BRINGING King TO THE CLASSROOM

Black Issues in Higher Education, June 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

BRINGING King TO THE CLASSROOM


BRINGING King TO THE CLASSROOM.

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. And yet it gets no mention in the major newspapers.

Some people would attribute that to racism. But you discount race and say that it was an issue of timing.

I think that there are two pieces to this. One is, it is harder for university press books to get reviewed [than when "Protest in Selma" was published in 1978]. Charles Payne's book was published by the University of California Press. I think there may well be a press bias against university press publications.

When "Bearing the Cross" came out in 1986, it was the same time that "Eyes on the Prize" was showing [on PBS], and I think that I got a big boost because "Eyes on the Prize" drew so much attention to the movement's history. …

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