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The Civil Sphere$

Jeffrey C. Alexander

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195162509

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195162509.001.0001

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Race and Civil Repair (2)

Race and Civil Repair (2)

The Civil Rights Movement and Communicative Solidarity

(p.293) Chapter 12 Race and Civil Repair (2)
The Civil Sphere

Jeffrey C. Alexander

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the white journalists who worked for progressive newspapers and magazines. From the beginning, there was a symbiotic interaction between the social dramas staged by civil rights leaders and the “point men” of the communicative institutions who defined their jobs as interpreting such dramas to the civil sphere. That neither could exist without the other was a recognition, at once simple and profound, a recognition that became increasingly conscious and consequential as the black movement grew in influence and civil force.

Keywords:   Civil Rights movement, white journalists, social dramas, civil sphere

The civil rights movement has become the most intensively studied subject in contemporary American history, its tens of thousands of significant events and influential social actors serving as the subject of meticulous reconstructions by every discipline of the social sciences and humanities. These studies increasingly have focused on the richness and complexity of the local experiences of African Americans in southern communities, and they bear witness to the extraordinary energy and mundane devotion that made the success of this movement possible, not only the courage to face the terrorism of white violence but the years of door-to-door organizing and neighborhood meetings in homes and churches, the innumerable leaflets and pamphlets, the frustrating string of days in courts, the endless petitions to gain the right to vote and to be treated as human beings. In all these ways, the local and national African American leaders of the Civil Rights movement and the black masses themselves manifested uncommon courage as they marched on a road to empowerment that most visibly began with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and concluded ten years later with demonstrations in Selma and passage of the Voting Rights Act. The march for full empowerment of black Americans, (p.294) of course, began long before 1955, just as it has continued up to the present day, and it will have to extend long into the future. Still, the decade between 1955 and 1965 was critical; it was then that power was seized, and that seizure of power paved the way for redistributing resources in the years that followed.

As long as there is some autonomy for the civil sphere of society, however, power can be seized only indirectly, by influencing, and only in this sense gaining control over, the discourses and institutions of civil society itself. Blacks could never have seized power directly in the southern states. When they tried, their efforts were put down with overwhelming force.1 It was duality, not instrumental power, that promised the possibility of justice, and this duality could be activated only by finding a way of reaching over the anticivil domination of white southerners to the other, more civil side. This is why the Civil Rights movement cannot be conceived as being about power in the narrow sense, especially if this term is understood as involving direct, physical, face-to-face confrontations between masses of African Americans and their immediate oppressors on the local scene. The Civil Rights movement, rather, was about influence and persuasion, about achieving a more commanding position in the civil sphere of American society. Only as they were able to gain such influence could civil rights leaders, and the masses they were energized by, achieve power in the more instrumental, regulatory sense.

In the immediate postwar period, as we have seen, it was the inability of regulatory reforms actually to repair the racial distortions of American civil society that triggered the mass mobilization for civil rights. Regulatory reforms in legal institutions were enacted, but they were not sufficiently articulated with the other levels and institutions of the civil sphere. If legal changes are to take effect, they must be complemented by changes in office obligations, by shifts in communicative institutions, and by deep alterations of public opinion. It is for this reason that the civil rights movement always had dual goals. They organized against local racial domination, but in the course of fighting these struggles they tried determinedly to gain national, civil attention as well. They wanted to mobilize public opinion in the northern civil sphere, especially the opinion of members of the northern civil society who were white. By transforming this opinion, they created civil power, influencing the behavior of national officeholders, both in (p.295) politics and the law, and gaining leverage over social power in turn. With this newfound economic and political power, they could finally control their oppressors, who had been safely insulated in the civil sphere of the white South.

How did this happen? As contemporary historians have noted, local leaders had been conducting battles for racial justice—in effect, little civil rights movements—long before the first big campaign emerged in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.2 What was different about those who assumed leadership in that first battle of the modern Civil Rights movement was precisely their ability to reach outside this local scene. They strategized not only locally but nationally, not only concretely but abstractly, not only in particular but in universal civil terms. In the beginning, this was not so much a strategy as a feeling, a sensibility. There was a lot of fumbling and stumbling, but, from the beginning, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement understood that it was a dualistic direction they must take. What differentiated this new generation was its ability to make the translation, to frame and reframe complaints so that they could leapfrog southern officials and gain the attention of other kinds of whites. Their success at translation was due in part to their skill at reweaving cultural contents, stitching together the tactics of Gandhian nonviolence, Christian narratives of sacrifice and exodus, and the justice rhetorics of American civil society.3

These messages, however, were only as good as the communicative institutions that carried them. They were told in the local, particular context; they had to be transmitted to the national, civil one. Such transmission was by no means a foregone conclusion. It depended on the existence and the reach of communicative institutions of an expansively civil kind. That is why we will begin our explanation of the Civil Rights movement with the white journalists who worked for progressive newspapers and magazines. From the beginning, there was a symbiotic interaction between the social dramas staged by civil rights leaders and the “point men” of the communicative institutions who defined their jobs as interpreting such dramas to the civil sphere. That neither could exist without the other was a recognition, at once simple and profound, that became increasingly conscious and consequential as the black movement grew in influence and civil force.

(p.296) The Battle over Representation: The Intrusion of Northern Communicative Institutions

That a significant number of journalists and their institutions defined their communicative obligation as interpreting the civil rights dramas to the wider, national civil sphere is something to be sociologically understood. For the fact that protest movements take place does not, in itself, guarantee that they will be represented publicly in the mass media, much less that they will be represented in a civil manner that elicits audience sympathy for the movement and possibly identification with it. In white southern civil society, the communicative media were racist, as distorted in their civil pretensions as white public opinion and southern regulatory institutions. Southern white newspapers interpreted events in a framework that justified black exclusion from the civil sphere, an interpretive justification that could proceed in two ways. On the one hand, it could make black exclusion invisible, providing its white audience with deceptive representations of an inclusive, participatory civil sphere. On the other hand, the fact of racial exclusion could be recognized, but the motives and relations of black persons could be constructed in a manner that suggested their inability or unwillingness to participate in civil society, and, indeed, the danger of allowing them to do so.

In his retrospective look at the youthful leaders of the Civil Rights movement, David Halberstam, a former New York Times reporter who covered the South extensively in the 1950s and early 1960s, gestures to the first mode of justification when he describes “the old political correctness in those days” as “both very powerful and very pernicious.”4 I will later call attention to the emphatically evaluative character of this declaration; at this point, however, we are concerned simply with Halberstam’s description of the white southern media’s invisibility strategy, which he describes as “the skillful use of silence at critical times.”

Throughout the South, when blacks gave any demonstration of grievance, there was a decision by consensus—the ruling white oligarchy of the town in concert with the editor of the paper—to take either no note of what had happened, or to write a tiny inoffensive story and bury it somewhere in the middle of the paper.5

(p.297) In terms of representations of the Civil Rights movement, Halberstam describes the results of the invisibility strategy in this way: “If black heads had been cracked during a protest demonstration, then it was…unlikely to make the paper[, and] the [white] community would be spared any reports on what had happened.”6

As the Civil Rights movement heated up, and confrontations between black protesters and southern officials spread throughout the region, representational invisibility gave way to representational distortion. Southern communicative institutions, not entirely but certainly in their vast majority, broadcast representations of the protests that reconstructed the activists’ motives and relations in terms of the discourse of repression, employing these constructions to justify segregated institutions in turn. They did so in official editorials, but also by quoting from, and highlighting as factual and perceptive, the observations about ongoing events offered by southern conservatives and racists as they acted to defend white civil society.

In late 1961, for example, at the height of the confrontation between civil rights activists and local officials in Albany, Georgia, the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, James Gray, appeared on the local television station, in which he owned a controlling interest, to endorse segregation as “a system that has proved over the years to be peaceful and rewarding.” In order to defend this positive evaluation of an obviously antidemocratic institution, Gray described segregation’s black critics in polluting, anticivil categories. Rather than portray the activists as rational, independent, and critical, he represented them as “a cell of professional agitators,” suggesting deceptiveness, thoughtless conformity, and lack of principle. Linking the demonstrators to the enemies of American democracy and contrasting them with the nation’s revolutionary founders, Gray argues that the burgeoning black rebellion “smacks more of Lenin and Stalin than of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.” Contrasting altruistic, religiously inspired motives to instrumental and egoistic ones, Gray tells his viewers that Martin Luther King, the leader of the Albany demonstrations, “has learned that martyrdom can be a highly productive practice for the acquisition of a buck.” Finally, calling for an end to the disruptions, Gray summed up his advice by offering an overarching binary representation that contrasted white civility with black anticivility. “What we need is tolerance,” he asserted, “not tantrum.”7 Seven months later, just before King received (p.298) a sentence of forty-five days in jail for his misdemeanor arrest during the Albany demonstrations, Gray justified this repressive response to the civil conflict in a special front-page editorial in the Albany Herald, the local newspaper which he also owned. Again, he highlighted the antidemocratic motivations of the “agitators,” their “craft and cunning” and their secret “plottings.” Gray flatly declared, “The Negroes are lying.” After so graphically announcing their civil incompetence, Gray went on to link these qualities with American democracy’s most hated, anticivil enemies, equating black complaints about segregation with “the Hitlerian tactic of the ‘Big Lie.’” Gray concluded by dramatically describing the Civil Rights movement as the polluted and dangerous enemy of everything good. “This sordid effort will fail,” he declared, “because its motivation is essentially evil.”8

