will deal instead with my actual practice in using the term “white supremacy.”
I became familiar with the phrase many years ago, as a descriptor mostly of groups (and some individuals) which were clearly dedicated to establishing or maintaining White persons and their perceived interests in power over non-whites, of various colors but mainly black.
“White supremacy” groups were relatively easy to identify, by rhetoric, practice, or both. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan, in its official Handbook issued in 1916, is clear:
White supremacy was an explicit part of the KKK “Kreed,” as shown above. And this outlook continues.
Another such group, the “outing” of which shocked me at the time (early 1960s), was the Democratic party in many southern states. Alabama, for instance. The party there featured this emblem on its slates of candidates: a rooster and the motto: “White Supremacy for the Right.” Not much doubt there.
And while the Alabama Dems have changed (now mostly black, they dumped the rooster), their place has been taken by others; many others. Here is a selected list:
ACTBAC NC, Traditionalist Workers Party, Proud Boys, Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, Generation Identitaire, Traditionalist Youth Movement, National Socialists, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Council of Conservative Citizens, the League of the South.
I don’t hesitate to call these “white supremacist” groups.
And they’re not distant abstractions to me.
One of them, ACTBAC [“Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County”], is centered in the rural community of Snow Camp NC. The Friends meeting I attend is also in Snow Camp. A few months back, ACTBAC organized a pro-Confederate rally in Chapel Hill (in the next county east) in “defense” of a Confederate statue on the UNC campus. They have organized many similar rallies.
Then there is the “League of the South,” which put up this billboard in Montgomery, Alabama, where I saw it:
With admirable conciseness, this billboard sums up their program:“The League of the South [they say] is not a “neo-Confederate” or “Southern heritage” organization, although we certainly do honor our ancestors and our largely Christian historic inheritance as Southerners. The League is a present- and future-oriented Southern Nationalist organization that seeks the survival, well being, and independence of the Southern people. We stand for our Faith, Family, and Folk living in freedom and prosperity on the lands of our forefathers. If this vision of a free, prosperous, and independent South appeals to you, please join us in our struggle.” [Emphasis added.]
But “the Southern people” they want to secede with are white; just for the record. And what will happen to those nonwhites already settled in their projected southern ethnostate? They get rather fuzzy on this, but insist they don’t advocate violence. Really? I wondered again when I saw this bumpersticker on a pickup not long ago.
Anyway, “white supremacy” has maintained its usefulness to me as a distinct descriptor of such groups and ideas; it continues to carry very specific meaning, and I have not hesitated to use it as such. (You can find it several times in a book of mine on civil rights published more than 40 years ago.)
Now, what about, as Liz said, “the rightness or appropriateness of the use of the phrase ‘white supremacy’ when referring to today’s Quakerism.”
First off, “today’s Quakerism” is not an easy thing to pin down. Does it refer to, or include, Kenyan Friends, the largest Quaker population in the world? Are they white supremacist? I wouldn’t think so; they have their issues, but that isn’t near the top. Or what about Latin American Friends, many of whom are “non-white”? That also seems doubtful to me. (I could be proved wrong about all this; but pending that, I’m sticking with this hunch.)
What about North American Friends? Even this relatively small slice of “today’s Quakerism” is quite a varied group. But I don’t mean this to dodge the issue.
For instance: in the 1920s, many American Quakers and their meetings became all but absorbed into the Ku Klux Klan, especially in Indiana. As we’ve seen, the KKK is the quintessential white supremacist group, and I would certainly extend the term to those Friends who joined or went along with it.
And this connection was not just a matter of rank-and-file Friends (tho they are important!) The head of a major division of the Indiana KKK was a prominent Quaker pastor, who had served at least half a dozen Friends churches there in a long career. And that pastor was also a prime example of Quaker “distinctives,” namely that rarity in Christian clergy, a woman, and a birthright Hoosier Friend, Daisy Douglass Barr. (I wrote at length about her here.)
So in my view, big chunks of American Quakerism were at least for some while clearly white supremacist in their orientation and connections. The outline of this has been well-documented by non-Quaker historians; but telling the full story of this KKK-Quaker fusion and its unhappy legacy has not yet been taken up by any major Quaker historian. Shame on them.
So are Friends in Indiana still a white supremacist group? For me that’s very much an open question, for two reasons.
First, as I have researched and documented here, the spirit of the Klan, definitely including its white supremacist outlook, and strong ties to the currently ascendant right wing Indiana politics, pervaded and haunted the 2016 election campaign there and elsewhere. So 80 years after the Klan peaked and then withered as a mass organization (though it’s not entirely gone!), what astute observers called “Klanism” is still very much alive, and quite prevalent in Indiana.
