The Long Shadow of the Dream

The Long Shadow of the Dream

Most of America was still infatuated with the brazen fun of disco, recoiling from the shock of punk, and blissfully unaware of the existence of hip-hop back in 1978. Reaganomics was nowhere on the horizon, and neither were crack, AIDS, and a massive spike in homelessness. The battles of the ’60s weren’t yet distant images in the rear-view mirror, so it was still possible to believe that a society devoted to eliminating injustice and inequality could still be achieved. Heck, a few diehards were still working for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Tensions between activists from Dr. Martin Luther King’s era and young progressives 10 years later brought the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change to a critical point. As an intern at a summer institute, Reynolds recalls that for him and his fellow progressives, they’re formative experiences weren’t the Cold War but the Vietnam War, not water cannons but Watergate. And now, 40 years later, how can Dr. King’s lessons be applied to today’s activists?

That’s the milieu I stepped out of for 11 weeks that summer, to immerse myself in an internship at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta. It would be one of my “co-op” work experiences as an undergrad at Antioch College, a chance to apply my classroom studies and ideas in the real world. The program would combine dedicated study of Dr. King’s life and work, with the opportunity to use those teachings at a progressive agency in the Atlanta community. My parents didn’t think twice about picking up any incidental expenses during the internship; Mom thought I needed a little extra “blackness” in my cross-cultural college experience.

There were, I think, about a dozen of us in that summer’s class. As befitting an institution with a decidedly spiritual lineage, I rounded out a quartet whose other members were conveniently named Matthew, Luke and John (from Oklahoma, Nigeria and Detroit, respectively). There were two sistas from colleges in the Northeast, another young woman from Earlham College in Indiana, and…sorry, I don’t remember everyone else specifically, and the journal I kept as part of the internship’s class work is buried deep in my attic. I do remember that we were a fairly diverse group: black and white, male and female, college students, divinity students and one or two folks a bit older, all bringing a variety of life stories and perspectives to the program.

As we went around the table and introduced ourselves the first day, we found we all had something in common despite our disparate backgrounds. We wanted to learn what Dr. King’s journey had meant for this country, where it had taken us, the next generation of activists, and where we were supposed to go next. Indeed, the first assigned text was his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (HarperCollins, 1967). That title pretty much summed up where our thinking was: we all wanted to go forward from that summer to make a difference in our respective corners of America and the world, and we wanted to learn from King’s example.

Our classes were held in the King birth home on 501 Auburn Avenue, one block from the headquarters of the King Center, where his tomb lay protected by an eternal flame. It’s a two-story Queen Anne style house, and it was literally where he was born. Our sessions were held in a large room on the second floor, big enough to house three or four long tables. We didn’t take much advantage of the front porch, and outside of a nickel tour on the first day we didn’t spend much time soaking up the vibes of the rest of the house. On the other side of the center was the red-brick original chapel of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where both King and his father preached on Sundays (a new chapel was built across the street in the ’90s). There were occasional tour buses, but back then the site’s potential for tourism revenue hadn’t been fully explored. The bustle of activity at the center was more about making sense of all the accumulated papers than steadfastly defending (some would say exploiting) the value of all that intellectual property.

As for the internship, there were problems from the jump. Our instructor, Sister Anne Brotherton announced on the first day that she would be leaving the King Center midway through our internship. Great. Most of us were already there for free, as the center had no money for a modest stipend or even bus fare (I was staying in a seminary dorm otherwise all but empty for the summer). Neither we nor our families minded picking up the expense for what promised to be a unique experience, but hearing that the main instructor would not be there at the end of our term did not inspire confidence about the program’s stability.

It didn’t help matters that we bonded with Sister Anne immensely during her brief time with us. Sister Anne, a slender, middle-aged white woman with a sense of youthful energy about her, was wise, warm, funny, and possessed of the same questioning spirit we brought to the table. She wore her hair short, and spoke in a measured drawl that was somewhere between southern and scholarly. We gathered fairly quickly that although she had the title of “Sister”, she was anything but “of the cloth” in the traditional sense. She sympathized with our concern about her leaving, and managed to defuse a bit of the displeasure with firmness, perspective, and humor (one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came in a response she wrote in the margins of my journal: “life is not neat” ). For her the operative part of the King Center for Social Change’s name was “social change”. As we would discover later that summer, others held that the operative word was “King”.