One year later, in the midst of the decisive contest in Birmingham, Alabama, Gov. George Wallace used the occasion of the legislature’s opening session to broadcast a fierce restatement of this binary. Announcing that “we shall fight agitators, meddlers and enemies of constitutional government,” Wallace constructed the movement for black civil rights as an uncivil danger to the Constitution, the central regulatory institution of American democracy. By establishing this binary, he could declare that the struggle against the black movement was “in reality a fight for liberty and freedom.”9 If the core of civil society were really at stake, it is not surprising that, in Wallace’s view, the polluted character of the movement activists justified repression. In a widely noted characterization and threat reported by the Birmingham Post-Herald, the Alabama governor declared himself to be “tired of lawlessness in Birmingham,” and promised that “whatever it takes will be done to break it up.”10 These representations and sentiments were fervently iterated on the local scene. Birmingham’s mayor, Arthur Hanes, represented the protest’s leader, Martin Luther King, as a “rabble rousing Negro” and “terrorist” and his fellow activists as a “bunch of race agitators.” The city’s most powerful official drew the same repressive conclusion from this discursive destruction, as had the state’s governor, suggesting that the black activists “should be put out of circulation.”11 When members of the city’s more moderate white elite finally settled the bloody conflict, Mayor Hanes furiously described them in an equally anticivil way: “They call themselves negotiators. I call them a bunch of quisling, gutless traitors.”12

Because such symbolic representations had never been successfully challenged before the mid-1950s, they were allowed to stand as cognitive-cum-normative (p.299) descriptions of the distorted civil sphere in the South. That more expansive representations did not emerge to compete with these restricted ones has a straightforward explanation. Such interpretations were not broadly distributed because journalists from communicative institutions in the surrounding civil sphere, the more civilly oriented northern one, simply were not on the scene in the southern states. This lack of physical presence represented a fundamental lack of attention and concern. The emergence of civil rights as a national social movement changed this situation, or, more accurately, the movement’s emergence depended, in some part, on this situation’s being changed. From 1956 on, northern journalists were in the South, attracted by the Montgomery movement that caught the national attention and catapulted Martin Luther King into an influential civil position.

Once the northern journalists were there, they took sides, framing their representations of segregation and the struggle against it in ways that attributed civil competence and rationality to the black activists rather than to the southern whites. The newly arrived northern reporters were aware that they were engaged in a battle with the southern press, that they were waging a war against “the treatment of racial news in Southern newspapers,” as a reporter for the New York Post, Ted Poston, put it in 1966.13 The battle was over symbolic representation, first and foremost, but it was also a struggle to define and maintain what the northern reporters viewed as their independent professional ethics.14 For in attacking the southern media’s categorical pollution of civil rights activists, northern reporters conflated its anticivil politics with professional irresponsibility. More simply put, they identified racist coverage with the failure to tell the truth, the first and most important commandment of contemporary journalism’s ethical code. “The majority of the Southern editors and publishers,” Poston declared, “have been cynically defending a myth that they know to be untrue—white superiority, Negro indolence, and a baseless contention that the region’s magnolia-scented values would triumph over the moral and legal might of the federal government.”15 Professional irresponsibility and anticivil behavior were considered to be one and the same.16

Yet although they disdained the putatively antiprofessional, mythmaking qualities of southern media, these northern reporters did not, in fact, view themselves simply as reporting facts alone. Indeed, just as southern journalism was seen as both antiprofessional and antidemocratic, so did northern (p.300) journalists consider their own commitment to truthful observation and accurate reporting as allowing them to become vehicles for expressing the core values of American civil society. In doing so, they were highly sensitive to the duality of their social position. In 1962, in the midst of Mississippi’s civil rights upheavals, John Herbers, then manager of the state’s United Press Services wire services and later a southern correspondent for the New York Times, linked the quality of news reporting by northern journalists to their being outsiders. This external position, Herbers believed, explained their commitment to the normative legitimacy of desegregation and the regulative efforts to enforce it. “Most newspapers from outside the region,” Herbers wrote, “have played the Southern integration story from the point of view that it—the court-ordered change—is morally right, the law of the land and inevitable.”17 Though Herbers eschews such a morally committed point of view for his own particular type of communicative institution—“the wire services cannot do this and they should not be asked to”—he nonetheless defines his own journalistic role in a manner that emphasizes its commitment to tracking deviations from the sacred values and regulatory controls of the civil sphere. “Wire services can and should maintain a vigilant watch for any violation of individual or group freedoms guaranteed to all citizens of the United States,” Herbers insists, “and report the truth as nearly as it can be ascertained.”18 From the point of view of this highly influential journalist, in other words, what is newsworthy, what should be selected and distributed as accurate and honest social representations, are threats to the ideals of the civil sphere. Once again, journalism’s professional commitment to truth telling is equated with the commitment to, and maintenance of, transparency: the values of honesty, publicness, and openness that are intrinsic to the civil sphere itself.

Nothing more effectively illustrates how duality defined the perspective and behavior of northern communicative institutions during the Civil Rights movement. Journalists felt themselves to be vitally connected to the core of the civil sphere that surrounded Southern racial domination. Thus, in 1966, when the managing editor of Life magazine expressed his hope that future historians would be able to say that “the press of those critical years of the mid-1960s was a great press,” his criteria for greatness perfectly articulated the requirements for civil solidarity. “Wise and deeply human,” it would be a press that “covered the conflict yet allayed it,” whose influence (p.301) “changed angry monologues into reasonable dialogues,” whose judgment “chipped away at the edges of hatred” and “kept in view the larger cause of a democratic society and thereby helped keep it from being rent apart.”19 In the same committed vein, the executive editor of the Chicago Daily News emphasized that reporters could be no more “unbiased” than other American citizens, for “the racial crisis is an issue that no American of this generation can push off into a corner and say with accuracy that it has no personal connection with him.”20 Attacking the “pose of impartiality,” the editor insisted that “any decision to disseminate or not to disseminate news is in itself a partisan act.”21 This journalistic involvement was not only moral and political but emotional and psychological. A liberal journalist working for an independent southern newspaper, noting that “intense emotion was involved,” acknowledged that “it has been difficult for the professional to keep his reporting and his editorializing separated,” reminding his listeners that “reporters and editors and even publishers are human.”22 Herbers agreed. Declaring that “everyone is emotionally involved,” he suggested that it was categorical representation—“the way the news is worded”—that triggered the most passionate sentiments.23

These emotional and moral commitments created among many northern white journalists a deep sense of psychological identification with the struggles of the southern black community. The managing editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch testified, for example, that northern journalists became more and more deeply involved in the black struggles, recounting how “some of us began to try a little harder…to determine the needs, the desires, and the hopes of the Negro community.”24 In fact, it was not entirely accurate to suggest, as I did earlier, that northern journalists took sides in the civil rights struggle only once they were there, in the South and on the scene. Most of them had already taken sides before they arrived; it was precisely their emotional and moral commitments that compelled them to get involved. After describing himself as “a white male, born in rural North Carolina [and] raised in Raleigh,” Fred Powledge acknowledges that “for reasons that I never have been able to understand but never thought of as remarkable, I grew up with an intense dislike for segregation.”25 Despite a secure position as a reporter in New England, this sense of emotional revulsion made Powell “desperate to go south and help cover what clearly was going to be the biggest story of my time.” Thirty years later, after a (p.302) distinguished career that included reporting on southern civil rights struggles for the New York Times, Powell confesses proudly to his continuing sense of commitment and identification: “I was and am…biased in favor of the Movement. More than that, I was and remain completely taken by it. I still believe it is the most important event in American history since Independence.”26

In his sentimental memoir of the youthful participants in the Civil Rights movement, David Halberstam similarly recounts how intense moral and emotional commitments fused with professional ambition and a sense of historical destiny to compel him to “set off to begin my journalistic career in Mississippi” immediately after graduating from college in 1955. One year after Brown v. Board of Education, Halberstam recalls, he had come to believe that “that powerful social forces would now be set into play in the South,” and he wanted “to have a chance to cover them.”27 Halberstam set off for his southern journalistic career carrying his earmarked copy of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, which he describes as “the most important and influential book I had read at the time and probably have read since.”28 Though he claims that there was “very little editorializing in the news columns” that he prepared during his southern stay, and even that the story of the civil rights activists was a story that virtually “told itself,” he makes no effort to conceal the intense sense of identification he experienced with the black protagonists of the struggle.29 Writing of the leaders of the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, Halberstam notes how he was “virtually their own age and very much at ease,” that he “knew and liked” them, and that he “felt considerable sympathy for their aims and their grievances.”30 Halberstam does not hesitate to describe the deep feelings of admiration he experienced for the youthful sit-in leaders, attributing to them great moral stature. “I was impressed by these young people from the start,” he recounts, and he cites their “courage and their dignity and their awesome inner strength.”31 Halberstam closes his narrative by connecting what he calls “the courage and nobility of [such] ordinary people in times of stress” to his own personal commitment to democracy. “No occasion in recent postwar American history,” he writes, has provided “so shining an example of democracy at work…than what happened in those days in the South.”32

(p.303) Translation and Social Drama: Emotional Identification and Symbolic Extension

Informed by the classical model of social movements and its contemporary variants, recent historians and social scientists have tended to construe the Civil Rights movement as a conflict between two organized groups, a battle whose resolution depended upon one side marshaling sufficient resources, power, and force to dominate the other.33 Certainly this was not the case. From Montgomery on, the movement’s success, both locally and nationally, depended upon its ability to establish a solidaristic relation with the broader, less racially distorted civil sphere, which drew its power from geographical regions outside the South.34 Establishing this solidarity depended not on the availability of resources, though these were critically important, but on the movement’s ability to translate its particular concerns, whether those of power, money, race, salvation, earthly dignity, or psychological revenge, into the broader idioms, networks, and institutions of civil society. Solidarity depended on identification, identification depended on publicity, and publicity depended on communication of a certain kind. Insofar as this translation cycle was effective, moreover, its communicative phases were continually punctuated by regulatory responses of a more coercive, though equally civil kind, which took the form of interventions by officeholders who potentially wielded great power. Whether these were officers of the court, such as judges, or officers of the state, such as elected politicians, in the course of the Civil Rights movement these officials of the civil sphere periodically were compelled by great movements of public opinion to intervene against those who wielded racial domination and distorted civil society in the South. Sometimes they did so because, as members of the civil sphere, they were persuaded by the translations the Civil Rights movement produced. Sometimes these officeholders intervened for more instrumental reasons; realizing that members of civil society were changing their minds, they were afraid of being subjected to shifts of civil power and, ultimately, losing their jobs.

