The Man Behind the Curtain

A Review of We Shall Overcome
by Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman

Author Biography

Ronald Hoffman is a professor of history and director of the Omohundm Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary. He co-edited Perspective on the American Revolution. His Princes of Ireland, Planter of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500-1782 won the Southern Historical Association’s Owsley Award and the Library of Virginia’s Literary Award of Nonfiction. Peter J. Albert is the co-editor of The Samuel Gompers Papers at the University of Maryland.

The book, We Shall Overcome, by Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman portrays Martin Luther King Jr. as an astonishing leader who touched the hearts of many African American during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. King gave people who had lost everything hope, direction, and told them how to end this tragedy. He was a selfless man with high expectations for himself and for the well being of others. King would make his decisions as if he was an ordinary person faced with these same hardships. There were times when King was tired, depressed, and hungry, but was unaffected because the well-being of his followers meant the most to him.

The first couple parts to this informative, yet suspenseful book, discusses Martin Luther King’s goals, expectations, and personal life. It opens with how the beginning of King’s public career as a reluctant leader, unknowingly drafted by his colleagues to serve as president of the newly created Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King was shocked to be elected; he told a young questioner that he, “Was surprised to be elected because…both from the standpoint of my age, but more from the fact that I was a newcomer to Montgomery.”1 The organization was setup by Montgomery’s black ministers and civic activists to direct the boycott of the city’s segregated buses. King’s first mistake as a leader was assuming that white officials would be eager to negotiate a quick solution to the bus boycott. They demanded several things from the officials: first, that bus drivers begin displaying at least a modicum of courtesy toward black riders and, secondly, the regular use of racial insults be disqualified. Thirdly, the MIA demanded the elimination of two troublesome bus seating practices that the WPC had been demanding for several years. One was the reservation of the first ten seats on each bus for whites only, even if it meant black riders had to stand over empty seats. The other insisted that black riders seated to the rear of that reserved section had to surrender their seat to any newly boarding white riders if no other seats were available. Instead, the MIA proposed that black riders start seating themselves at the rear of each bus, and work their way forward, while whites start from the front and work their way back. People of different races wouldn’t need to share parallel seats, but would sit on a “first come, first served basis,” with no reserved seats and no surrendering of seats.2 Finally, the MIA also asked that blacks, who compromised upwards of seventy percent of Montgomery City Lines’ ridership, should be allowed to apply for jobs as bus drivers, positions that up until this point been reserved for whites. The MIA committee had trouble achieving its two major demands, let alone all of them. Hence, throughout his first few days of his presidency, Martin Luther King Jr. went out of his way to emphasize to the press that the MIA was not seeking to end segregation on the city’s buses, only to alter the way it was implemented. King told reporters, “We are not asking for an end to segregation.”3 The MIA began organizing its own car pool system of transportation and pushing for a long-term boycott. By mid-January, King began to realize what he had gotten himself into: the boycott was a big step toward improvement, but at a high price. King was beginning to wonder what his leadership toward the boycott would cost him and his family. However, in the wake of his arrest, jailing, and the continuous telephone threats against both him and his family, something occurred in King’s kitchen. It was around midnight when King received his last threatening phone call, “N—, we are tired of you and your messes now, if you aren’t out of this town in three days, were going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”4 As he listened to this man threaten him, he thought about his beautiful daughter, who had just been born, and the life he might have to leave behind. “And I sat there thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken from me any minute… I said Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right.5 I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represented is right. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”6 Right after this prayer, King’s inner voice said, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.”7 This experience, this vision, gave King new strength and courage to go on, it was almost as if all his fears were gone at that moment, because he knew he had some powerful by his side.

The second part of this book discusses the black freedom struggle in historical context. During the thirteen month boycott, King was faced with every aspect of leadership imaginable He inspired his followers to steadfastly refuse to ride the buses, imaginatively organized alternative transport by taxi drivers, undertakers, middle-class car owners, and friendly whites skillfully negotiated with the bus company officials, and stood firm despite arrest and the bombing of his home. Finally, victory came in form of a Supreme Court decision, in suit brought by the NAACP, which stated that the state segregation law under which the city operated was unconstitutional. It was a sweet victory in the midst of frustration over school desegregation. During the years after the bus boycott, king prepared in many was for the crucial years to come. He founded SCLC, and as its leader, achieved parity with the leaders of the NAACP, the Urban League, and CORE. King also moved to Atlanta, the “hub” of the south.8 He then decided to take a tour of India, where Gandhi also headed a civil rights revolution, which deepened King’s commitment to nonviolence and civil disobedience in response to unjust laws. King then visited two newly independent African countries, Ghana and Nigeria, which brought home the irony that “American blacks were lagging behind their African brothers.”9 Amidst all the chaos, King understood the temptation of violence, but he reminded everyone that “violence is not the road to certain freedom.”10 No matter what the whites decide to do to protesters, no matter how cruel the beatings are, King would say not to stoop to there level because it shows that we, African Americans, are morally stronger than they are, it shows courage, it shows strength, and it also shows that African Americans have greater power. King was so convinced that nonviolent protest was the only protest tactic, that he spent much more time promoting the concept of nonviolence than on speaking out against violence. On one occasion King said, “If every Negro in the United States turns to violence, I will choose to be that one lone voice preaching that this is the wrong way. Maybe this sounded like arrogance. But it was not intended that way. It was simply my way of saying that I would rather be a man of conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it ‘til the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.”11 King says that violence will just lead to war, and that is not what African Americans want. They want freedom, equality, and fairness; only through nonviolence will they achieve that.