Sister Anne’s interim replacement, Mrs. Bennette, brought a considerably different perspective to the program. Mrs. Bennette, a middle-aged black woman whose picture should have been in the dictionary next to “patient grandmotherly type”, was one of the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, and a longtime confidant to Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow and the center’s founder. We had misgivings about the way things were starting out, but we didn’t dislike Mrs. Bennette; indeed, the combination of she and Sister Anne during the first half of the internship gave us both practical grounding in the history of the struggle and theoretical insight into how struggles happen and continue. But once Sister Anne left, our learning experience radically changed. At times, it seemed to lean more towards celebrating the past than preparing for the future. This would, sadly, turn out to be a central theme of our summer studies.

The first two weeks of the internship, with Sister Anne asking probing questions and Mrs. Bennette relating stories about the movement, were a crash course in all things King. We viewed the documentary King: From Montgomery to Memphis, an eye-opening account of some of the major and minor events of the movement. I don’t think any of us watched the movie without crying. We saw King evolve from a young minister, content to pastor a Birmingham church in preparation to eventually succeed his father at Ebenezer, into the leader of a burgeoning protest movement, and from there into the conscience of a nation. In those days, there was considerably less published scholarship about King and the movement than there is now, and we students didn’t really know much more about those days than the basic who-what-when, so the stories and historical footage in the documentary were revelations to us. Of course, we knew how the story would end, on that fateful April 1968 evening on a Memphis hotel balcony. That knowledge only made seeing King’s trials and tribulations during the Civil Rights movement, and his steadfast faith in the face of so much hatred, all the more emotional an experience for us.

The biggest revelations about King’s life we received concerned his final years, the period between the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and his death. We learned how King’s thinking evolved, from believing that America’s racial tension was rooted in race to seeing how much of it was driven by class fissures and economics. We saw how he became disheartened that changing racial attitudes in the North was a different animal from the struggles of the South. We saw how he grappled with the burgeoning Black Power movement, a sometimes-violent period that captured the political and social imagination of young blacks who might have been the nonviolent Freedom Riders a few short years before. We came to understand how and why he came out against the Vietnam War, in a major New York City speech (one year to the day, as it turned out, before he was killed), and how that speech found disfavor among movement elders and the political establishment.

But much of the information we would receive throughout that summer was content to sound the same note: Martin Luther King was a great man, he changed America for the better, and 10 years after his assassination, we’re still grappling with the very issues King was facing at the end of his life, including economic inequality and lingering racial discrimination (one of that summer’s big news stories was a US Supreme Court decision that was the first judicial blow against affirmative action). The basic story line we were given, especially once Sister Anne left, became one of King-as-heroic-figure, the-movement-as-historic-time. None of us argued with that; his greatness was the very reason why we were there in the first place. But we were a hopeful bunch: divinity students and budding activists looking to apply his lessons in a world that had changed – yet hadn’t. Mine was the first generation to enter adulthood after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-’60s, and we were coming of age in an America, which was already showing signs of receding from King’s lofty precipice. Aside from reading Gene Sharp’s three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973), a review and analysis of nonviolent protest including labor strikes, Gandhi’s movement in India and King’s work, there was very little application of our learning to the here and now.

In one of our internship exercises, we were supposed to take on a major social issue and devise strategy and tactics to combat the problem. The issue (identified for us) was full employment, one of the hot-button civil rights stories of the day (even then, in those pre-recession days, high unemployment was a problem, especially for blacks). There was a bill in Congress for a full employment act which would essentially mandate the government to fund job training and creation, and our assignment was to devise a way to make the case for it and get it passed. By the time of our study, of course, the surviving leaders of the movement were entrenched in Democratic Party operations (former King lieutenant Andrew Young was United Nations ambassador then), so it should not have been much of a surprise that: a) a hot Democratic issue would be chosen as our classroom exercise; and that b) our answers would be expected to parrot Democratic thinking on the matter. Like students spitting out rote answers on a history quiz, we gave back what had been fed to us: full employment is directly related to social justice, part of creating a better America, and so on. There didn’t seem to be a lot of imagination expected of us, and without Sister Anne there to push us in a more creative direction, we didn’t summon much imagination on our own for the project. The assignment became something else about the summer that gnawed at some of us; we were beginning to get the sense that we were expected to mindlessly recite the King Center party line, rather than learn from it and find ways to take the struggle to the next phase.

