The University Record, January 22, 2001

Open minds, hearts to King’s ideals, author Williams says

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001: Commitment and Renewal

By Theresa Maddix

“I know one thing we did right
Was the day we started to fight.
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on.” —gospel song

Juan Williams, author of Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil War Years 1954–1965, cites this gospel song as the inspiration for his work. Williams, host of National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” and guest commentator on CNN’s “Crossfire,” PBS’s “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” and ABC’s “Nightline,” gave a presentation on “Race in America Today” Jan. 15 for the School of Business Administration.

Williams spoke of concern about our distance from Martin Luther King Jr., noting that if he were alive, King would only be 72, an age at which other world leaders continue to serve and not too much older, Williams noted, than rock legend Tina Turner, who toured last summer. But, Williams, said, “We are removed doubly by our own images and creations of Dr. King.”

“We turn away too often from the realities Dr. King would insist that we see.” Instead, Williams said, many individuals view King as either “the white man’s choice for leader” or such a strong leader that without him, the civil rights movement is stagnated. “This mental framework offers people an excuse for inaction today, inaction in the face of fast winds of change that are transforming this country.”

To better understand King, Williams said, we must “open our minds, open our hearts to find the Dr. King that exists within.”

Williams likened the lives of U-M Business School students to that of a young King, who at 25 became the head of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. At the time, many church members saw King as receiving the pastoral position because of nepotism—King’s father was a renowned church leader in Atlanta. King was focused on proving himself worthy to his church, as well as building his family, and he was working nights to finish his doctoral thesis.

At the same time in Montgomery, unknown to King, the Women’s Political Council had formed with English professor Jo Ann Robinson as its head and with Rosa Parks as a member. The group began its attempts to organize a bus boycott with the help of former NAACP head E.D. Nixon. Upon the recommendation of Ralph Abernathy, Nixon went to King as a minister to ask for his support. King said he was too busy and couldn’t help.

Nixon called King back two days later to report that the next evening there would be 400 people coming to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to organize the bus boycott. King came to the meeting.

“When he mounts that stage, he doesn’t simply mount the stage for a one-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama,” Williams said, “He becomes the personification of the freedom struggle in this country, the man who challenges America’s conscience by saying that there is something wrong with the way we are treating each other, Black and white. He becomes this transformative figure who is willing to say that America is changing and we have to change with it if we are to truly understand what this country must do to live up to its highest ideals.”

Williams spoke of King as a person willing to challenge the country’s stand on Vietnam despite criticism from his friends, who told him the issue was not one of civil rights. Other leaders tried to silence him out of fear that he might alienate President Johnson from the civil rights movement. Williams also cited attempts to prevent King from fighting for fair housing in Chicago, where, again, many told King he needed to leave because the issue was one of housing, not civil rights. In response, Williams said, “King is saying, ‘No, it is a civil rights issue.’” King next went to Memphis, Tenn., to fight for decent living standards and fair wages, where he again was told that these were not issues of civil rights.

“Unfortunately,” Williams said, “his life is snuffed out there in Memphis, but we should know he was heading on to Washington to conduct a poor people’s campaign. King was changing with the times. Today in 2001, I don’t have any doubt that King remains relevant and telling in terms of his insistence that we be responsive to change and responsive to each other across racial lines, gender lines and ethnicity.

“Today, the poor in American society are most often blamed, told that they are poor because of their own self-defeating behavior, told that they are unattractive, that if they had any get up and go in this economy, they’d make it. We have so much that we are somehow now all the more impoverished for our lack of heart, lack of will, lack of love in Dr. King’s great tradition to reach out and say, ‘You may have a problem, but I can see who you are and who you can be as two separate things, and I’m willing to reach out and help. I’m willing to reach across racial lines.’”

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Williams was present as a reporter for The Washington Post and had the opportunity to speak privately with him for a brief time. Williams had held a concept of Mandela as a born leader and said to him, “Someone like you who was born into this cruel system of apartheid must have been born with your heart bursting with a desire to break apart this apartheid system, to resist against the oppression in society.”

Mandela laughed, said Williams, and said, “My rebellion was against my parents. I didn’t want to grow up in a traditional tribal society. I wanted to get a Western-style education.”

Mandela could have remained a prince if he had stayed in his own home but instead struggled to become a boxer and a lawyer in Johannesburg. “Mandela transformed not only himself but his country through difficult times of change. Thirty-three years after King’s death,” Williams said, “I’m talking to you about a changing America. I’m talking to you about Mandela-force capacity for change—a change style and capacity to cope with change in society, the fast winds of change as we see it in America.”