And second, in the face of the stonewalling vow of silence about the Quaker-Klan connections by those yearly meetings, and major Quaker historians, the jury is still out.
But then, what about other yearly meetings, say Philadelphia, which was the subject of the blog post that Liz is commenting on. Is Philadelphia YM properly to be called a “white supremacist” group?
My answer is a firm no. But with a qualification:
There are plenty of mainly white religious groups, maybe most, which are on record against racism and slavery and its racist legacy — yet which fall short in living up to these ideals. Some fall more short than others. Does this make them “white supremacist”?
It could, as the Indiana case shows. But the histories of the two groups here are, in my view, quite different. One could make a good case that PYM was “white supremacist” until 1758, when it banned slaveholding by members.
But even before that change, I cannot dismiss the long line of antislavery Philadelphia Friends, from those in Germantown in 1688, to Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet & John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Bayard Rustin, and numerous others lesser known, down to our own time, who have carried an active concern, and taken many risks, for racial advance and equality. Further, that body has sponsored many useful (if imperfect) related projects and concerns and remains under the weight of them, if still incompletely.
To be sure, with the highlights there are shortcomings: the segregated bench; the long-segregated Friends schools; and some more recent incidents. And where do PYM’s conflicts which seem to be about race, overlap with and shade into issues of class? (Indeed, my own sense is that class issues may be the bigger elephant in PYM’s room than race; the fact that I hear so little about it is a big clue.)
But does PYM’s mistakes and failures put it in the same category as the KKK or the League of the South?
I have read such charges; one person of color asserted in a Facebook discussion a few months back that PYM and its leadership was “as bad as could be” on race.
“As bad as could be”? Nope: can’t buy that. And in that Facebook thread, more than one Friend of color dissented from it too; PYM has issues, they said, but it was not as that one person described it.
I agreed with the dissenters of color: PYM’s record is definitely mixed, but it’s not even a close call for me. In fact, I wish PYMers spent more time than they do studying their own 300-plus year record of such work, celebrating its successes, and candidly (but minus the ritual guilt-ridden breast-beating) assessing its failures. They have a rich, neglected religious heritage there.
Thus my problem with calling PYM “white supremacist” is that using the same term for it as for the Klan or ACTBAC makes the phrase nearly useless: too broad, confusing, and drained of explanatory value.
It’s also, in my view, plain incorrect. PYM is hardly perfect; but it’s not the same as the Klan, or the Klan-infected meetings of Indiana. Not even in the same league.
You want an example of white supremacy in recent Quakerism? Try this, from the First Month 10, 1924 issue of The American Friend, the journal of the Five years Meeting (now FUM):
“On Christmas eve  a splendid program was given in the Friends Church at Rose Hill, Kansas [not far from Wichita], consisting of a tree with presents for all and candy and nuts for the children.
To the surprise of almost all the audience and at a time previously selected by the pastor, in marched ten members of the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia, lined up and stopped in front of the pulpit and handed the pastor some money. The pastor in his speech of acceptance, welcomed them, in so far as he personally was concerned, commended them for the good they had done, thanked them for their token of good will and made a few remarks to the gratification of the Klansmen. Whereupon they marched out without uttering a word, leaving the audience in a state of nervousness.”
It is useful to ponder this brief report. Was the pastor a Klansman? (Many were; KKK organizers offered ministers free memberships to curry favor; plus the public bribes–err, “donations,” were a frequent gesture.) Or was the pastor frightened of the Klan, and submitting to this invasion under duress, in hopes of warding off the Klan’s legendary wrath? The reference to the “state of nervousness” left behind suggests the visit may not have been a welcome one.
Can Philadelphia yearly Meeting be squeezed into this category? I don’t see it. But then what to call it?
I call it a GARP.
GARP stands for a Group Affected by Racism & Prejudice.
Yes, PYM (and most mainly white churches) are groups affected by racism and prejudice: GARPs. That’s not the same as a group devoted to white supremacy.
If you don’t believe that, then come visit me in Alamance County, NC, and let’s take a tour. Or if that’s too much, then try an exercise at home: watch this 9-minute video interview with two very serious Neo-Confederates; real live people (don’t worry, there are no expletives, guns or flaming torches in it). But some truly different and unsettling ideas.
Yet being a GARP doesn’t let PYM off the hook for present shortcomings and infractions, including some recent hotly-debated cases, which I won’t take up here. I gather they’re working on them, and others, and there are mixed reactions, even from Friends of color.
So for my part, I’ll keep on calling white supremacy as I see it; there’s plenty of opportunity where I live. My usage may not match that of others, but I stand by it. And I stand by GARPs too; and PYM is one.
