Bringing King to the Classroom

Article excerpt

Despite being the most famous African

American of our time, Dr. Martin Luther

King's real persona is still a mystery to

many Americans. Ten years ago a young

scholar -- David Garrow -- wrote what many

consider to be the definitive book on King's

life and times.

The book, "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther

King and the Southern Christian Leadership

Conference" won rave reviews from all quarters

and went on to receive the 1987 Pulitzer

Prize in biography and the Robert Kennedy

Book Award. In addition to writing several

other books on the civil rights movement,

Garrow served as co-editor of "Eyes on the

Prize Reader" and as senior advisor to the PBS

documentary of the same name.

Garrow, who earned his undergraduate

degree from Wesleyan University and his doctorate

from Duke in 1981, has held a number

of distinguished professorships, including the

Harrison Visiting Professor of History at the

College of William and Mary and Visiting

Distinguished Professor of History at The Cooper

Union. He has taught at Duke University,

the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

and the City University of

New York.

He has just finished a

year as Distinguished Historian

in Residence at

American University and

plans to teach at Emory

University in the spring

of 1997. After that he

contemplates a move to work

in journalism.

In a recent interview

with Black Issues, Garrow

shared his views on -- among

other things -- the

civil rights movement and

its relevance to higher

education today.

What made you so fascinated with Dr. King?

I was born in 1953, so I don't particularly

have any personal memories of the actual

movement -- other than very vague childhood

recollections. It was the experience of

meeting the people, when I went south

in 1979, who had been active in the

movement -- and then getting access to

the whole set of transcriptions of Dr.

King's sermons -- that gave me an

emotional connection, an emotional

motivation... that I hadn't had when I

was doing the initial Selma book

["Protest at Selma"].

How have you handled the

criticism that a white

guy has won all these

awards and accolades

for writing about Dr.

King?

I have gotten

relatively little of that.

My impression is the

criticism that exists is, a

cumulative effect of my

getting a Pulitzer in '87

for "Bearing the Cross"

and then two years later Taylor Branch

getting a Pulitzer as well for "Parting

the Waters." I think the fact that

[bothers some is that] the only two

Pulitzers people have gotten for

writing about the [civil rights]

movement went to white boys. But

there is a larger issue here which is that

good, scholarly books on the civil

rights movement no longer get the

visible book reviews that I got when I

was a graduate student in 1978.

Just a year ago, a much better

book was published by Charles

Payne, a Black sociologist who

teaches at Northwestern. After

Charles' book ["I've Got the Light of

Freedom"] -- which is probably the

best book on the Mississippi

movement -- was published, it got a joint

review with Adam Fairclough's book

on Louisiana in the Boston Globe

["Race and Democracy"] I tried to

persuade several places that this is a

book that must be reviewed. It is as

good a book about the civil rights

movement as has been published in a

decade. …