The northern communicative media functioned as a kind of membrane for the southern Civil Rights movement, creating a semitransparent envelope that mediated messages the movement projected to its far-away civil audience and the responses this audience projected back to it. Andrew Young, centrally involved with King and movement strategy almost from (p.304) the beginning, spoke about how the civil rights demonstrations aimed to present “a particular injustice before the court of world opinion,” a phrase that points to the duality I have been suggesting here. For a local movement of dominated persons to take full advantage of duality, they needed to speak effectively to the court of world opinion, an accomplishment that would depend on skilled and effective translation. “We had to craft a concise and dramatic message,” Young wrote, one directed to the broad civil audience and, more specifically, to the initial interpreters of that message: the institutions of communication themselves. The first order of business, then, was to ensure that “the demonstrations be understood by the media.”35 Glenn T. Eskew, a contemporary historian who emphasizes the significance of local civil rights movements and who employs the classical social movement frame, acknowledges that “the mainstream media increasingly played a central role in the movement by broadcasting nationally what previously had been ignored as a local story.”36 With this magnifying and crystallizing membrane in place, “no longer did white violence against civil rights activists escape unnoticed.”37

But to understand the process of translation and solidarity, to see how symbolic extension and psychological identification were constructed,38 it is necessary to go beyond the media membrane to the movement itself. Why did the communicative institutions of the North get involved in the South when they had not generally been involved before? It was because of the movement itself. What first attracted journalistic interest, what brought reporters to the South and kept their attention after they arrived, was an extraordinarily compelling social movement, one that was proving itself to be a master of the translating craft. Communicative institutions don’t invent the message; they interpret it and make it available to others. As one activist put the matter during planning discussions for the 1965 Selma campaign, “the press could not be expected to stay around and give the movement the national exposure it must have unless there was some action to photograph and write about.”39 This action had to be of a very specific kind. The media were a stand-in for civil society, articulating its requirements and its perspective in the communicative domain. Publicity was not, in itself, a movement goal; what mattered was publicity of a certain type. It was to the discourses and the institutions of the surrounding civil sphere, and to the possibilities of symbolically mediated civil interactions with its members and representatives, that the Civil Rights movement aimed.

(p.305) In establishing a relationship with the surrounding civil sphere, the Civil Rights movement engaged not only in instrumental but in symbolic action, creating a compelling, arresting, existentially and politically encompassing narrative, a social drama with which the audience, the members of northern civil society, could identify and through which they could vicariously participate.40 It is a fascinating and highly revealing fact of the academic literature on the movement that even those most interested in portraying civil rights leaders and masses as strategic, purposive, practical, and hard-headed continually employ the term “dramatic” to identify the movement’s major events and activities. For example, in his local, “indigenous” approach, Aldon Morris emphasizes the centrality of power and organizational resources in fueling what he calls an “insurgency” by blacks against whites. Yet Morris writes about the 1961 Freedom Rides as an effort by civil rights activists to “provoke dramatic responses,” and he attributes the project’s success to its having “gripped the attention of protest organizations, Southern segregationists, and the society in general.”41 When Morris describes activists’ strategic thinking during the later Birmingham campaign, he recounts that “it was determined…that massive daily demonstrations were needed to dramatize the racist nature of Birmingham.”42 In his detailed discussion of the power struggles that ensued, he recounts how “the drama heightened.”43 Despite Morris’s own commitment to the classical model, in other words, he implicitly acknowledges that the demonstrations were not simply designed instrumentally to achieve the coercive effect of “prevent[ing] the city from operating normally.”44

There are empirical reasons why even those who are most theoretically committed to the classical model seem compelled to employ the term “dramatic.” Civil rights activists felt themselves to be participating in an utterly serious morality play, and they tried as hard as they could to ensure that the drama would be presented to the surrounding civil audience in a manner that would evoke sympathy, generate identification, and extend solidarity. In the late 1970s, James Bevel, one of the movement’s most dedicated nonviolent exemplars, retrospectively explained movement “action” in precisely these terms. “Every nonviolent movement is a dialogue between two forces,” Bevel wrote, “and you have to develop a drama to dramatize the dialogue to reveal the contradictions in the guys you’re dialoguing with within the social context.”45 During the heated days of the social movement itself, participants experienced less a dialogue than a battle, (p.306) one that frightened and stimulated both them and the audience who observed and indirectly experienced it.

How could white northern civil society be there, in the South, yet not be there at the same time? When its physical presence was barely tangible, how could its moral presence be strongly felt? How could its representatives be compelled to intervene in a society toward which they had earlier evinced so little interest and on which they had exercised so little control? This could happen only through a process of emotional identification and symbolic extension. When Bevel thought back to the days of heated conflict, he had it right. At the center of the black movement’s success was its dramatic quality. Aristotle explained that drama can compel identification and catharsis, the working through of emotions. Tragic drama excites in the audience pity and terror, and sympathy for the protagonist’s plight. The progression of protagonist and antagonist can eventually allow catharsis, an emotional working through that affirms not only the existence but the force of higher moral law. The Civil Rights movement was not scripted; it was a social movement, not a text. Nonetheless, the contingent, open-ended nature of its conflicts were symbolically mediated and textually informed. Life imitates art as much as art imitates life.

The Civil Rights movement initiated a deeply serious drama at the heart of American civil society, a drama in which the very meaning and legitimacy of the civil sphere seemed to be at stake. It was a contest of “citizens” and “enemies.” The innocent and weak were pitted against the evil and strong, and the forces of good, unexpectedly but persistently, emerged triumphant. This outcome made the process more melodramatic than tragic, yet despite its optimism about ultimate victory, melodrama shares with tragedy an emphasis on suffering and the excitation of pity and terror. In fact, the most dramatic moments in the decade-long struggle of the movement for civil repair were not the ultimate victories but the heartbreaking, if temporary, defeats. The movement’s leaders became heroes only because they first were victims, because they came to triumph and power only after experiencing tragedy and domination. The leaders and their followers could be redeemed, and the possibility of civil progress affirmed, if they maintained their civil dignity in defeat; if they refrained from anticivil violence, aggression, dishonesty, and deception; if they kept faith with civil good in the face of anticivil domination and the temptation of despair.

(p.307) The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Martin Luther King and the Drama of Civil Repair

Dramatic stories need heroes, not only enemies. The abstract discourse of civil society needs to become concrete. When Martin Luther King delivered his first, extraordinary speech as the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in December 1955 at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Alabama, he fulfilled both these demands. He concretized and embodied a new, race-oriented version of the drama of American democracy, becoming a courageous protagonist in a story about progress that would be narrated not only by King himself but also by grassroots leaders and the masses they inspired. He was taking the first step in a social drama that would break the continuity of political time and thrust the civil sphere into a separated, ten-year-long liminal space.

King was committed to practical things, despite his upbringing as an elite member of the black civil sphere. He was given to socialist leanings; he condemned economic inequality and poverty, and he fiercely resented white domination and privilege. Yet King was also deeply attuned to the symbolic status of protest in civil societies and to the critical duality of civil oppression.46 For him, symbolic performance was not only a means to some other end, but an end in itself. In 1964, after the success of the Birmingham campaign, he explained what the movement had learned from its earlier failure in Albany. “We have never since scattered our efforts,” King remarked, “but have focused upon specific symbolic objectives.”47 The symbolic objectives aimed to connect the particularity of the black movement to the surrounding civil sphere—in King’s words, “to appeal to the conscience of the Congress” to “bring the necessary moral pressure to bear” and to “arouse the federal government.”48 Because of this sensibility, King was able to translate what could have been viewed simply as a social, political, and racial conflict over the distribution of resources, centering on aggression and struggles over structural position, into a moral confrontation in which the excluded and denigrated minority won legitimate authority and those who excluded them lost out.