Liz Oppenheimer commented further:
2. A NOT SO LONG-AGO PARALLEL. It seems to me that there was quite a bit of resistance among straight Friends to accept claims of homophobia by gay and lesbian Friends (and later bisexual Friends; and transphobia by transgender Friends). Maybe there was even resistance or denial about the word “homophobia” like there is with the phrase “white supremacy.” I wasn’t among Friends back then, but I’ve heard stories, especially from the Midwestern U.S., where I’ve grown into Quakerism. It seems to me that straight Friends back then wanted to see themselves as “good” and didn’t want to yield to the Truth as presented by their gay and lesbian counterparts. Wasn’t there blatant homophobia back then that straight Friends didn’t want to own up to? Wasn’t there also more subtle, institutional homophobia? To what extent might there be parallels between that earlier struggle/transformation and the one that many white Friends are facing now? Who gets to decide the appropriate use of a phrase or the appropriate expression of anger or frustration? Who gets to decide what is appropriate “Quaker process” or other mechanism to address a conflict between someone of the dominant group and someone of the historically oppressed group?
My response: As far as parallels between struggles over race and over LGBT terminology in meetings, they happened, yet I believe there was more to it. (I also regret very much that, after forty-plus years of activism and conflict –and in many places much progress–on these issues, there has as yet been no serious history published of this dramatic set of changes among Friends. )
My recollection is that the conflicts included words but were over more than that. It seemed the main struggles were over actions: were meetings to affirmLGBT persons and their relationships? And more recently, were they to affirm and perform same sex unions and then marriages? Were they to accept (and even defend) out LGBTs in all offices in their meetings and groups?
To be sure, there were stresses over the term “marriage” versus “unions” or “commitments”. But I believe it was the doing that was decisive. Another way to put it is, that beyond nomenclature, many truly believed (as most of us did for so long) that all this was simply wrong. And here I shall speak the A-word; “abomination,” which afflicted many of us who paid attention to the Bible, and even others who thought they didn’t.
In some meetings these struggles lasted years. Friends straight and gay quit because of them; for many other straight Friends, hearts and minds changed; for many meetings, the denouement was ultimately happy.
Yet in not a few U.S. yearly meetings, the struggles have concluded (for now) with firm decisions that all this is still a raft of abominations, by whatever new names a gaggle of hellbound liberals might be calling them. Yes, among Quakers today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, homophobia definitely continues to dare speak its name.
And more than a few of these struggles have been accompanied by blatant breaches of anything resembling Quaker process, especially as those determined to save their groups from the “A-word” do what they think they have to do to get their way.
I have reported on these conflicts for years; I watched them destroy a 320-year old Quaker body right here in North Carolina just this year, and chronicled it at length in these columns.
And with this background, I am put very much on guard by questions such as these:
Who gets to decide the appropriate use of a phrase or the appropriate expression of anger or frustration? Who gets to decide what is appropriate “Quaker process” or other mechanism to address a conflict between someone of the dominant group and someone of the historically oppressed group?
To all of them, I give what seems to me a very traditional Quaker answer; the body, following its tested good order, that’s who decides. The body has to protect itself from verbal and other assaults; the body has to bear with and manage its conflicts. If Quaker good order is to be held with integrity, such management may take much patience, but also firmness. It is my impression that FLGBTQ is usually rather painstaking about its Quaker process; which seems to me one of its strengths.
I am not trying to say anything new here. There are many other ways to run a church: the pope can ban cell phones from his masses (or at least he can try). An evangelical preacher can wave the Bible and hound dissenters from his church’s halls. Episcopal bishops haggle; Baptists and Unitarians take votes.
And if these don’t satisfy, one still can start TheChurch Of Do It My Way.
Liz Oppenheimer concluded her comment with this:
3. A LONGER-AGO PARALLEL. I also imagine a similar trajectory and transformation took place around plain old sexism. To what extent might there be parallels between that earlier struggle/transformation and the one that many white Friends are facing now? Wasn’t there blatant sexism way back then that male Friends didn’t want to own up to? Wasn’t there also more subtle, institutional sexism? (I just read a bit from the new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, in which the author-historian makes a reference to George Fox’s negative view of women among Friends, for example. Eww.)
My response: I have not seen the new book about Benjamin Lay, and can’t comment on what it might have quoted. But it is no news that the history of women’s (and other) equality among Friends is much different from what many modern liberal Friends imagine.
For one thing, I have seen no such item as a “Testimony of Equality” in books of Discipline & Faith & Practice until late in the 20th century. Hear me: it isn’t there.
To be sure, when Fox established women’s meetings, and legitimized women speaking and as ministers, this was an enormous advance for women in Christian religious settings, one which had far-reaching implications.
Yet women’s meetings were never “equal.” And when early versions of modern notions of gender equality began taking shape among Friends, 200-plus years later, that’s when impatience with women’s separate meetings began to bubble.
