Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Age of Trumpism: Remembering the Drum Major Fifty Years after His Assassination by Lewis V. Baldwin, Ph.D.

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Lewis V Baldwin

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  This is the fiftieth anniversary of that tragic episode in our history, and memories of what happened still linger in the minds and hearts of millions. As we remember Dr. King in this “age of Trumpism,” we wonder if there is any consistency, congruity, or moral equivalency at all between his struggle “to make the American dream a reality” and President Donald John Trump’s promise “to make America great again.”  Undoubtedly, countless questions along these lines will be raised in the coming weeks, as discussions about Dr. King’s life, death, and enduring legacy occur in academic settings, churches, and in the larger public sphere of our society.

Trumpism has encouraged and inspired several developments in our society which pose a threat to the continuing realization of Dr. King’s dream. First, the breakdown of reality-based, rational, and critical-analytical thinking. In other words, all too many in our nation seem to have lost the ability to face reality and to think in accordance with the dictates of reason and a careful process of intellectual discipline and discernment. Trumpism has created a climate in which truth is under assault, reality is too often denied in preference for “an alternative reality,” logical thinking consistently bows to beliefs and conspiracy theories that are manifestly ludicrous, the non-sensible is routinely packaged as that which makes the most sense, and lofty idealism frequently surrenders to small-mindedness, narrow interests, and mindless nihilism. Sadly, we are increasingly uncomfortable with Dr. King’s image of a society in which citizens cherish “the search for truth,” “an open and analytical mind,” and an unwavering receptivity to “the best lights of reason.”

Second, Trumpism is contributing to a radical departure from basic standards of human decency and civility, which are essential to strong character, great leadership, and the building of community. Civilized conduct, courtesy, politeness, and empathy are too often sacrificed on the altar of incivility, outright rudeness, and a consuming attitude of inconsideration.  Although Mr. Trump epitomizes this spirit in so many instances, it is by no means confined to him alone.  Die-hard supporters of Trumpism frequently ignore and scoff at the idea of political correctness, rampart partisanship is increasingly leading to governmental dysfunction, and rarely do people greet each other with genuine respect, kindness, and hearty exchanges of civilities. Since the election of Mr. Trump, feelings of anger, bitterness, and disenchantment have reached fever pitch in America, and the widening chasms that divide Americans are painfully evident in the mounting incidents of road rage, bullying in our schools, and the active shooter scenarios that unfold in homes, schools, the streets, and even in churches.  Americans would do well to reject the factional dynamics of both our national politics and our daily existence, and especially Trumpism’s sense of “us versus them” scenarios, while revisiting Dr. King’s vision of a nation in which people relate to each other in the spirit of understanding, nonviolence, forgiveness, goodwill, and cooperation.

Third, Trumpism is largely responsible for the normalization and/or legitimation of forms of bigotry and intolerance. Mr. Trump’s disparaging comments about Mexicans and Muslims and his overall record of dealings with women, minorities, and the poor are too often overlooked, casually dismissed, and even fiercely defended in some circles. Our growing inability to experience moral outrage in the face of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, nativism, and all of the other “isms” that afflict our society is exposed daily.  Dr. King always warned Americans against becoming too comfortable with bigotry, injustice, and intolerance, for he understood that such evils could only insure endless cycles of dehumanization. Thus, his challenge around the need to cultivate a culture of openness and enlargement that embraces all, irrespective of human differences, is as relevant today as it was a half century ago.

Fourth, Trumpism is associated with the mounting distrust of well-established democratic norms, values, institutions, and structures. Trumpism seems oblivious to the democratic norms and values that define America, and it consistently bombards and challenges us with the most negative images of the media, the two-party system, the judiciary, the justice department, the intelligence community, and other institutions and structures that have claimed so much of our loyalty over time. We are left with the growing impression that we are much better off when we turn to Trumpism for answers about who we are and how we should define ourselves as Americans in these times of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, and glaring polarization. Dr. King believed deeply in the power of America’s democratic creed and traditions, and this grounded his quest for the fullest realization of its constitutional and participatory democracy.  The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation, as he read them, spoke to the ideals of a nation that is constantly moving toward the fullness of what it can and should be as a democracy.