King did not translate only from black civil society to white. He also translated between black and black, mediating between the utopian elements within the black civil sphere and the community’s more pessimistic, self-denigrating (p.308) beliefs. A recent editor of King’s papers has described his gift “for dramatizing lofty moral ideas in vivid, down-to-earth word pictures” that “made his oratory irresistible…to all segments of the black community.”49 Drawing from the black civil sphere’s sacred and secular traditions of universalism, King inspired members of a downtrodden and dominated racial caste to project themselves into the central categories of the surrounding civil society. Those who listened to his rhetoric and followed his actions could envision themselves as actors in the great narratives of historical liberation. They could identify with the Jewish people’s exodus from Pharaoh’s Egypt—a central biblical parable of black social gospel—or with their newly emancipated racial forebears in the first Reconstruction. As a veteran organizer from the movement’s early days recalled, when King “talked about Moses, and leading the people out, and getting the people into the place where the Red Sea would cover them, he would just make you see them. You believed it.”50 Another leader made the mythical identification even more explicit: “Let’s face it, a lot of our people thought that Martin Luther King walked on water.”51 One former high school organizer for the 1960 sit-in movements described King’s connection to the members of the black civil society this way: “It was clear that they loved him. It was clear that they respected him as a leader and it was clear that they would follow him to the end if he wanted ’em to, you know.”52

Not by any stretch of the imagination did Martin Luther King create the Civil Rights movement. It existed before him, and after his death as well. I am neither advocating a great man theory of history, nor downplaying the dedication and influence of other black leaders or the critical resistance, over long periods of time, of the members of black civil society themselves.53 My argument, rather, is that, in order to understand the unprecedented success of the Civil Rights movement between 1955 and 1965, we must understand its discursive achievements, and it is impossible to do so without closely examining the role of Martin Luther King. He was the movement’s critical mediating figure, translating between the unkept promises of white civil society and the hopes and anxieties of the black civil sphere.54 It was in this dualistic role that, more than anyone else, he helped to create the “new Negro” in the South. During the decade-long struggle for civil rights, King often rhapsodized about changes in the identity of his people, who had “replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity.” King wrote that “in Montgomery we walk in a new way. We hold our (p.309) heads in a new way.”55 What he was pointing to here was the increasing interconnection between the dominant and dominated civil communities and the alternatives to subordination this allowed. As King mediated and translated the one to the other, the symbolic repertoires of northern white civil society became even more accessible to members of the black civil sphere. After recalling that “it was not easy to communicate effectively with the entire black community in Birmingham,” Andrew Young testified that “Martin’s arrest put the Birmingham movement in the headlines of the national news, and that in turn aided our efforts to organize locally.”56 Whenever King appeared on the scene of a local civil rights struggle, according to Morris, “a larger number of people were mobilized to protest and fill up the jails.”57

Even as he crystallized the promise of civil ideals to black Americans and intensified their identification with the nation’s civil ideals, Martin Luther King came also to symbolize America’s civil promises to whites. It was not only for blacks but for tens of millions of northern whites that King became the most authoritative and compelling interpreter of the civil core of the United States.58 In an extraordinary departure from the racist history of this democratic nation, a black leader came to represent, and reinterpret, the civil sphere of white society to white people themselves.59

How was King able to accomplish this performative action? There is the matter, of course, of his personal gifts. He possessed courage, high intelligence, and sensibilities and strategic abilities that were sharply attuned to the cultural and political currents swirling around him.60 There was his unusual ability and desire to lead and inspire other men and women. There is also the matter of his background, his roots in African American social gospel, his secure position in the black civil elite, his wide and cosmopolitan learning, and his personal experiences in the northern white civil sphere. Drawing upon all these resources and his own personal gifts, King was able to project, crystallize, and translate the innermost structures of the discourse of American civil society.

King understood the community of the United States as in a state of tension, pulled between the binary forces of good and evil, between civil justice and injustice. This almost tactile sense of the two poles of the civil tradition and of the need to situate the Civil Rights movement in terms of the tension between them, characterized his entrance into the wider civil sphere in Montgomery, Alabama, and it animated every one of his later, (p.310) much more famous and widely watched interventions as well. As he confided to Glenn Smiley, a civil rights activist for the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation in the early days of the Montgomery campaign:

As we look at the problem, we see that the real tension is not between the Negro citizens of Montgomery and the white citizens, but it is a conflict between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and if there is a victory—and there will be a victory—the victory will not be merely for the Negro citizens and a defeat for the white citizens, but it will be a victory of justice and a defeat of injustice. It will be a victory for goodness in its long struggle with the forces of evil.61

The most vivid early public representation of this vision can be found in King’s first speech as MIA president. This entire oratory was cast in dualistic terms. Facing the crowded church and the more than ten thousand black Montgomery residents listening with the help of loudspeakers outside, King started with the general and universal. He tells his audience that they have created this protest movement, not because they are black but because they have the status of American citizens: “We are here in a general sense, because first and foremost—we are American citizens.”62 Their status inside the American civil sphere, King insists, is what allows people to use the promise of civil society as a weapon in their struggle: “We are determined to apply our citizenship—to the fullness of its means.” From this lofty universalism, King moves immediately to the particularities of time and place: “But we are here [also] in a specific sense—because of the bus situation in Montgomery.”

It is from the perspective of this tension between the universal and particular, between the possibilities of the civil sphere and the present state of its instantiation, that King introduces the particular incident that had triggered the Montgomery bus boycott and, indeed, the Civil Rights movement itself:

Just the other day—just last Thursday to be exact—one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens—but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—was taken from a bus—and (p.311) carried to jail and arrest—because she refused to give up—to give her seat to a white person.

King emphasizes the injustice of this arrest by insisting that Rosa Park’s motives for not giving up her bus seat were civil ones. “And since it had to happen, I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks,” King said, “for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character; nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.” King now moves back to the universal from the particular, generalizing from this specific incident to the whole situation of southern black people, to their domination and to their feelings that the promises of civil sphere have been betrayed: “And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” Speaking graphically and metaphorically about the tension between the promises and the instantiation of American civil society, describing it as an almost physical divide, King tells his audience, “There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair.” Blacks are angry that they have been pushed from the category of civil good, which they deserve both by virtue of their civil status and their personal qualities, to the side of darkness and evil. “There comes a time,” King declares, “when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and [are] left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.”

Yet, despite this anger at the manner in which the black community has been pushed outside the category of the good, King wants to affirm that this Montgomery protest will abide by civil norms. “Now let us say that we are not here advocating violence,” he declares. “We have overcome that.” As putative participants in the civil sphere, blacks need not resort to violence; they can start a social movement. “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening,” King assures his listeners, “is the weapon of protest.” Duality is what allows the protest weapon. The affirmation of being outside of civil society but inside it at the same time is, for King, the key to legitimating the civil rights protest and to affirming its identification with the wider civil sphere.

If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation—we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of (p.312) a totalitarian regime—we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.

Yet, even as the MIA stands firmly with the civil mandates of American democracy, King narrates its opponents in the southern white community as defiling democracy in an anticivil way. He insists on the contrast between black civility and white southern anticivility. “There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery,” King affirms, referring to the intimidating tactics of the racist Ku Klux Klan. “There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and murdered,” he predicts. He promises that “there will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation.” King concludes by appealing explicitly to the utopian nature of civil promises and to the sacred and secular authorities upholding them, authorities admired by black and white Americans alike.

If we are wrong—the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong—god Almighty is wrong! If we are wrong—Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth! If we are wrong—justice is a lie. And we are determined here in Montgomery—to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.63

There had been an ongoing protest in Montgomery, but it became transformed when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955. Her arrest triggered the creation of the MIA and the election of King as its leader. Though the movement began and ended as a bus boycott, it reached deep into the heart of the distorted civil sphere. Bus segregation presented racial domination in its most highly visible form, that of civil interaction. Nowhere was the distortion of the promise of civil society so public, tactile, direct, and repetitive.64 The battle against this anticivil domination involved tactics and strategy, and it depended on money, networks, and organization. But more symbolic elements were also involved. King needed to translate the local battle into a conflict within the broader civil sphere. It was crucial to project southern repression into the reflecting mirror of the surrounding northern civil sphere. Shortly after the initiation of the (p.313) Montgomery protest, according to a recent historian of the movement, King began to speak widely in church and community rallies in the North, “not only to raise funds but also to solidify a growing community of black and white activists around the country.”65 He reached into northern and southern black civil society, forging ties with the “established black leadership network of preachers, politicians, educators, and journalists,” even as he reached over the racial divide into the most critical sectors of the surrounding white sphere, forging alliances with “white liberals and progressives in pacifist, labor, and religious circles.”66 These initial forays into northern civil society struck many observers as arousing an unexpectedly enthusiastic response. One northern newspaper, describing the atmosphere generated by King’s first fund-raiser, in New York City, recorded “the kind off welcome [the city] usually reserves for the Brooklyn Dodgers.”67 This was precisely what King’s southern white opponents had blithely ignored—in the words of another student of the Montgomery campaign, “the possibility that their show would not play [as] well to audiences beyond the horizon.”68

Not surprisingly, less than two months had passed of the Montgomery movement before the northern media directly intervened. They sent journalists to cover the protest, and the reporters’ emphatically civil interpretations made Montgomery into an event.69 The national media projected King’s message of redemption and reform back to the northern audience as news. Newsweek highlighted King’s eloquent effort to universalize the faraway racial struggle. Quoting his statement that “one of the glories of America” was “the right to protest for right,” Newsweek framed Montgomery in civil rather than racial or economic terms. “This bus situation,” King told the magazine, “was the precipitating factor, but there is something much deeper. There is this deep determination…to rise up against these oppressive forces.”70 Time also placed the black protesters inside the sacred narrative of civic emancipation. Reporting on King’s trial in April 1956, the magazine began with a portrait of how racial domination had long denied blacks’ civil capacity: “For one hundred years Negroes walked soft and spoke low around Alabama’s Montgomery Country courthouse.” Now that a real protest had begun, however, things were different, and the debilitating tension between ideals and reality could be criticized. The tramping of their feet “sounded heavy in the dingy downstairs corridors,” and their voices “were raised in pain and anger.”