But there’s more: whole meetings weren’t “equal.” And Friends within meetings weren’t “equal.” That included men.
I have seen recent writings refer to earlier Quaker meetings as “religious democracies”; that is just eyewash, an uninformed reading back of modern notions into a drastically different setting from three centuries ago.
In fact, from early on there was a hierarchy, which exercised top-down authority, and it took decades of often bruising internal struggle (which is researched and charted in my book Remaking Friends) to change it. (And in various places it is still largely in place.)
Even so, the innovations by Fox and Fell and others displaced much of what is termed here “plain old sexism” among Quakers. Yes, most Friends were exceedingly sedate and respectable. Yet women’s meetings, and their independent ministry created dynamics that were in key ways very different from other groups.
Sexism? Sure, but I contend much of it was a different variety. Its evolution took time, but it is hardly an accident that so many Quaker women were leading figures in the early women’s movements. I don’t know if Fox would approve of the current outcome (I suspect Fell might be more satisfied), but the connections are there, if long-ripening. Personally, I find this part of our history both fascinating and in many ways uplifting.
And also shocking. Because the same Quaker religious culture which produced a towering figure like Lucretia Mott (or Margaret Fell) also leaves us blinking in the long shadow of Indiana’s “Chief Kluckeress,” Friend Daisy Douglas Barr; a white supremacist for sure.
It was only a matter of time before the current furor over sex harassment and misconduct by prominent people added Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the list.
And now his name has surfaced, by way of the FBI in the newly-released JFK assassination papers.
One of these documents, stamped “SECRET” is titled Martin Luther King, Jr. A Current Analysis. Itwas dated March 12, 1968, just three weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis.
This paper, or rather, one section of it, is the topic of a major article by Donovan Harrell, and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain, under the headline JFK files: FBI documents allege Martin Luther King Jr. had secret love child, orgies. It was reprinted in the Raleigh NC News & Observer, which is where I learned about it. And it’s been circulating more and more widely since. (The full text of the FBI paper is here.)
It’s a sign of the times — then and now — that these allegations, under the heading, “King’s personal conduct,” come last in the 20-page paper, and take up only about a page and a half. The sign then was that the FBI was far more concerned in what it considered King’s many ties to Communism, and to present and former U.S. Communists. Allegations about such ties take up the first third of the paper, and are scattered throughout much of the rest.
King was in fact connected to some persons with Communist associations in their past. One of his closest advisers over many years was Stanley Levison, a new York City businessman and lawyer who had once been a high-level member of the Communist Party-USA. But FBI files also state that Levison terminated his Communist associations in 1957, though that shift did not end FBI interest in, or surveillance of him.
No, the McClatchy article is interested in what’s hot now, and that is sex. And for those so inclined, it is not necessary to turn to the JFK files to find such assertions. Major biographies by top scholars include them, and Yale historian Beverly Gage, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that “King’s extramarital sex life, [was] already an open secret within the civil rights movement’s leadership.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once wrote that King was like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.”
In fact, Hoover evidently became convinced from wiretaps and other surveillance, that by 1964 the FBI had accumulated enough salacious material to force King to retire in disgrace from civil rights activism, or even drive him to suicide.
A notorious “suicide letter” was drafted by one of Hoover’s close aides, and anonymously sent, along with an audiotape full of heavy breathing and the like, to King in November, 1964. As dramatized in the movie “Selma,” King’s wife opened the package.
The letter was only one unsigned page (Full text here). Its punchline was stark: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . .”
King decided to ignore the tape and the letter, as did the news reporters the FBI tried to interest in the tape. It appears that King continued with his extramarital activities until his death in April 1968.
All this is lurid enough; but the question of the moment today is one only implicit in the resurfaced FBI paper: was King a sexual harasser, or even a predator, who forced himself upon any of the many women he allegedly had sex with?
And a related question is, doesn’tthis behavior pattern call into question, or even discredit, his august moral standing? Does King deserve to be, say, enshrined in a statue on the tidal basin in the heart of Washington DC?
I can’t answer the first question, but can offer some perspective as a junior staffer for King’s group in 1964 and 1965. And I have some thoughts about the second.
First of all, though I have no direct evidence about King himself, I can say that sexual harassment of female employees and associates was rife in King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even at high levels. My late wife Tish experienced it often when she worked in the SCLC office in Selma, Alabama.
Other women staff told me of incidents. And being a young male in 1965, I talked with other males in the group, and things were said that corroborated the other reports, and would not pass muster today.
Indeed, the atmosphere of the movement was sexually charged. This was due to many factors, no doubt, but one that ought not to be dismissed is the impact of charisma. Dr. King was a very charismatic figure; several of his top staff members also had quite magnetic personalities, based on their eloquence, personal bravery in the face of racist violence, and reflected glory by being close to Dr. King.