Fifth, Trumpism is breeding a disturbing tendency toward national isolationism. It attacks globalization, isolates allies, uses name-calling, threats, and reprisals as tactics in U. S. diplomacy, promotes a foreign policy rooted in amateurism and incoherence, and encourages the kind of self-centered nationalism and isolationism that stand in stark contrast to our traditions of faith, the hallmark of our participatory democracy, and the reach of our ecumenical loyalty.  Trumpism’s “America first” doctrine, on so many levels, is increasingly becoming an “America only” and an “America alone” doctrine, and there is virtually no commitment to the actualization of Dr. King’s vison of a better, just, and more inclusive world.  In his last two books, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) and The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), Dr. King warned America about the perils of isolationism, and he challenged us to a greater awareness of our world citizenship.  He framed this in terms of “the social nature of human existence” and “the interrelated structure of all life and reality,” declaring that what affects one of us directly affects all indirectly.  This nation needs to reclaim a healthy sense of the essential oneness of humanity, irrespective of national boundaries and the artificial barriers of race, religion, economics, politics, and culture. There is not better tribute to this “drum major” on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. After all, the legacy of Dr. King should remind us that humanity functions best not when walls of separation are constructed, but when bridges of unity are established.

Finally, Trumpism is the force behind the silencing, marginalization, and cooptation of potential prophetic voices and profiles in courage. Dr. King believed deeply in the necessity, power, and efficacy of prophetic and courageous leadership, and we can only imagine what he would say about so-called moral and spiritual leaders who remain silent and noncommittal in the face of Trumpism. King felt that the Christian Church should provide society’s strongest prophetic voices and profiles in courage, and he would undoubtedly be appalled at the lack of moral seriousness and commitment on the part of religious leaders, and especially evangelicals, who quietly accept, justify, and even sanction some of the worst aspects of Ttrumpism. Mega and super-mega church leaders, who have a platform to speak to the whole world, are actually a gift to Trumpism and an insult to Dr. King’s legacy.  And as long as this is the case, Trumpism will continue unabated, unaccountable, and unchecked. We can find some relief and hope in the fact that Trumpism is recharging calls for social justice and social change in this nation, and the leadership is coming not from the religious and political establishments, but from Black Lives Matter, the Me-Too Movement, and high school kids who are leading the March for Our Lives. They are the true caretakers of the King legacy.

Trumpism and its effects will continue for years to come, but we must never forget Dr. King’s parting words to the people of this country, on April 3, 1968.  He declared, in essence, that the choice is ultimately between chaos and community. If he was with us today, I believe he would remind us that we are stronger when we choose freedom, democracy, and community over tyranny, fascism, and tribalism.

This essay is copyright © Lewis V Baldwin 2018. Permissions may be requested through lewisvbaldwin@comcast.net

Dr. L. V Baldwin was born and raised in Wilcox County, Alabama and is a graduate of Camden Academy, a stronghold of student civil rights activism in the 1960′-70s. Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University and the author of six books on Martin Luther King, Jr. He is also a co-author of two, the editor of two, and a co-editor of two, for a total of twelve books on Dr. King. He currently resides in Nashville, TN with his wife Jacqueline Laws Baldwin.

In Memory of Frank Connor

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January 20, 2018

When I last saw Frank Connor, he was laying in the back of SCLC Field Director Major Johns’s car with a gash in his head that was pouring out blood.  He had been attacked along with seven other young men who were guarding Antioch Baptist Church where our voting rights campaign was headquartered. It was June 29, 1965 and Frank was just sixteen years old.

When I re-located Frank in Pensacola, Florida in 2010 he told me that he barely survived that attack by the KKK. He was in the hospital in Selma for months. His parents separated during that time, and he had to return to live with his father near the church where he was beaten, which was very hard for him. Frank suffered traumatic brain damage and was unable to graduate with his own class at the Academy. He missed six months of school but did graduate with the Camden Academy Class of 1971. Despite this horrible attack, he later married, had children, and earned a good living as a truck driver before his retirement. We spoke on the phone several times both before and after I quoted him in “This Bright Light of Ours.”  At first he was reluctant to share his story but later he told me that it was a relief.

This is an excerpt from his story, “It was as scary as I never knew what. I didn’t know if I was going to get killed. They didn’t want blacks and whites to be together but that was no cause to try to kill us. That took us completely by surprise, to come in a church like that. A certain part of my body holds that always. I put my hand on my head and I thank the Lord I didn’t die. I was bleeding all over. The doctor said I only had a 50 percent chance to live.