A Negro crowd roared hope…. After a lifetime of taking it quietly, their emotions welled up and overflowed in their testimony. Some began talking before defense lawyers asked for their names; others could hardly be stopped.71

When the bus boycott had triumphed, in December 1956, King congratulated movement activists and followers on their “dignity, sanity, and reasonableness” throughout the campaign.72 The northern media of communication, following King’s lead, employed similarly civil discourse to explain the protest movement’s success, writing that broadening solidarity, not divisive conflict or aggression, had been its fundamental goal. The media broadcast this interpretation by configuring King as a dramatic hero. Newsweek underscored King’s modesty and gentleness in victory, how he advised his followers, “don’t go back to the buses and push people around…. We’re just going to sit where there’s a seat.”73 Time explicitly constructed this humility as a sign of King’s civil capacity, writing that King “was too wise to be triumphant” and quoting his insistence that “all along, we have sought to carry out the protest on high moral standards.”74 Writing retrospectively of King’s demeanor when his home was bombed months earlier, in the heat of the dispute, Time stressed even more strongly his commitment to the norms and institutions of civil society. The editors described how King had confronted the crowd of furious black supporters who had gathered outside his burned home and who thirsted for revenge. They quoted King’s admonition to “please be peaceful” and his insistence on solidarity and its legal regulation:

We believe in law and order. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.

As an indication that King’s movement possessed the potential for civil repair, Time concluded by quoting a white policeman who had been on the scene: “I was terrified. I owe my life to that nigger preacher and so do all the other white people who were there.”75 In January 1957, a month after the movement’s triumph, Time completed its civil construction of Martin Luther King. Putting his picture on its cover, they took the first step toward making this symbol into an icon.76 At the center of American popular culture, such (p.315) memorialization is reserved only for those figures who elicit the most intense public admiration. In a story titled “Personalities of 1956: Stars in Their Own Orbits,” Time’s editors described King as “what many a Negro—and, were it not for his color, many a white—would like to be.”77

King’s early performance on the civil sphere’s public stage already gave some presentiment of how this black leader could embody central themes not only from the New Testament but from the Old. His iconic representation of these themes deepened with the passage of time. A critical episode in this process of sanctification occurred in the year following the Montgomery victory. While autographing copies of Stride toward Freedom, his book-length account of that earlier campaign, King was stabbed in the chest by an emotionally unstable African American woman. Dramatically recounting how the blade had only “narrowly miss[ed] the critical aorta near the heart,” Time treated the assassination attempt as a premonition of King’s mortality and martyrdom. Coming on the heels of the magazine’s representation of King as a popular icon, its account of the black leader’s mental and physical response to the attack amplified his larger-than-life status. Time called King a “hero.” Not only had he “escaped gun and bomb blasts in Alabama,” but, while lying gravely injured in a Harlem hospital, King had remained “still conscious and calm.” Consciousness and calmness, of course, are central categories that affirm the discourse of the good in American civil society.78

After the great victory in Montgomery, this incident and others equally dramatic and dramatized lay ahead of King. What he had done already, however, was quite enough to create a movement for civil rights. Many practical things became possible after Montgomery. Drawing on church organizations and the little civil rights movements that already were ongoing in cities and villages throughout the South, King and his lieutenants formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and large sums of money were raised to staff this network in the North as well as in the South. These organizational efforts created a “material” basis for linking veterans of earlier protests, and for exciting and recruiting younger generations. These new adherents formed a cadre that would organize the massively publicized demonstrations in the years ahead and the hundreds of confrontations that were not selected and highlighted by the national press. These organizational networks were critically important, but it is important to remember that they were made possible by King’s translation of the discourse of civil society, (p.316) by the psychological identification and symbolic extension this mediation allowed for blacks and for whites. King had instantiated a movement of black protest in the symbolic center of the civil sphere for the first time in American history. In doing so, he had made it possible for white Americans to identify with the humiliations and hopes of blacks. Some whites began to feel as if they, too, were participating in the “freedom struggle.”

Only with such identification would there develop the possibility of white indignation over southern violation of black rights. As we will see in the chapters following, it was the violation and physical degradation of black activists by southern officials and the shock and indignation this produced that constituted the true dramas of the movement. At the cultural level, this degradation would eventually be experienced by northern whites as a profanation of their sacred values, and the outrage they expressed against it would trigger an effort to protect their traditions in turn. At the psychological level, attacks on black activists were experienced by many northern whites as a violation of their own sense of self, and they expressed outrage in order to affirm their own identities. At the same time, these expressions of shock and indignation were socially oriented symbolic actions. Their aim was to force regulative intervention. Eventually, they succeeded. This dialectic of communication and regulation determined the post-Montgomery movement for civil rights.


(1.) That southern whites defeated with physical force earlier and more direct black efforts to gain power is demonstrated by the correlation between local community organizing and black lynchings in the South between the 1890s and the 1950s. See Payne’s discussion in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, pp. 7–15 and p. 444 n. 2. Payne (pp. 34ff) shows that during the efforts to register black voters in the Mississippi Delta region, whites responded, both in their official capacities and as members of racist groups, with threats and eventually with armed violence. Though these efforts were not sufficient to intimidate every organizer, Payne’s research reveals that they were, in fact, usually sufficient to put a strong damper on the ability of the most courageous organizers to effectively reach into the wider black civil community—for the simple fact that ordinary people were afraid for their livelihoods and their lives. Payne’s account of a series of lynchings in Mississippi between 1930 and 1950 shows “how tenuous Black life was.” He writes: “The point was that there did not have to be a point; black life could be snuffed out on whim, you could be killed because some ignorant white man didn’t like the color of your shirt or the way you drove a wagon. Mississippi Blacks had to understand that viscerally” (Light of Freedom, p. 15). It is important, for the present argument, to realize that this pattern remained unchanged even during the days of the Civil Rights movement. In the early 1960s, before the movement’s success finally compelled direct federal intervention in the South. the pattern of lynchings continued, despite massive organizing on local levels throughout the South.

(2.) I use the terms “big” and “little” not to denigrate the latter but to get to the kind of distinction Robert Redfield made when he introduced the distinction between big and little traditions in premodern societies (Little Community, and Peasant Society and Culture). While acknowledging the integrity of local traditions, Redfield pointed to the broader patterns of culture and regulation over extended periods of time.

Payne’s fine-grained research into local movements in the Mississippi Delta can be read as descriptions of the delimited effects of the grassroots efforts by local movements of southern blacks to achieve self-defense, voting, and more social equality—insofar as these movements were not connected to the larger, national, extralocal scene. As Payne shows, there were continuing waves of such efforts from the 1890s on. These local movements contributed to the morale of the dominated black communities in the counterpublic spheres from which they sprang. In this way, they helped to lay the basis for the “big” organizing efforts of the SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the years to come. At the same time, one must emphasize, in a manner that Payne does not, that these earlier confrontations on the local level usually had little “echo” effect outside their immediate region. They typically were not reported by the white press, and until the late 1950s and early 1960s the causes for which they struggled were not usually picked up and carried by progressive groups outside, nor even by movements in other regions of Mississippi, let alone in other southern or northern states. For a contrasting illustration of the tight connection between grass roots struggles on the local level and the nationally organized civil rights movement at a later time, and how that interaction allowed such local struggles eventually to be memorialized in the civil society of the American nation, see the photographic and documentary exhibition by Sue (Abram) Sojourner, “The Some People of That Place: 1960s Holmes Co. Mississippi—The Local People and Their Civil Rights Movement,” Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania, February 1–28, 2006. According to the exhibit catalog: “All photographs were taken in Holmes County, Mississippi, in 1968–1969, which was five years after the first local people began organizing and attending Freedom Meetings, and started making voter registration attempts…Sue Sojourner and her late husband Henry Lorenzi lived and worked for five years as civil rights workers in Holmes. They were called ‘white outside agitators’ by the local whites. While they mostly worked to help local leaders to build a grassroots organization for voter registration, political education, and running for public office, Sue Sojourner also realized the importance of documenting that historic time with camera, pen, and tape recorder. Thirty years later, she assembled ‘The Some People’ exhibition for the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. Since 1999, the show has grown and traveled to colleges, universities, community centers, and historical and philanthropic institutions in the South, Midwest, and East.”

(3.) For the concept of reweavings, see Lara, Feminist Narratives.

(4.) Halberstam, Children, p. 723.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid. “To know that period of the South,” recounts Eugene Patterson, a journalist who worked for the Atlanta Constitution during the Civil Rights movement, “is to know that it was frozen in silence.” This remark is reported in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, p. 368. Raines compiled this book of interviews from many of the primary actors in the Civil Rights movement. Like Halberstam, Raines, who eventually assumed positions as editorial page editor and then as managing editor of the New York Times, represents another in a long string of now-prestigious journalists who began their careers by remaining in, relocating, or returning to the South to cover movement activities for progressive newspapers.

(7.) Quoted in Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 554.

(8.) Ibid., p. 600.

(9.) Quoted in Dorman, We Shall Overcome, p. 154. Like the other progressive northern journalists who published widely read books on the movement, Dorman drew upon his daily reporting on the Civil Rights movement events for a northern newspaper, in his case the Long Island paper Newsday.

(10.) Quoted in Eskew, But for Birmingham, p. 282.

(11.) Quoted in Dorman, We Shall Overcome, p. 166.

(12.) Ibid., p. 161.

(13.) Poston, “American Negro and Newspaper Myths.” Poston’s remarks, and those of several others quoted below, occurred in the context of a national symposium titled “The Racial Crisis and the News Media,” sponsored by the Freedom of Information Center of the University of Missouri and cosponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. The very existence of such an event at the height of the growing national polarization over civil rights demonstrates the centrality of media representation during that time.