Such charisma is a fact. It occurs in many professions, and beyond a certain point has little to do with physical appearance. Henry Kissinger proves the rule, and offered one of its most apt summaries: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
I had one real and unsettling experience of this, at the height of the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign led by Dr. King. It is described in my memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.
I was very busy in the two hectic weeks after the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and deputies on marchers attempting a peaceful walk from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. People from all over the country, shocked by the violence, came pouring into Selma. Coping with this influx was a nonstop challenge. And the role that fell to me for several days was that of chauffeur.
SCLC rented several cars, and I managed to commandeer one. I happily spent several days ferrying various notables, most of whom I had never heard of, back and forth to the airport.
The car brought more than a hint of luxury to my $25 per week standard of living: it was warm, new, and had a good radio. It also served as a useful stage: for a series of rapt, terrified passengers, I turned the journey down Highway 80 into an instant history tour,starting with the full-size John Birch Society billboard near the airport, which demanded that we Get the US OUT of the UN, and do it now. Then, a few miles west:
“Yes, this is Lowndes County, with a population thatis eighty per cent black, but where no blacks are registered; none. They say the last black man who tried to register there was shot dead on the courthouse steps; that’s what they say.
“And there–see that ramshackle old building? It’s a real, functioning one-room schoolhouse (well, three rooms actually), with holes in the floor and walls that let in the winter wind; that’s right, it’s all the public education available for Negroes in the county.”
Twenty or so white-knuckled miles later:
“And don’t miss that bank billboard there, the one that welcomes us to Selma as ‘the city with 100 per cent human interest.’ Look to the other side, and there’s another for the White Citizens Council (a pause for gasps); and they’re both located just about at the spot where the troopers attacked the march–they hid their horses behind that building over there.”
By then, eyes were wide, necks craned.
Once across the bridge, we turned right at the courthouse, where I casually mentioned my own three arrests and a close encounter with the sheriff’s possemen’s wielding electric cattle prods, cruised cautiously past City Hall, describing the two jails it housed, and then jogged again to get to Sylvan Street and Brown Chapel AME church, the movement headquarters.
There I dropped off my passengers, who by now were usually half-dazed with awe at the apocalyptic spectacle they were joining.
One trip turned out differently, though. At the Montgomery airport, looking for the Selma contingent, I saw a stunning blonde, dressed in demure but elegant black, coming toward me. She flashed a winsome smile, said something about coming from Michigan, and asked for a ride to the church.
With pleasure, ma’am, I thought, and welcome to the Southland.
She insisted on sitting up front with me, and listened to my tourist spiel with a semblance of interest. I had some trouble getting through it, though, because she was so good to look at; the black suit, despite its modest cut, only set off her full figure. Then as we approached the bridge, she interrupted to ask if I knew where Dr. King was.
I shrugged. Maybe at the church, maybe somewhere else, I wasn’t sure.
But she persisted. She wanted to see Dr. King. She neededto see him. That, she said, was why she came.
Well, let me think; it was midday, the mass meetings were probably in a lull, and Dr. King could be conferring with staff in the back of the church, or possibly resting somewhere – I knew of an apartment in the projects nearby where he often slipped away for some quiet. But he might be someplace else entirely, coming back later–
But where is he now? She insisted. I need to see him.
And all at once my guard was up. Who was this woman? What was she after? She did not seem acquainted with Dr. King or the movement. But the very elegance of her appearance, I realized, exuded an unspoken awareness of Dr. King’s fondness for female pulchritude. And her sense of mission reinforced my sudden suspicion. She seemed to presume he would want to talk with her, be with her; and she might well have been right.
But for what purpose? By now I was familiar with the steady stream of death threats that Dr. King received. Most were no more than racist invective; but some were serious. I knew at least one such firsthand:
A few weeks earlier, top Justice Department officials had called and begged Dr. King to stop a planned night march, because they said there was a KKK assassination squad ready to attack it, and him, in the dark, and they wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Dr. King at first said no, we would march despite the threats. But he was finally persuaded to back off the plan by the pleas of top aides, who stressed the danger to others in the march.
I was there that night, with other staffers, and heard the calls, and the debate, listening and scared out of my wits. I’d also seen postcards declaring murderous intentions toward King.. Other threats, less dramatic, kept coming.
And for a serious, skillful assassination plan, there would be more than one way to get close to him, to bait a fatal trap. A beautiful woman could be just the thing.
As the memories of the planned night march came back, my responses to my passenger’s queries became suddenly vague; the tour guide banter subsided into bumpkin monosyllables.
I managed to creep through the crowd milling along and into the street, quite close to Brown Chapel, pulled up, and pointed toward the back of the church.