“I had revenge in my mind for many years. When I visited, I didn’t even want to walk up through town. I’d just go to my brother’s house and stay there. There are some low-down white people there. If they could get the power again, they’d do the same thing over again. They don’t think we are people. But they’d be surprised this time. Not me, I wouldn’t take up arms against them, but there are some that would, for sure. I was losing blood like you know what. But I made it. My mind is not like it used to be. I had fear in my mind for a long time but the Lord helped me through”

Frank called me back a few weeks later. Our conversations had brought that terrible night back vividly. I apologized. He said, “No, it is always there in the back of my mind. There is no way to forget it completely. I felt like I woke to find the shadow of death was hovering over me. Just before the man began to beat me with a lead pipe, I instinctively put my arm over my eyes; I didn’t want them to blind me. Two men hit me over and over and over, like they would never stop. The Lord must have been protecting me; otherwise I could be blind. Or dead.

“Me and a bunch of other guys went to a class reunion a few years back and they talked about that like we were heroes or something. I tried to block it out of my mind. I left to go to New York in 1968. Living in Camden, it was a nightmare . . . a real nightmare, I tell you.”

Frank Connor may not have wanted to be a hero, but all those young women and men who put their lives on the line for racial equality, the right to vote and to desegregate schools are heroes to me. May he rest in peace and blessed memory and all who mourn be comforted.

For more stories of the young people who risked their lives for civil rights, please read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” (University of Alabama Press 2014)  www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL June 1965 Photo by John Worcester

Historic NY Times Article on Wilcox County 1966 Elections

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Thanks Bruce Hartford for sending this terrific NY Times 1966 article by Gene Roberts. That month was the first opportunity for newly registered African American voters to elect their own candidates including sheriff. Military veteran Walter J Calhoun took on the challenge in deeply segregated Wilcox County, Alabama. Although he and the other Peoples Choice candidates did not prevail, they paved the way for future success. This in depth gives perspectives Black activists and the white establishment including fascinating quotes from Calhoun, Dan Harrell, former sheriff Lummie Jenkins, landowner Sam Hicks and others on both sides of a deep divide about race and politics.

April 17, 1966 Wilcox County strategy session with State Senate candidate Lonnie Brown, Walter J Calhoun, candidate for Sheriff and SCLC leader Daniel Harrell

April 17, 1966 Wilcox County strategy session with State Senate candidate Lonnie Brown, Walter J Calhoun, candidate for Sheriff and SCLC leader Daniel Harrell

To read and order article:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F0DE2D7113EE43BBC4F52DFB266838D679EDE&legacy=true

For more Wilcox County Voting Rights History: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

24 Hours in Jail for “Conspiracy to Boycott” in Camden, Alabama 1965

51 years ago yesterday, I was arrested along with 18 voting rights co-workers in Camden, Alabama. We were incarcerated in the old Camden jail which has since been torn down, not the old old jail which still stands. My 32 hrs. in jail were dramatic and frightening as I record in my book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com.

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These young men went to jail for your right to vote – What will you do to protect voting rights?

Since the book came out, several others have shared their memories of these events. A white seminarian, John Worcester added his memories to my own. Being older and living at Camden Academy rather than out in the rural areas, he had a calmer perspective than I did as an impressionable teen. This is an excerpt from his report detailing our arrest sent to Junius Griffin, Public Relations Director for SCLC, dated July 6, 1965:

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“On Monday, June 29, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Mayor F.R. (Reg) Albritton entered Antioch Baptist Church, the office and headquarters of the SCOPE project in this county. He had with him deputies and policemen who were armed. After being asked to show a search warrant, and showing none, they arrested 18* persons (see list below), leaving some in the church who were not arrested at this time. One youth, Don Green, was roughed up by one of the deputies. We have witnesses to this occurrence (I, Maria was one). Those arrested were booked on charges of “possession and distribution of boycott materials.” Within 30 minutes of this arrest, the bail was set at $1000 per person. At about 1;45 p.m. I was allowed to visit the jail – in the colored section – with Mr. Albert Gordon and Mr. James Ephraim. (This sentence is unclear, was James Ephraim in jail or visiting? ) Soon after that visit, bail was arranged for Mr. Gordon and he was released in late afternoon of the same day. It was at this time that Mike Farley was allegedly beaten by the other occupant of the cell – a man who had been there when Farley was jailed. Only a few who were in the Negro section were able to witness this beating. (I, Maria heard it and heard a much worse beating that took place later than evening. Mike called to us for help.)