(14.) In addition to its cultural and professional implications, or, more accurately perhaps, precisely because of them, this “war” also had a physical dimension. “Mississippi could be deadly,” recounts Claude Sitton, a former wire services and New York Times reporter, about his years covering the movement in the South. He continues, in an interview with Raines:

They’d kill ya over there. And they did…. People were killed up there at Oxford when Jim Meredith was admitted. I was there…. One of ’em, a French reporter, was actually executed. I mean, he was shot in the back of the head. He was taken down right off the campus…made to kneel behind a tree, and was shot in the back of the head…pure out-and-out execution…. It was like crossin’ no-man’s-land to get from a motel off the campus where I was filing my story by telephone, through the rioters, and then up to the administration building where they had Meredith. (My Soul Is Rested, p. 380)

Richard Valeriani, an NBC News correspondent during those years, recounts how a white southerner assaulted him during a conflict in Montgomery, Alabama:

The townspeople were out in force. They harassed anybody trying to cover it, sprayed black paint on the lenses of the cameras, and generally jostled us and intimidated us…. Somebody walked up behind me and hit me with an axe handle. Luckily he came up with a roundhouse swing rather an overhead swing, so that it caught me in the back of the head, where all the bone is, rather than the top of the skull. And there was a loud clunk…Somebody walked up to me…and said, “Do you need a doctor?” And I, in a daze…said, “Yes, I think I do. I’m bleeding.” And then he looked at me, he stared me in the face with this ugly look, and he said, “We don’t have doctors for people like you.” (My Soul Is Rested, pp. 371–372)

(15.) Poston, “The American Negro,” p. 63.

(16.) This identification of professional autonomy with the maintenance of the ideals and structures of an independent civil sphere is a tendency that journalists share with other institutional elites in complex societies that contain a vital civil sphere. See Alexander, “Mass News Media in Systemic, Historical, and Comparative Perspective.”

(17.) Herbers, “Reporters in the Deep South,” p. 227.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) G. P. Hunt, “Racial Crisis and the News Media,” p. 11.

(20.) Fanning, “Media: Observer or Participant,” p. 107.

(21.) Ibid., p. 108.

(22.) Boone, “Southern Newsmen and Local Pressure,” p. 47.

(23.) Herbers, “Reporters in the Deep South,” p. 225.

(24.) Bertelson, “Keeper of a Monster,” p. 61.

(25.) Powledge, Free at Last? pp. xix–xx.

(26.) Ibid., p. xx.

(27.) Halberstam, Children, p. 721.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Ibid., p. 725.

(30.) Ibid., pp. 724–725.

(31.) Ibid., p. 725.

(32.) Ibid., pp. 726–727. In the autobiographical introduction to his own book on the Civil Rights movement, Howell Raines similarly offers personal testimony to the awe he experienced for civil rights activists’ “sacrifice and unfathomable courage,” acknowledging his intense identification and admiration for what he regards as the transcendent moral vision of Martin Luther King: “If he had lived, Martin Luther King, Jr., would see a South still burdened with inequities in housing, education, and distribution of wealth. But I believe he would look beyond these problems to see a region changed in a way that millions of us who lacked his vision would have thought impossible twenty years ago. He would see a South where we are all free at last to become what we can” (My Soul Is Rested, pp. 23–24). The phrase “free at last” reproduces the conclusion of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March on Washington in 1963, a speech that has since become one of the immortal documents of the American civil tradition. See chapter 14.

(33.) Though one finds this strategic and power-centered approach throughout the three disciplines that have been responsible for the brunt of contemporary research into the movement for civil rights—sociology, history, and political science—it becomes articulated in terms of different disciplinary exemplars and theories.


Aldon Morris, a sociologist, introduces his study of the origins of the Civil Rights movement—invaluable in so many respects—with the explanation that his book is about how “black protest” was generated simply by “American racism and exploitation,” not by the possibilities that the civil sphere surrounding this domination implied. Ignoring duality and solidary communication, Morris asserts that “the word that best expresses the spirit of this period was ‘confrontation.’” Drawing metaphors from war rather than from fragmented civil relations, he promises to discuss the early “battles” of the movement and how these battles “forced” authorities to capitulate. These battles were based on the ability of organizers to “transform indigenous resources into power resources” and to apply them, in an instrumental fashion, “in conflict situations to accomplish political ends.” What the movement had to face in order to make these accomplishments was “state power and widespread repression,” without, evidently, any possibility of interpenetration by an environing civil sphere (Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, pp. ix–xii).

Among sociological treatments of the Civil Rights movement, the study most often cited alongside A. Morris’s pioneering work is Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–70. Because McAdam employed fewer primary source materials—Morris conducted a number of extraordinarily valuable interviews with movement participants less than twenty years after the movement’s denouement—Political Process has been less influential in the historiography of the Civil Rights movement. Yet its more explicitly conceptual focus has made it more influential in transforming the Civil Rights movement into a valuable sociological case study for discussions about the viability of the classical model in contemporary social movement theorizing and research. Though McAdam develops a revision of the classical model that focuses less exclusively on resources than on “opportunities,” his account of the Civil Rights movement follows the same focus on power and self-interest at the expense of communication, solidarity, and duality, and is just as relentlessly instrumental in the logic it employs. According to McAdam, it is the “structural power” (Political Process, p. 37) of excluded groups that provides them with their “leverage” for social change, power they deploy as “negative inducements” (p. 30) vis-à-vis opponents. Shifts in the “power discrepancy” between these protest groups and their opponents make success more likely, thus allowing “net increases in the political leverage” and “raising the cost of repression” (p. 43), a cost that can independently be raised by the employment of nonviolent protest methods (pp. 39, 56). If elites eventually do respond to protests from below, it is only because they have calculated the costs of continuing their efforts to repress it, which at an earlier point were equally rational. If positive responses are forthcoming from the dominators, these represent an effort at “cooptation” that can cut the cost of “disruption” by forcing protest into “institutional channels” (p. 28). Shifts in public (p.639) opinion may play a role by leading elites to make new calculations about the costs of repression (p. 159). This recalculation also may be encouraged by “cognitive liberation” within some segments of the ruling elite. Stimulated not by symbolic change but in response to changing social conditions (p. 49), this cognitive shift has the effect of creating more “optimistic” calculations of risks versus gains (p. 34). It is important to add, however, that some of McAdam’s later empirical work on the Civil Rights movement, especially his Freedom Summer, seems to fundamentally contradict the kind of theoretical logic that informs this earlier agenda-setting writing and his later conceptually oriented discussions.

The most recent sociological approach to the Civil Rights movement, building upon McAdam’s political process model but focusing it on a different empirical cause, takes the refusal to acknowledge the autonomy and influence of the civil sphere in a new direction. This is the argument that the federal government’s civil rights reforms emerged not simply from local power politics but as a response to the international conflict of the Cold War. In “The Effect of the Cold War on African-American Civil Rights: America and the World Audience, 1945–1968,” John David Skrentny connects McAdam’s political process model to a neoinstitutionalist perspective, arguing that it was fear of losing international legitimacy, and ultimately power, that led certain collective actors, particularly the State Department and the president, to be sensitive to racial domination and eventually to argue for its repair. Though pointing to a normative environment—the “world acceptance of rights” (p. 262)—Skrentny locates this environment not inside the civil sphere of northern society but, rather, outside the nation-state. It was, he writes, only “American engagement with that audience” (p. 262, emphasis added)—the world audience—that caused reforms to be made. In fact, it was not even the American state structure per se but only certain groups within it, those responsible vis-à-vis its foreign environment. Thus, because Congress was “notoriously isolationist in the first half of the twentieth century,” it “showed less engagement and less sensitivity for the world audience and was the most conservative of the three branches of government on civil rights” (p. 246). Skrentny explains the difference between southerners and northerners on the race issue as stemming from the fact that “local audiences in the Deep South states tended not to be concerned with world opinion” (p. 243); only because they had no engagement with foreign policy, in other words, did Southern officials lack interest in racial justice. This differential engagement with the extranational community explains why federal officials chose not to resort to repression and violence. “This being the case, the White House handled demonstrations and violence with conciliation and positive rights gains, rather than repression” (pp. 262, 263).

Skrentny downplays, in other words, the existence of the northern white civil sphere, and the role within it of public opinion, and communicative and regulative institutions. Like so many other sociological approaches to social movements, he (p.640) ignores the democratic dimension of political life. But this theoretical denial leads to some empirical problems. Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, are presumed to be as responsive to the movement as Kennedy and Johnson (pp. 251, 261), and early Kennedy as responsive as later Kennedy. Despite occasional qualifications, Skrentny even suggests that the reformist impulses of the Supreme Court and the antireformist politics of the bloc of conservative congressmen and senators are linked to their differential relation to this foreign threat (p. 279 n. 31). He does not consider the possibility that the demands of the Cold War were continually referenced not because of instrumental concerns with losing prestige but because the rhetoric of international competition provided a particularly provocative symbolic container for the much more deeply institutionalized cultural themes of American civil life. Ultimately, as I have suggested in chapter 6, the instrumental and sometimes elitist logic of neoinstitutional theory does not differentiate between democratic and antidemocratic organizations. Skrentny treats the U.S. state as a bureaucratic oligarchy—like any other organization—influenced not by its members but by other oligarchic organizations competing with it from outside.