“The offices are there.” I strongly doubted Dr. King was inside; but if he was, he’d surely be surrounded by staff, with dozens of reporters and photographers close by.
She thanked me, snatched up her small travel bag, and was gone, pushing her way into the crowd swirling around outside the building.
That was that; I never saw or heard of her again, and whatever happened, Dr. King survived for three more years.
But I was thoroughly rattled. Even if she was no more than a celebrity stalker, the trip showed how magnetic charisma could be. (Less than two years later, I was part of a similarly convincing demonstration, at Shea Stadium in New York. There I watched nearly 50,000 girls and women shrieking their lungs out for two hours at four complete strangers trying to play music in center field. I saw the Beatles with them that night; and though I couldn’t hear a note the band played, the experience was unforgettable.)
But now let’s return to the other question: does the sexual adventurism of Dr. King and some of his associates along with the atmosphere of sexual harassment this fostered undermine his legacy, and moral stature?
To get at this, I’ll return to Eating Dr. King’s Dinner and note another encounter from 1965 It was in September, several months after the successful march to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act, which (for some decades at least), changed the politics of the south, and the U.S.
I was invited to an SCLC staff retreat at the Penn Center on the South Carolina coast. The Penn Center is the successor of a school founded and long operated by Quakers from the North, to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It’s now a cultural center and national monument for the rich Gullah culture of the area; it also hosts small conferences. Dr. King held many retreats there, during the years when official segregation made it difficult to find locations for integrated meetings.
At the 1965 retreat, there were momentous issues on the table: should Dr. King take the movement north, specifically to Chicago? (The answer was yes, in an ill-fated campaign the next year.)
And should Dr. King come out strongly against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War — and thereby defy many powerful people who were warning him to stay away from “foreign policy.” (That answer was yes, too, but it took longer, until early 1967, for Dr. King to take a bold antiwar stance.)
But these big issues of the day are not what is before us now. Instead, what comes to mind is an entirely informal encounter there, between the plenary sessions.
In fact, it happened while we were all standing in line for a meal. I heard Dr. King talking earnestly ahead of me, and tuned in, as by degrees, did most of the rest.
King was talking with James Bevel, his Direct Action Director, and one of the most insightful tactical thinkers, and electrifying speakers, in Dr. King’s inner circle. They were talking, debating really, about sex and marriage.
How the topic came up, I don’t know, but there they were. Bevel, in his tenor staccato, was making the case for what were known euphemistically as “open relationships,” marriages in which the partners were explicitly allowed to seek sexual pleasure with others.
To this Dr. King sounded a baritone bass note of dissent. He had no faith in any such couplings, he said; the right way was the traditional one: monogamy and fidelity.
This was a friendly argument, like a college bull session; voices were not raised, no personal charges were hurled, and Dr. King did not attempt to pull rank. But it was still evident that their positions were deeply felt, and the colloquy was riveting to the listeners.
Surely all of us present knew, by regular hearsay if not personal observation, that neither of these men was exactly a model of monogamy. I would thus have expected Dr. King to go along with Bevel, at least to some extent, if only to provide himself with moral cover for what we all assumed was his habitual practice.
But no. Bevel argued skillfully: love was expansive; possessiveness outmoded, and jealousy a bad habit. But Dr. King refused to budge: one man, one woman, forsaking all others–given the fallen state of human nature, that’s the way it had to be. It was also what the Bible said.
Looking back, this exchange, finally interrupted by the arrival of the food, revealed a great deal. In Bevel there was the spirit of the times, pushing the limits and opening things up, trying to be ethically and situationally inclusive, and to see good in what he, and many others of the time, were doing.
I don’t recall if he did, but he could have parried Dr. King’s biblical references with one of his own, the Apostle Paul from First Corinthians, proclaiming that “All things are lawful for me,” a verse which conventional exegetes are anxious to diminish or ignore.
Dr. King, on the other hand, was tipping his hand as the more orthodox Christian: the standard is there, was his argument. He didn’t say, but the implication was obvious, that his and our failures to live up to it didn’t mean we should redraw the lines, but rather admit that we are sinners. We don’t need new morals, was his point; we need the old remedies: forgiveness and grace.
Put into a gloss on their own, reputedly similar behavior, Bevel was insisting, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” while Dr. King was admitting, “I am.”
At the time, standing transfixed in that dinner line, I was mostly on Bevel’s side, or at least I thought I was. A part of me still is, too, a bit; but time and my own misadventures have lately edged me more in Dr. King’s corner.
Are all things really lawful to me? Maybe more than some people think should be; but even so, there are limits. And do I need grace and forgiveness?
Do I need to breathe?
