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No polished Uncle Tom

01 May 2012

This book reminds usall of the bitter fightled by a colossus, says Pat Ashworth

Forward into battle: Martin Luther King (second from left) links arms with James Forman, Jesse Douglas, and John Lewis in a civil-rights march in the US in the 1960s. From the book reviewed below

Forward into battle: Martin Luther King (second from left) links arms with James Forman, Jesse Douglas, and John Lewis in a civil-rights march in the ...

Martin Luther King Jnr: History maker
Richard S. Reddie
Lion £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

GROWING up in Bradford, Richard S. Reddie remembers wanting an icon who was “unapologetically black”, and being ill at ease with the hagiographical early bio-graphies of Martin Luther King Jnr. King, he observes, was deemed to be the acceptable face of the civil-rights struggle, “one with whom white people were comfortable, and whose virtues they were keen to extol”.

He admits to being seduced, as a student, by the rhetoric of Malcolm X, “who seemed to speak with unabashed pride about blackness”, and in comparison with whom King appeared to be a man of acquiescence, defined by the iconic “I have a dream” speech that he made in August 1963.

In addition, the more critical approaches that followed the publication of formerly secret FBI files had made much of King’s sexual and many other peccadilloes, suggesting an idol with feet of clay.

But Reddie regards him in retrospect as the colossus he was, and seeks in this well-researched and admirably balanced book to present a man who was both saint and sinner, and who, far from selling out to the political classes, in fact became almost persona non grata among them. It is a thoroughly honest portrait of the man, and of the turbulent fortunes of the civil-rights movement, where every hard-won victory brought a backlash.

The book depicts King as being continually forced to “navigate his way through the choppy seas of growing black militancy and negotiation with the white politicos”. The infighting and power struggles of his own civil-rights organisation, the Southern Chris­tian Leadership Conference (SCLC), are laid bare. Light is shed on the opportunism of President Kennedy: no real fan of King, Reddie concludes, but preferring King’s brand of civil rights to that of Malcolm X.

King struggles to maintain credibility and relevance for non-violent action in the face of de­tractors who regard him as all talk and no action, a “polished Uncle Tom”. But there’s never any doubt about what he was fighting for: the naked hatred pictured on the face of a man throwing acid into a swimming-pool where black and white young people are making a peaceful demonstration for integra­tion says it all.

The book is essential reading for an age that may be forgetting this struggle.

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