Within the historical discipline, a similar kind of “classical model” has inspired many recent students of the movement to concentrate on local histories of grassroots organizing at the expense of national movements and nationally known leaders. Two of the most important such studies are Payne’s Light of Freedom and Eskew’s But for Birmingham. In the historiographic essay attached as an appendix to Light of Freedom (pp. 437–438), Payne excoriates what he calls “uncritical top down” history as “King-centric” and “Kennedy-centric,” and as “White History, history where the patterns of selection and emphasis are consistent with the underlying vision of history that has always been most comfortable to the socially privileged.” For a brief discussion of the theoretical and empirical limitations of this approach, see note 2 above, which I amplify in notes in chapters 13 and 14. For his part, Eskew views his own densely researched monographic account of Birmingham as an alternative both to “top down” and “bottom up” studies (But for Birmingham, p. 343 n. 18), a perspective that might have allowed him to capture the ambiguity of social movements which are structured by duality. In fact, Eskew does acknowledge, at certain points, the role of interpretive processes, publicity, and symbolic mediation. Nonetheless, he resolutely portrays the outcome of the Birmingham conflict in terms of the movement’s instrumental power vis-à-vis the elite’s, a power that eventually allowed the local movement to win by splitting the economic from the political elite (see chap. 13). Such an argument amounts to the kind of “last instance” argument suggested by Friedrich Engels in his late efforts to simultaneously defend causal complexity and Marxian economic determinism. Eskew emphasizes, for example, the movement’s successful appeal to the material interests of one fragment of the city’s capitalist class, the postindustrial fragment that, he believes, felt it could dispense with the racial servility demanded by the objective interests of the old (p.641) industrial elite. He describes “Bull Connor’s brutal attempt to suppress the protests,” an attempt that ultimately was not successful, as the logical product of “Birmingham’s industrial heritage with its peculiar socioeconomic and political composition” (p. 12). Simultaneously speculative and resolutely determinist, this argument also leads Eskew to argue that the Birmingham campaign, and indeed the Civil Rights movement more generally, actually failed as a radical movement. He sees it as a bourgeois movement led by representatives of the “old Negro leadership class” that reinforced, rather than truly challenged, the power structure of American society. The movement demanded “incorporation into an inherently unequal system, as opposed to transforming the system to make it more equitable” (p. 312). In terms of the perspective I am developing here, however, this judgment fails to address the real if fragmented status of the civil sphere and the possibility for reforms to substantively repair it.

In political science, the approach to the Civil Rights movement that corresponds to the theoretical logic of the classical model in sociology and the local model in history is rational choice theory. Dennis Chong’s work illustrates how this approach—often called the collective action model—has been applied to the movement for civil rights. See D. Chong, “All-or-Nothing Games in the Civil Rights Movement” and Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement.

Taken together, these three disciplinary approaches to the Civil Rights movement constitute a kind of social scientific application of the narrow version of counterpublic theory that I criticized in the preceding chapter. The problem is the failure to conceptualize properly that “duality” not only allows dominated actors to reach outside their particularized public but provides them, to one degree or another, with the resources to make these appeals effective. By describing his sociological approach as an “indigenous” perspective, Morris implicitly makes the connection between the classical social movement model he develops, the “bottom up” new local history, and the treatment of the black counterpublic as an entirely separate, purely antagonistic force vis-à-vis white civil society.

(34.) In a literal sense, these regions were not simply northern; this designation, rather, is a metaphor for those regions that, unlike the old southern Confederacy, did not experience slavery. This includes regions to the West and North of the old southern bloc.

(35.) A. Young, Easy Burden, pp. 207–208.

(36.) Eskew, But for Birmingham, p. 23. Eskew misleadingly suggests, however, that the media’s role became more important as the movement developed. The media were central from the beginning, for it was the duality of racial oppression that made the Civil Rights movement possible, and the media were a signal expression of the environing civil sphere.

(37.) Eskew, But for Birmingham, p. 23.

(38.) For an extended theoretical discussion of how emotional identification and cultural extension are central to expanding moral understanding in a fragmented social order, see Alexander, “Social Basis of Moral Universalism.

(39.) Quoted in Garrow, Protest at Selma, p. 224. This important early work by a political scientist, whose later biography of Martin Luther King, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference, won the Pulitzer Prize, demonstrates how local and national foci must be combined if the quintessential duality of the Civil Rights movement is to be understood. In this discussion of the relative importance of local versus national, both among actual social actors and among historians and social scientists themselves, the term “national” must be conceptually reinterpreted as a cipher for “civil.” As I have suggested throughout this book—see esp. chapters 3 and 8—in democratic or even democratizing societies, reference is often made to the immanent obligations of the civil sphere by speaking of the nation. The latter can assume a concrete identity that provides material for mythical narratives, icons, and metaphors of collective identity. Such references can, in other words, evoke universalistic, not “nationalistic” or particularistic criteria. Throughout the Civil Rights movement, for example, references to “American” traditions and values were often much less particularistic and anticivil than universalistic and civil.

(40.) As I mentioned in chapter 4, the theoretical rationale for this performative perspective is presented in Alexander, “Cultural Pragmatics” and elaborated in Alexander, Giesen, and Mast, Social Performance.

(41.) A. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, pp. 231–232. Overflowing with richly textured empirical reconstructions of primary data, including in-depth interviews with movement participants, this book remains a vital resource for any theoretical reflection on the Civil Rights movement.

(42.) Ibid., p. 258.

(43.) Ibid., p. 265.

(44.) Ibid.

(45.) Ibid., p. 260.

(46.) Unfortunately, this has not been as true for many of the contemporary social scientific interpreters of King’s leadership. Garrow, however, is the critical exception. In Protest at Selma, for example, he describes King as an astute symbolic leader who allowed the movement access to both communicative and regulative institutions. In this regard, Garrow may have been influenced by August Meier’s pioneering “On the Role of Martin Luther King.” Now largely forgotten, this interpretation was published in the immediate wake of the Selma demonstrations in May 1965. Emphasizing the “paradox” of King’s public role, Meier called King a “conservative militant.” Without providing a broader, macrosociological framework that could explain their relevance, Meier drew attention to the issues of duality and dramaturgy that later became central to Garrow’s empirical discussion and are at the heart of my own theoretical analysis here.


King’s career has been characterized by failures that, in the larger sense, must be accounted triumphs. The buses in Montgomery were desegregated only after lengthy judicial proceedings conducted by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund secured a favorable decision from the U.S. Supreme Court…. King’s subsequent major campaigns—in Albany, Georgia; in Danville, Virginia; in Birmingham, Alabama—ended as failures or with only token accomplishments in those cities. But each of them, chiefly because of his presence, dramatically focused national and international attention on the plight of the Southern Negro, thereby facilitating overall progress…. Essentially, this pattern of local failure and national victory was recently enacted at Selma, Alabama. King is ideologically committed to disobeying unjust laws and court orders…but generally he follows a policy of not disobeying Federal Court orders…. He [has sometimes] expressed a crude, neo-Marxist interpretation of history romanticizing the Populist movement as a genuine union of black and white common people, ascribing race prejudice to capitalists playing white workers off against black. Yet, in practice, he is amenable to compromise with the white bourgeois political and economic Establishment…. With intuitive, but extraordinary skill, he not only castigates whites for their sins but, in contrast to angry young writers like Baldwin, he explicitly states his belief in their salvation…. King first arouses the guilt feelings of whites, and then relieves them…. Like a Greek tragedy, King’s performance provides an extraordinary catharsis for the white listener. (Meier, passim)

(47.) Garrow, Protest at Selma, p. 321.

(48.) Ibid., pp. 35, 39, emphasis added.

(49.) Quoted in S. Burns, “Overview: The Proving Ground,” p. 12.

(50.) Septima Clark, quoted in A. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 98.

(51.) Dr. William Anderson, president of the Albany Movement in 1961, quoted in A. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 244.

(52.) Cornell Reagon, quoted in A. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 244.

(53.) The argument that acknowledging the critical importance of King necessarily downplays the importance of the grassroots level has been advanced by some of the most influential new “local historians.” In addition to Eskew and Payne, see, for example, Clayborne Carson’s dismissal of the notion that national leaders and organizations “played a decisive role in mobilizing Southern Blacks,” in “Civil Rights Reform and the Black Freedom Struggle,” p. 22. Carson argues (p. 24) that King’s activities were entirely separate from those of local leaders, who developed movements that were distanced and completely independent of his own. This kind of one-sided emphasis, it seems to me, is no better than the exclusively national emphasis that such local historians seek to depose. As I suggest throughout these chapters, indeed, both the local and the national references are necessary if duality is to be understood.


From a sociology of knowledge perspective, it might be speculated that such historical interpretations can be seen as carrying forward into academic work an argument that was ongoing within the various circles of the Civil Rights movement during the early and middle 1960s, when SNCC and other increasingly radical groups complained bitterly, if usually privately, about the attention that King received, the credit outsiders gave him, and the manner in which outside resources were funneled to SCLC rather than to other organizations. In fact, it was just such a critique of King’s supposedly unhealthy influence that the veteran organizer Ella Baker made in her pivotal arguments in April 1960, which led the young people who had organized the sit-ins to withdraw from the SCLC and organize their own organization, SNCC. (For Baker’s role in this historical development, see Payne, Light of Freedom, pp. 92–100.) In this sense, contemporary historians take one side or the other in that earlier debate, in which some of them actually participated, directly or indirectly.

