Monday, January 10, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON REFLECTS ON THE LIFE OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR
King's first northern campaign in 1966 is seldom mentioned because it was not an unqualified success like Montgomery or Birmingham. As a matter of fact, some feel King was outmaneuvered by "Boss" Daley. But it is during this period, between 1966 and his murder in Memphis in 1968, after his nation-changing successes are behind him (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, his Nobel Peace Prize), that King's life is under tremendous pressure, and that makes for good drama. Of Chicago, he said, "I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I've seen in Chicago."
That year he brought the Movement to Chicago, 1966, was personally attractive to me because I remember it well---it was during my senior year of high school in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. I once knew that city. My wife, her two brothers and three sisters, grew up in south Chicago. I was for one summer an intern---journalist and cartoonist---on The Chicago Tribune, then a stringer for that newspaper for a year(1969-70). That town is deep in my DNA.
In Dreamer, the character Robert Jackson is based on my great-uncle William Johnson, a general contractor who with his all-black crew, which once included my father, built churches, homes and apartment buildings all over the North Shore, among them Springfield Baptist Church in Evanston, which is where I set King's big speech in the middle of the novel, though I renamed the church Calvary A.M.E. And Dr. Jennifer Hale is actually Dr. Elizabeth Hill, the woman who delivered me and all my black friends in my hometown, and created Community Hospital, where I was born, in Evanston in the 1940s. Before that, and because Evanston Hospital was segregated, she had to take her black patients all the way to Chicago's south side, and many died along the way.
What King didn't know, and certainly didn't prepare well enough for, was the kind of Windy City racism he would encounter in all-white places like Cicero (an enclave of blue-collar, ethnic whites), and also the fact that Chicago is a traditionally black nationalist city, home of the headquarters for the Nation of Islam, and once the briar patch for the Black Stone Rangers, Johnson publications in which I published racially-oriented cartoons (Ebony, Jet, Black World), The Daily Defender, etc. (President Obama came to realize that nationalism when he was a community organizer and attended Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church.) I also had a very personal identification with King's upbringing. I was raised as a Christian in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Evanston and, like King, studied Christianity as an important philosophy when I did my master's and Ph.D. work.
The novel's prologue was the first part of Dreamer that I wrote. But before I could write it, I spent two years studying histories of the Civil Rights Movement, biographies of King, his sermons and critical studies of those sermons and speeches, his college papers---the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.---and declassified F.B.I. documents people sent to me when they learned I was writing this book. I made the trip to his birth home in Atlanta and the Lorraine Motel room where he spent his last night, always taking notes until the day came when I felt deep enough in his skin and spirit to do the prologue. (Finishing the novel took another five years and 3,000 thrown away pages.)
Those over-King's shoulder sections of the novel (all italicized) flowed easily from me. The tougher part was the Cain/Abel mythic sub-structure, and creating a fictitious double for King, Chaym Smith, who gave me the chance to create a contrast to King even those these two are physically identical----that is, to let him say things other black people were saying in 1966, to examine the very idea of "equality," and to raise the novel's central philosophical question: How do we end evil without engendering error or evil? As you know, I've continued to write fiction and non-fiction using King as a character (for example, the short story "Dr. King's Refrigerator"), so by now I've devoted a third of my life to thinking and writing about the man and his spiritual/philosophical legacy.
Everything I wrote about the Chicago campaign (and Evanston) is from the historical record. I made up the story about his having a double (I always prefer an imaginative premise for my novels and stories) and the two young black Movement workers who train him, Matthew Bishop and Amy Griffith.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:07 AM