For me, the far more valuable learning experience drawn from our studies at the King Center was my eight weeks spent working in the local field. In my application for the internship, I had mentioned that I wanted to work at a radio station that was more concerned with advancing social change than playing the latest disco hit. I had no idea if there were any such stations, and no clue what I was really talking about. As it turned out, what I was talking about was found in community radio, a model and philosophy laid out in Lorenzo Milan’s provocatively titled Sex and Broadcasting (Dildo Press, 1972). The Pacifica stations in Berkeley, California, New York City and elsewhere were the most prominent examples of community radio in the nation, but fortunately for me Atlanta had its very own community station, WRFG-FM 89.3 (Radio Free Georgia).

While working with WRFG, I produced interviews and programs for some of the station’s public affairs programming. My boss, the station manager, was a gay white woman (there probably weren’t a lot of gay white women running radio stations, no matter how small, back then) who gave me a wide amount of latitude to get my hands dirty and learn on the fly. My main assignments were working with a couple of neighborhood activists whose programs needed a bit more oomph, and to see if there were any other neighborhoods around the city interested in doing a show. It was a great learning experience for me, providing not just some of the nuts and bolts of low-budget radio tasks, but also learning how to use mass communications to advance change instead of record sales (in an internship at the station that next summer — that’s how much I enjoyed my experience — one of the volunteers would explain the station’s mission as one of empowerment, an idea that has stuck with me ever since).

The emotional flash point of the summer was the real eye-opener, for us and for our mentors, about the wide gap between our expectations for the internship and the realities of it. We attended the center’s annual Institute on Nonviolence, a three-day confab of movement veterans, political activists and people of faith. The institute promised to be closer to what we were looking for: a road map to the next phase of social activism, a series of how-to sessions and pep talks from the very people who had been through the fire. It became quickly apparent that such was not to be.

The folks from the movement dominated the activities, and all they really wanted to do was talk about how hard it had been for them back in the day. In another context, their war stories would have made for fascinating oral histories. But by that point in our internship, we’d already heard such stories from Mrs. Bennette and others, seen the documentary, read the books, and felt like we weren’t hearing anything new. We were restless, aware that the summer was winding down, and we hadn’t really gotten a taste of what we were seeking. Our discontent with the tone of the program, along with the aforementioned lack of stipend and the change in leadership, made for a salty group of interns.

We made our displeasure with the course of events known, not so much by organized protest but by general grumbling and refusing to be seen-and-not-heard. These were the days when some of our frustration finally boiled over, as we pushed back against some of the lecturers, all but asking them “what have you done for the movement lately?” Ironically, the only person connected to the program who seemed sympathetic to our plight was Sharp himself. He was in town to do a workshop during the institute based on his books. We interns were just about the only ones who attended his session, and after a couple of questions about his writings our time with him was less advanced instruction on progressive activism and more a bitch session about the program. He not only felt our pain, but also shared some of it. He may have seen even then what would become something of an issue among activists in the years to come: that in the wake of King’s assassination, the movement’s survivors either drifted into the political mainstream or, unable and/or unwilling to adapt to the changing times, stayed rooted to the issues and tactics of the ’60s.

Our frustration and overall uppity-ness became the talk of the conference. At some point during the proceedings, a semi-summit meeting was convened so that “the interns,” as the grown folk organizing the institute called us with only a slight air of disdain, could air our grievances. We tried to get the tribal elders to understand that we didn’t mean to be disrespectful, that we valued their place in history, and that we had come to Atlanta (at no small amount of financial sacrifice) to learn how we could reach higher towards new horizons – we did not come to the King Center so that we might look back at the road already traveled. The elders, in turn, felt the need to make sure we knew what they had endured, that being hosed down and thrown in jail was not some sort of frolic, and that they had indeed shaken America to its core. Interestingly, many of the people doing the memory lane thing happened to be women. In retrospect, given what we would learn in later years about sexist attitudes by many of the movement’s male leaders, there probably was a desire on their part to make sure that at least one future generation didn’t write them out of the history books. But if that was the case, even on a subconscious level, it was never made clear to us.

The only common chord that was struck between them and us was, in essence, an agreement to respectfully “play nice” for the duration of the conference, and by extension the remainder of our internship. We would try to avoid appearing as though we were belittling the bravery of our elders, and they would try not to keep ramming the past down our throats. But by then, there was little that could be done to bolster our enthusiasm for the rest of our time in Atlanta. We all enjoyed our various field assignments, and we did learn a lot about the battles King fought. But we didn’t leave Atlanta with all the answers to future social activism that we had hoped for. Nor did we leave feeling any deeper commitment to the paths we had already charted for ourselves (and I have no sense how far I nudged mom’s “blackness” meter). But we did take with us a stronger feel of how the paths we’d charted had been forged. We saw, as closely as possible without being there, the genius, sacrifice, and monumental belief in a higher good that fueled the Civil Rights Movement, a 10-year struggle that changed the country we set out to change some more.