Suppose for a moment that the bullet at the Lorraine Motel had missed Dr. King thatevening in April, 1968. Suppose he had continued with the campaign there in support of sanitation workers — and then gone on to lead his planned Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington that summer.
Besides these boiling issues (along with the continuing Vietnam War), there were others waiting to ambush him, and one of these was sex.
The male chauvinism embedded in much of his and others’ behavior was corrosive to the cohesion of the movement’s key cadre: marriages were broken up; colleagues parted ways; many rank and file supporters backed away. These patterns were not “victimless.”
Further, it had practical effects: it split the movement between those who were “in the know” about the private recreations of King and others, and the many who did not, or only suspected. That fed an elitism which ultimately generated deep and persisting distrust of exalted “leaders” among many. It also exposed King to continuing, unnecessary risks: of blackmail, exposure in the press, or retaliation from a cuckolded spouse.
Who better to signal some of this internal cost than the movement’s most sophisticated and sardonic chanteuse, Nina Simone, in her 1964 recording of “Go Limp”:
“Oh Daughter, dear Daughter Take warning from me And don’t you go marching With the N-A-A-C-P. For they’ll rock you and roll you And shove you into bed. And if they steal your nuclear secret You’ll wish you were dead. . . .”
Four years later, back to Dr. King: how much longer would his wife Coretta have put up with his frequent philandering? By then the “second wave” feminist movement was taking off, and challenges to male dominance and sexual consumerism were rising, inside the movement as well as outside. King & SCLC were thoroughly male chauvinist; a reckoning was likely.
This is speculation. But in another case, there is, sadly, more: James Bevel was notorious in the movement for his many sexual exploits. By 2005 he had been married four times and had fathered sixteen children by these and other women.
I thought highly of Bevel in my days in the Selma movement. But over time his behavior and political alliances came to seem bizarre and we lost touch.The last time I talked with him was in the 1990s, and he then expressed regret for his behavior in the 1960s, and said he had changed his ways. He wanted me to help him write an autobiography. I demurred; keeping a distance felt safer.
Then in May, 2007, Bevel was arrested and charged with committing incest with one of his daughters in the 1990s. The alleged incident happened in Virginia, which has no statute of limitations on such charges. Three other daughters later said Bevel had had sex with them too.
He was tried and convicted in April 2008, and the testimony included statements of his that resembled the outlook I heard him express that day at the Penn Center, extended across generations. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released in November of that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following month.
In midsummer, while Bevel was awaiting sentencing, his wife emailed me, to ask that I write to the judge, requesting a reduced sentence.
I agonized about this. There was no defending or mitigating what he had done to his children. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Yet it was also true that Bevel had made signal contributions to the civil rights movement: the whole Selma-Montgomery march, which became the key to the Voting Rights Act,was his idea. This and his other best work had benefitted millions.
What do you do about people who are a mix of good and evil?
Ultimately my resolution was this: I wrote to the judge, but offered no brief for the actions he had been convicted of. Instead I told him of the substantial positive, even historic work I felt Bevel had once done. And I asked the judge to weigh this in a spirit of mercy. I doubt it made any difference, but it felt truthful, if difficult.
I’ve had more time to consider Dr. King. And I find his legacy still endures;Dr. King as a sinner makes sense.And no children were involved, so far as I know. The impact of his charisma, as shown by the episode of the blonde in black in my rental car, was pervasive.
For me his flaws, his sins were dwarfed by his larger witness, and the sacrificial courage he showed facing death threats daily — including the “suicide letter” from the head office of the FBI — until one of them succeeded.
That witness stands, with no need to disguise or dismiss the shortcomings. Is it noteworthy that almost fifty years after his death, there have been to my knowledge, no “women coming forward” in print or other media, to take down his reputation, as, say, Bill Cosby’s or Harvey Weinstein’s has been? Despite the personal and family costs, could there be more to this than meets the judgmental eye?
We’re probably not going to hear much about that in news articles based on the FBI papers released about the JFK assassination. It may be true, I believe it was important; but it isn’t sexy. Or for that matter, even Communist.
No wonder issues of race in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting are in a mess.
I’d read and interviewed and blogged about this on March 23, 2017; but it was brought home to me directly in early June.
That’s a restrained way to put it.
More plainly, I was set upon, ambushed by two persons claiming to be part of the self-styled Philadelphia “Undoing Racism Group,” or URG, as they called it for short.
It began at Pendle Hill in early June, where I was visiting their Young Adult Friends conference, as a specimen Geezer Quaker, before moving on to the Quaker History Roundtable later in the week. It came as a request to hear some “concerns” about my March blog post; I agreed.
It turned out, though, that the two URGers, a white male and female, wanted rather more than to “express concerns” about the post. In a session that stretched to three hours, they declared it was full of racist lies, had damaged their cause, and that it and I were thereby shown to be enablers, even pillars of racist white supremacy.