[Worcester then gives descriptions of the legal disposition, those of us released without further charges “due to insufficient evidence” and those who signed bonds. His list of arrestees:

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Mr Albert Gordon, civil rights leader and teacher. Photo courtesy Bob Fitch Archives Stanford University

Adult Leaders: Mr. Albert Gordon and Rev Major Johns (director of Wilcox SCOPE project, SCLC staff)

Student workers: Don Green* ( Worcester mentions him, but forgot to list or count him in the roster of arrestees)

Joyce Brians (my name changed to Maria Gitin in 1970)

Connie Turner

Ann Nesbit

Lester Core

John Davis

Paul Ford

Roosevelt Washington

Johnny Jackson

Celister Wright (from Coy)

George Shamburger (deceased)

Elmo Jones (deceased)

Harris Knight

Sherry (Shari) Thurber

Judy Harmon

Ashley Stalworth (deceased)

Mike Farley22 Mike Farley beaten about the face in jail

Please share your memories of this arrest in the comment section for moderation and posting. Thank you!

Lonnie Brown, Wilcox County Voting Rights Hero

In the early 1960’s farmers and residents of Gees Bend and surrounding areas intensified their efforts to get African Americans registered to vote in Wilcox County. Although 78% of population, no one had been allowed to register or to vote.  In April 1963, twenty men from the Gees Bend region marched on the Wilcox County Courthouse.  Their primary objective was to be able to vote on the commissioners to the powerful county agricultural committee which allotted federal agricultural subsidies and loans previously denied to Black farmers. Rev Lonnie Brown and farmer Monroe Pettway led this historic march after visits from Martin Luther King Jr and participating in organizing training from SCLC staffer Bernard LaFayette. LaFayette accompanied the men to the courthouse and shared the risk of arrest with the entire group. Although the men were denied access to registration, they were not arrested and returned peacefully proud of their accomplishment in reaching the courthouse, the first documented organized voter registration effort in Wilcox County.

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Lonnie Brown, Gees Bend organizer and leader. Ran for AL State Senate District 19 in 1966. Photo courtesy Bob Fitch Photo Archives Stanford University Libraries

Rev Lonnie Brown was a pastor at Pleasant View Baptist Church who worked as an insurance agent who visited his customers and potential customers on the tenant farms and plantations where they lived and worked. When he began recruiting potential voters along with insurance customers, white Wilcox County landowners organized and filed a trespassing complaint. Two of of the 28 white landowners who signed the complaint were George Findley and James Strother. At a recent presentation in Selma, AL a white gentleman told me that he was proud that his father refused to sign the 1963 complaint.

On behalf of Rev. Brown and local leaders, the U.S. Attorney General’s office brought an action against the landowners (US v Bruce: 353 F .2d 474;1965 US App. LEXIS 3942) and eventually dismissed the complaint, which allowed Brown and others who had prior permission, to once again organize on property where he had been permitted to sell insurance. In 1965, the Federal Court of Appeals found that the federal government made a “strong case” and that the property owners did in fact “intimidate and coerce” the black citizens of Wilcox County for “ the purpose of interfering with their right to vote.”

During the two years this case took place, Rev Brown was forced to sell insurance in adjacent counties, included Dallas County, as he was barred from entering the properties of his clients. His family continues to be active in Wilcox County politics.

Source: U.S. Court of Appeals, (1965), U.S. v Bruce, 353 F2d 474.

This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Speaking about Wilcox County Freedom Fighters at the Foot of the Bridge in Selma

Thank you to Park Ranger Theresa Hall, the rest of the staff and friends of Selma Interpretive Center for a great reception Monday June 6th. I so appreciate the attentive, interactive community members, friends who traveled from Camden and South Carolina and for the Montessori school children from Illinois who asked such great questions. Always a treat to see my canvassing partner, Robert Powell, friends Alma Moton-King and Anne Matthews, Rosetta Anderson and more from Wilcox.  You made this a very special day for all of us. It was an honor to be invited by the National Park Service to share the long lost history of the Wilcox County Alabama Voting Rights Fight. http://www.thisbrightlightofours.comFullSizeRender-3 Gitin Selma flyer FullSizeRender-2 FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender-1IMG_2565 (1)IMG_2566 (1)