Relating this historiographic dispute to the empirical circumstances in Montgomery, S. Burns (“Overview: The Proving Ground,” pp. 1–10) identifies four equally important groups of people that determined the success of the local movement: (1) Mobilizers, the handful of charismatic leaders generated by the national movement, e.g., King and Abernathy; (2) Organizers, the dozens of local ministers, secular leaders, and women activists; (3) Activists, the several thousands of persons engaged in organizing activities at the microlevels of family, neighborhood, church, and workplace; and (4) Followers, the majority of the black population, about twenty thousand persons, who never or at least rarely attended mass meetings but who refused, nonetheless, to ride busses during the boycott. It is striking that, even in this eminently sensible account of the relationship between national and local elements, Burns makes no mention of the absolutely central role of the surrounding civil sphere.

(54.) The concept of “charismatic” does not get to these. Though King certainly exercised charismatic authority over the black masses, most never encountered him directly. This direct relationship to charismatic authority was, of course, even less the case for northern whites. The political sociology of leadership must find a new way to understand the very concept of charisma, one that relies less on psychological force than on semiotic mediation. See the argument along these lines advanced by P. Smith, “Culture and Charisma: Outline of a Theory.”

(55.) King, “Our Struggle,” quoted in S. Burns, “Overview: The Proving Ground,” p. 12.

(56.) A. Young, Easy Burden, p. 225.

(57.) A. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 244.

(58.) See the polls cited in McAdam, Political Process, attesting to the centrality of the civil rights issue during the first half of the 1960s. For King’s role in affecting this communicative institution, see below.

(59.) To understand King as the dominant American of his time and to illustrate this understanding in a compelling narrative history is the singular achievement of Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters.

The importance to the project of civil repair of a black leader becoming the subject for enthusiastic white identification suggests parallels with the relation of Nelson Mandela to many whites in South Africa during and after the transition from Apartheid. There is, however, a critical difference between the two cases. Martin Luther King inspired this identification during the course of “normal” social movement politics inside civil society. In South Africa, by contrast, the vast majority of whites refused any identification with the black anti-Apartheid movement, giving support, instead, to an overtly racist white leadership that imprisoned and silenced the movement’s key leaders and engaged in systematic, anticivil terrorism that eventually led to a low-level guerrilla war. South Africa did not, in other words, allow the development of an antiracist social movement inside its civil sphere. George M. Frederickson draws attention to this counterintuitive contrast between the two national situations of racial domination in his comparative study:

Although blacks were of course an overwhelming numerical majority in South Africa, they were until 1994 even more of a minority in terms of their access to political, social, and economic power than the African-American fraction…of the total population of the United States…It was the unholy achievement of South African white domination to have made blacks even more powerless relative to whites than were African-Americans after the abolition of slavery…. Territorial and political segregation served to make a numerical minority into a functional polity. (Black Liberation, p. 6)

The example of South Africa makes it clear that, even when the surrounding sphere is democratic, simply publicizing injustice is, in and of itself, not enough to provoke identification and repair. There needs to be some differentiation among elements of the dominating society, which fragments the core group in terms of region, history, political order, and values. In the United States, it was critical that there had been a centuries-long split between the North and the South precisely over the issue of tolerating slavery and formal racial domination. Though South Africa was by no means without such divisions, the internally democratic white society was more homogeneous on the race issue. The conflict between the overwhelming Dutch Afrikaner majority and the much smaller British minority had been settled after World War Two, and Apartheid constructed as a result. In South (p.646) Africa, the whites who created and enforced racial domination were, in effect, the same as the white civil audience who viewed this oppression as an audience. Precisely the opposite was the case in the United States. Whereas the white audiences in the northern United States came to identify with black protests against the white racial domination and expressed their indignation in the public sphere, in South Africa white emotional identification moved in the other direction as conflict intensified, toward support for those who carried racial oppression out. As a consequence, deployment of white violence did not create indignation among the majority of white South Africans, much less motivate them to join blacks in an effort at civil repair. The transition from Apartheid to an interracial democracy occurred not because of persuasion but because the continuing violence and resistance of black freedom fighters forced the white elites to contemplate the very real possibility that their institutions and ways of life would not survive the unfolding conflict. It was only after this transition from above that a dramatically effective solidarizing process between blacks and whites began to occur, in part under the aegis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. See, e.g., T. Goodman, “Performing a ‘New’ Nation.”

The importance of an independent mediating element between dominating core group and dominated mass is what the rational choice perspective means when it insists on the importance of “third parties.” In his article on the Civil Rights movement, Chong suggests that “non-violence is almost certain to be ineffective if it is not able to find support among the third parties to the conflict.” Chong points out that in South Africa the state was not “subjected to the same domestic pressures and constraints on the use of violence against blacks as American authorities were during the 1950s and 1960s” (“All or Nothing Games in the Civil Rights Movement,” p. 696). But rational choice theory can explain neither when and where third parties exist, nor how they actually influence social movements. Its instrumental assumptions about action and the external, objective status of order make it simply another variant of the classical model, unable to conceptualize the nature and function of the civil sphere.

(60.) See Garrow, Bearing the Cross, for an account of King’s personal courage. Garrow recounts that “the emotional trauma” of King’s first arrest, in Montgomery in 1956, “heightened the growing personal tensions King was feeling. He had not wanted to be the focal point of the protest in the first place” (this and following quotations from pp. 56–58).

[King] stressed to everyone that he as an individual was not crucial to the protest, that if something happened to him, or should he step aside, the movement would go on…. But others thought King had everything to do with it. The obscene and threatening phone calls continued apace, and they took their toll.


Quoting King’s own recollection that “I felt myself faltering and growing in fear,” Garrow narrates what he calls “the most important night of [King’s] life, the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great.”

Finally, on Friday night, January 27, the evening after his brief sojourn at the Montgomery jail, King’s crisis of confidence peaked. He returned home late after an MIA meeting…and he was about to retire when the phone rang and yet another caller warned him that if he was going to leave Montgomery alive, he had better do so soon.

The caller warned, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.” After hearing the call, King went back to bed but was unable to sleep. He went down to the kitchen, made himself some coffee, and sat down at the kitchen table to think things through.

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…. I sat there and thought…you’ve got to call on that…power that can make a way out of no way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…. I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave, never to leave me alone.

King believed that this critical religious experience gave him the courage to continue as a leader, despite his belief that death was certain. “Almost at once, my fears began to go,” he recalled later, “and my uncertainty disappeared” (p. 58).

From the moment of this personal crisis, King carried with him the conviction that eventually he would be assassinated. This represented an accurate social understanding (p.648) of the repercussions of his leadership, which was so visible, and created such tension, in the dualistic context of American society. Though King’s religious faith allowed him to channel this fear into the narrative of martyrdom and redemption, he continued to experience episodes of panic and depression for the rest of his life, living with the certainty of an early death.

(61.) Quoted in S. Burns, “Overview: The Proving Ground,” pp. 24–25.

(62.) These quotations are from the transcription made from a recording of King’s speech, dramatically presented and interpreted in Branch, Parting the Waters, pp. 138–141.

(63.) Branch’s description of the scene that followed, with its religious intonation and its teleological revelation of King’s eventual sacrifice, is worth reproducing here:

The crowd retreated into stunned silence as he [King] stepped away from the pulpit…. The applause continued as King made his way out of the church, with people reaching to touch him…. The boycott was on. King would work on his timing, but his oratory had just made him forever a public person. In the few short minutes of his first political address, a power of communion emerged that would speak inexorably to strangers who would both love and revile him, like all prophets. He was twenty-six, and had not quite twelve years and four months to live. (Parting the Waters, p. 142)

(64.) A. Morris suggests that “buses became the first target of the movement because members of the black community had begun to see bus discrimination not as a private misery but as a public issue” (Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 48).

(65.) S. Burns, “Overview: The Proving Ground,” p. 5.

(66.) Ibid.

(67.) Quoted in Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 185.

(68.) Ibid.

(69.) For the performative distinction between routine occurrences and events, see Mast, “The Cultural Pragmatics of Event-ness.”

(70.) Newsweek, March 5, 1956. Quoted in Lentz, Symbols, p. 26.

(71.) Time, April 2, 1956. Quoted in Lentz, Symbols, p. 27.

(72.) Quoted in Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 (documentary film, first broadcast on PBS, 1987), Part 1.

(73.) Newsweek, November 26, 1956, quoted in Lentz, Symbols, p. 31.

(74.) Time, November 26, 1956, quoted in Lentz, Symbols, p. 31.

(75.) Time, February 18, 1957, quoted in Lentz, Symbols, p. 36. The cultural power of this early construction of the incident—the power of its civil society frame—is demonstrated by the fact that, thirty years later, an academic historian of the Montgomery movement, Stewart Burns, offered a supposedly factual description that represented the incident in exactly the same symbolic way: (p.649)

This was the most dramatic and public but not the only time that he [King] almost single-handedly steered the civil rights movement from turning violent. Acting spontaneously in the heat of the moment, he gracefully transformed the Montgomery protest’s first direct encounter with violence into a public declaration of commitment to nonviolent principles, grounded in Christian faith. His action and words set a defining tone for the next decade. (“Overview: The Proving Ground,” p. 17)

(76.) For the distinction between symbol and icon, see C. Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic.” Iconic representation converts representation into a physical form, as in a statue. When Peirce suggests, however, that this physical form embodies, not a conventional representation, but the literal meaning of an object, he conflates the iconic and symbolic. See Alexander, “Standing before Giacometti’s Standing Woman.”

(77.) Time, January 7, 1957, quoted in Lentz, Symbols, p. 34.

(78.) This incident is subtly recounted in Lentz, Symbols.