We also gained some King Center notoriety as the rebellious internship class (yes, our reputation would turn out to follow us). Beyond the administrative challenges, I think we might have been the first group of folks to push back on the center’s orthodoxy from within, as opposed to the FBI, the Klan and all the other haters. Remember, this was 1978 — a time not removed enough from the movement’s heyday to render the memories fuzzy, but still almost a generation after the fact. We had come of age in a different America — our formative experiences weren’t the Cold War but the Vietnam War, not water cannons but Watergate. For my fellow undergrads, images from the Black Power, anti-war and feminist battles were fresher and far more immediate; our battle cry was “Power to the People”, not “We Shall Overcome”. We recognized the significance of the battles our elders won, but our times were different, and needed perspectives that factored in the difference. I think some of our elders — indeed, much of the movement — thought that once Jim Crow had been laid to rest, everything else would fall into place sooner or later. In retrospect, we might well have been the first class of interns that looked back at the Civil Rights Movement with younger, skeptical eyes and didn’t blindly accept everything our elders said. That sort of probing, more than likely, was an unexpected and unpleasant experience for many King Center/movement insiders.

In any event, the last major business of the summer was the traditional visit to Mrs. King’s home during the final week of the internship. Back then, she lived in the same place she and Dr. King lived in throughout their years in Atlanta, a spacious ranch house in a middle-class black neighborhood not far from the venerable campuses of Morehouse and Spelman colleges. Mrs. King was ever the gracious host, sharing some stories and talking to us about our experience (yes, she’d heard about us and our issues). She even treated us to a vocal performance (she had put her burgeoning career as a classically trained singer on the back burner to raise a family and, in essence, give her life over to the movement).

Before we left her engaging company, she autographed copies of her book My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. (Holt Rinehart Winston, 1969) for each of us. When I told her that I was from Antioch, her alma mater, she knew exactly how to sign my copy: with an invocation of Horace Mann’s saying, the de facto Antioch motto: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” (Another Antioch connection to the Civil Rights Movement: the brother of Michael Schwerner, one of three activists killed in the recently news-again 1964 slayings in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was the longtime dean of students at Antioch).

Unfortunately, I no longer have that book. Years later, I loaned it to an actor friend who was performing King speeches around town, and I haven’t seen it since. Nor do I have any idea what happened to my fellow rebel interns. I do know that the internship program fizzled out not long after we were there, and that the King Center became a lightning rod for criticism of the King family’s stewardship of his legacy. The center’s website makes no reference to any current formal educational activities. Its main activities nowadays include preserving his writings (it has published four volumes of his papers in conjunction with Stanford University), supporting service-based volunteer activities across the country, and serving as a clearinghouse for media and scholarly inquiries.

The center’s progress report for 2004 indicates that things are in something of a state of flux. Dr. King’s two sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King, are in the process of determining the center’s future direction. I hope that, whatever path they choose, an educational component is part of it. I hope said component takes advantage of all its carefully cultivated resources, yet doesn’t remain so insular that it can’t withstand some occasional, respectful questioning. I hope it celebrates the past, but has its eyes on the prizes to come. I hope it addresses how activists of the 21st century, working on a battlefield more global, diverse, and complex than lunch counters and voting booths, can benefit from studying King’s work. I hope that the King Center has gotten better at striking the right balance between reverence and progressive action, between worship and utility, than it was during my internship.

I also hope the King Center convenes a reunion of all the former interns (think of the wealth of knowledge and experience the King Center could tap from the people it once taught). On one level, I’d love to know what became of my fellow rebels. But on a broader plane, I wonder what we former interns have done with our lives since the King Center experience. How did our brief time in the shadow of the movement shape us? How have we applied the lessons we learned? And what do we tell others about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement?

Most of all, I hope the King Center comes to appreciate the value of an internship program done right, with stable funding, sound leadership, and a forward-thinking perspective. There are now more than enough books, films and other resources for anyone who just wants to learn what happened some 40-odd years ago. But the King Center can best serve the spiritual and political pilgrims of the future — and now, many folks have maintained over the years, Dr. King’s dream itself — by attempting to develop answers to the question it couldn’t quite wrap its arms around when I was there: who was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how can he matter today?

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.