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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow

Title: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference
Author: David J. Garrow 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: March 3, 2010

David J. Garrow has provided an extensive study of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in his book Bearing the Cross. With a title that portrays the religious and spiritual aspect of King’s personal civil rights vision, as well as the exhaustive extent of the undertaking that would take its toll on King both physically and mentally, Garrow too has undertaken quite a task in writing his in depth and fact filled study. Using hundreds of sources, in fact over 600 interviews alone, Garrow has compiled a complete record of King’s civil rights journey from the moment he entered the Montgomery Improvement Association’s (MIA) bus boycott all the way to his death. However, the book is about more than just King, and that is one of the greatest strengths of Bearing the Cross. The story is really the story of a wider Civil Rights Movement, one in which King would become a leading figure and icon of. 

Bearing the Cross is undoubtedly a personal story, and everything within is connected to King in some form be it through his participation, association, support, or opposition. King had so many connections in the Civil Rights Movement that to tell his story is to tell each individual story, which Garrow attempts to do when he delves into subjects such as the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Selma, the Voting Rights Act, Northern ghettos, and Vietnam, just to name a few. Not only does this portray just how much momentum the movement had, which grew in fervor and activity as the years progressed, and how large it grew, but also what King himself took on when he shouldered the responsibility of becoming one of the major leaders. As reviewers David Herbert Donald and William C. Stinchcombe have noted, Garrow misses occasional opportunities to analyze King, and we are therefore sometimes made to take King at face value with just a selection of his decisions or quotes to flesh out his intentions and feelings. ((David Herbert Donald, “Review: [untitled],” The Journal of Southern History 54, no 1 (February 1988): 135-137; William C. Stinchcombe, “Review: [untitled],” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19, no. 2 (Autumn 1988): 367-369.)) While there are moments when we can see the personality and intentions of King come through his words as he speaks for himself to explain his motivations, especially when he talks about his passion for the Civil Rights Movement and his willingness to die for it, other times are a bit more obscure and we are left to wonder why King did some of what he did. For example, Garrow writes that King had expressed some hesitation to be included on a petition to help activist Carl Braden out of a charge of contempt of court. The wife of Carl, Anne, was disappointed that she would likely not get King's support. However, King changed his mind and phoned her to ask that she place his name on the petition because he had prayed over it and decided it was right (155). This would have been a perfect time for Garrow to attempt an analysis of the whys of King's action, yet he does not take advantage of the opportunity to use his vast knowledge of King to explain this change of heart, or why King would put himself in such a politically precarious position by association. Perhaps in the cases where Garrow did not analyze, he hoped that his facts would speak for themselves and he was wary of trying to get into the head of King for fear of making too many assumptions that he could not support. Yet Garrow attempts to create a narrative out of the intense amount of facts he includes, and this leads him in some cases to make a few assumptions of King that he cannot, or rather does not, substantiate. For instance, in one of the many discussions of the SCLC's financial mismanagement, Garrow writes that King brushed off the accusations made at the SCLC’s leaders, but felt they were accurate when he truly thought about it (469). Garrow leaves the statement at that and does not attempt to follow up with any evidence to support it. It seems that Garrow is trying to create a more enjoyable story by including elements of intimate understanding, yet they are not always satisfactory and the text is still dense with dates and an intense volume of fact. That is not to say that a reader will come off not knowing who King was. 

In fact, Garrow is very adept at including aspects of King's personality and life that many people do not know or consider. There is a definite evolution of character from King's kitchen revelation (58), to his trip to India where he refined his own method of resistance as he learned more about Gandhi (114), all the way to his ultimate loss of faith in white men and democracy (604). It is also surprising to learn that King, known as such a great rhetorician, often had others write his speeches and chapters in his books. This aspect almost makes it seem as if King was a popular figure speaking out the ideas of groups, and more pessimistically, a pawn of other thinkers since so many of his ideas were molded by others who could influence or persuade him (139). This does not, of course, tarnish his reputation or his much deserved respect, it merely opens up a new facet to King's overall focus on collectivity. King did, after all, assert many times that he acted for his people and that the movement did not depend on him and would continue on without him, which means there were other thinkers in the background. Also surprising were the revelations Garrow made about King's misogyny and views on sex (141 & 374-376). King is an icon, certainly, but now also a man who had his own faults, and at times very fatalistic (232). One other objection to be taken with this novel is its treatment of the NAACP. Garrow is in no way objective when he discusses the animosity that began to grow around the NAACP and King/SCLC. As described by Garrow, the NAACP on various occasions attempted to smear the SCLC or hinder them in their progress in voting rights. The NAACP would naturally take a special exception to King's assertion that attempting to change the country in front of a judge and appealing for change was not the proper approach, but rather that resistance such as they had been done in Montgomery was vital (87). The two groups had a natural ideological difference. Garrow is unfair in his language, and even goes so far as to include the statement, "With allies like the NAACP, SCLC's effort had little chance of success" (103). Granted, the NAACP was in conflict with King, Garrow should have exercised a little more neutrality and fairness when discussing these occasions. 

A final thing must be said about Garrows endnotes. Though he provides a glossary of his abbreviations in the back of the text, his endnotes are still confusing and hard to sift through. Maybe it is his sheer volume of sources that complicates the system, but it does not help that much of his citations are made up of letter and number combinations. When perusing through to find a source, one must flip back and forth to try to make sense of what is being identified and where to finally find it. Though the short form of the citations clears up space, it leads to too much confusion for students and scholars who may want to follow up on his research. It may seem as if there is nothing good about this book since most of what has been written about it so far has been critical, but the sheer extent of Garrow's research should be praised. When writing on a figure as big and as important as Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who has had much already written about him, one naturally has an understanding of him that they approach studies of him with. Even lacking in the occasional analysis, Garrow provides a vast array of information that pieces together King's life into one continuous and chronological story. Even if we do not come off understanding the finer details of King's mentality, we still see how events flowed along a never ebbing, but wavering line, and how ideas melded and split. It is this dynamic that is important to understanding the larger picture of the Civil Rights Movement. So much is encompassed in Garrow's story that it is almost too much to read and remember in one reading. Despite some of its faults, it is without a doubt a vital book to the history of African Americans, Civil Rights, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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