To set things right, they insisted I must retract the post, publicly apologize for both the text and its headline, and as a sign of real repentance, become a booster of their agenda.
I was unable to meet their demands. For one thing, there are no lies in the post; I stand behind it. For another, URG’s repeated rebuffs in PYM came well before it appeared, as did the turmoil and division that accompanied their efforts. The post may have echoed the questions of some others, for which I am not sorry; it was hardly their source. And I am not moved to become URG’s scapegoat. Continue reading Philadelphia YM’s Racial Turmoil Continues: Ambushed by URG→
Today I sent the following FAX to the U.S. Senators from North Carolina:
Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech denouncing the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church in New York City. I was honored to be present then. In the speech, Dr. King prophesied a future of continuing immoral American wars. That prophecy has alas come true, in spades.
In the Iraq War which was launched in 2003, one of the worst of its many horrors was the use of torture. I have protested that practice for more than ten years, calling for ACCOUNTABILITY for those who created, justified and/or carried out that program.
(During the early years of the Iraq war, I gave away hundreds of these bumperstickers.)
This week you have the chance to HOLD ACCOUNTABLE one of those who justified official torture: NEIL GORSUCH. As reported by your colleague Senator Dianne Feinstein, as a white House lawyer Gorsuch justified torture and advised on ways officials could evade accountability for it. (Details here: http://bit.ly/2nYHgUZ )
This is but one of many reasons to oppose his nomination to the Supreme Court. For me, and no doubt it would be for Dr. King, this shameful record is a major one. VOTE NO ON GORSUCH.
Wynnewood (Philadelphia) PA, February 13, 2017: “Two Friends’ Central School teachers who supervised a club that invited a Palestinian speaker to the Wynnewood campus — an appearance the school canceled after some parents and students complained — were placed on administrative leave Monday morning.
English teacher Ariel Eure, 25, and history teacher Layla Helwa, 26, were called to an off-campus meeting with Craig Sellers, the head of school, and a human resources manager, and informed they were suspended indefinitely, said Mark D. Schwartz, a lawyer and former parent at the school who is representing the women.
Schwartz said that he tried to attend the 7:30 a.m. meeting at the Llanerch Diner in Upper Darby, but that school officials turned him away. The teachers were told they were being suspended for disobeying a supervisor and for having a “single-minded approach to a complicated issue for the community,” he said.
“This was done in a non-Quaker fashion,” Schwartz said. “It was more like storm trooper fashion.”
Late Monday afternoon, the administration released a statement: “As a Quaker school, we have long-standing expectations for all members of our community – especially for our teachers, who have the responsibility of guiding young minds. There are very real concerns about the conduct of Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa for their disregard of our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace, and integrity. As of today, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa are on indefinite paid administrative leave while a more extensive review is conducted.”
The controversy has stirred passions at the school and shone a light on a thorny issue for many Quaker schools: While the American Friends Service Committee supports putting economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories, many students at Quaker schools are Jewish.
Sa’ed Atshan, a Swarthmore College professor and a Quaker, had been invited to speak Friday by the school’s Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, which formed last April. After parents complained about Atshan’s ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates punitive measures against Israel, the school rescinded the invitation.
About 65 students walked out of a weekly Meeting for Sharing on Wednesday to protest the cancellation, while others stood and read a statement. Eure and Helwa walked out with the students. . . .”
In light of recent events, permit me to share a photograph or two.
Selma, Alabama, March 1965. I stood on the church steps behind John Lewis, Hosea Williams & Andrew Young.
Then John & Hosea marched over the Pettus Bridge & were beaten & teargassed; John got his head busted, was almost killed. I got off easy.
John Lewis got up from his hospital bed and helped win voting rights for millions of Americans. He’s still fighting for those voting rights, which those who scoff & tweet are busy undermining.
And on that day, when hundreds including John & Hosea walked their talk through Selma, across the Pettus Bridge into the teeth of hate, where was the fool with the little hands who now says John Lewis was “all talk”?
He has said he was avoiding the draft & STDs. Is there any reason to doubt him?
Next Monday will be devoted to the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was my good fortune to work under Dr. King in the great voting rights campaign he led with others in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Besides being historic for America, that experience was formative for me. It led me to jail, to a repudiation of war, and even to Quakers.
Monday evening at Pendle Hill, starting at 7:30 PM, as part of this remembrance, I’ll be talking about that experience, and you’re invited. Details are here, and it’s free.
In December 1964, I joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. Shortly thereafter I was sent by SCLC to Selma, Alabama, where I worked in the Voting Rights Movement organized by Dr. King and SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Continue reading For MLK Day: Stories from Selma, January 16→