The third section of this book cover Martin Luther King Jr., stands on nonviolent social change, which he deeply believed in. King remained convinced throughout his life that there was a need for a vast distribution of wealth and a de-emphasis on material possessions in a profit-oriented capitalist society. Later, he acknowledged the necessity for some form of American democracy and socialism to preserve the constitutional rule of law and protect individual liberties, and to ensure a “person-centered rather than property-centered and profit-centered society.”12 For King, the method of nonviolent resistance required more internal moral discipline than Marxism, because King had to accept suffering without retaliation, to receive blows without striking back. For him, this was “not cowardice but courage, not fear but fortitude.”13 Nonviolent resistance also went beyond Nietzshean resentment, a well known theory that stressed King’s view points, and revenge, in that resistance was directed at the forces of evil rather than against persons who commit the evil. King never feared anything except, “Injustice and oppression, not those who perpetrate the injustice and oppression.”14 However, after President Kennedy was assassinated, King told his wife that this was also going to happen to him. King always made premonitions of his death, to the point that some of his aides felt he was excessively morbid. Questions of life and death lead to a third crucial choice of King’s public life—his decision to embrace nonviolent direct action as a way of life an a mode of action.

The fourth and final part of this book covers the International Movements of Liberations, which was under Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership. King not only helped people fight for civil rights in the United States, but also aided people in Africa. He responded with great excitement to the changes taking place in Africa as a result of the liberation struggle. In his speech he made in New York in 1965 on Human Rights Day, he said, “The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world.”15 King believed Africa’s liberation struggle was an inspiration to those who engaged in the movement for civil rights and equality in the United States. King said before “The civil rights movement in the United States has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nations.”16 He felt deeply that the struggle and this awareness made the push for civil rights more urgent in the United States. Despite the recognized urgency of the African liberation struggle, it was difficult for American civil rights organizations and leaders to give this conflict the attention it deserved. When he visited Ghana, he was impressed by what he saw and felt, he proclaimed that Ghana’s diplomats and emissaries will inspire the world to respect African culture and traditions. King was impressed by the fact that Ghana’s struggle for independence was characterized mostly by nonviolent methods. He felt that the “aftermath of friendliness and community well-being toward the English and a sense of good will, not bitterness was testimony to this.”17

The authors’ thesis, assumptions, and point of view on the book We Shall Overcome, by Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman is to answer the most challenging question of our time: how can we follow this voice, this vision, today? Albert and Hoffman sought to more accurately portray the dynamic personality of King, assessing his relationship to the civil rights movement, and evaluate both his accomplishments and his failures. They thought King to be a successful strategist, cogent thinker, persuasive speaker, and one of the most skillful conciliatory strategists among the movement’s leaders. Albert and Hoffman believe “If King had never lived, the black struggle would have followed a course of development similar to the one it did.”18 The authors believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a historical hero. Albert and Hoffman admired Martin’s success and also how he achieved them. They realized there were times when he felt like giving up, and even killing himself, but that didn’t stop him: proving his strength.

The influence of historiography is wildly portrayed in this book, because it consists of a collection papers written by different people one topic divided in two four sections. The first is “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement”, the second section is “The Black Freedom Struggle in Historical Content”, the third one is “The Ideology of Nonviolent Social Change”, and the fourth one is “The International Movements of Liberation”. In each section of the book, certain people write an essay about how they feel King has contributed to the civil rights movement, the MIA, how deeply King felt about it, as well as some of their thoughts. This book does an exceptional job of portraying Martin Luther King’s role in the society as well as what the black community thought of him as a leader in promoting nonviolent protesting.

The main reviews of this book not biased toward Martin Luther King Jr. Anthony O. Edmonds from Ball State University describes this book as a collection of papers and comments from a symposium sponsored by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. The San Antonio Express-News says that although King believed God chose him to lead the movement, his contributions remind us of the importance to be in the right place at the right time. That is, events washed with king to inspire an astonishing effort; it is here that the most valuable lesson of King’s legacy can be learned. The Washington Post believes in historical context, King is another dead hero to the process of co-option, canonization and commercialization that conspires a comfortable legend the stark truth of a courageous life cut short by an act of cowardice and bigotry. Washington Post also claims that they distort history and the process tends to render unpredictable achievements of human history. Personally, this book portrays an excellent view of Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishments. It is a well written book and occasionally suspenseful. They came right to the point, and didn’t lag to long on one subject area. The authors were very informative, yet they also made it sound like a novel in order to maintain the reader’s interest.

The sixties and early seventies were a time of boycotts, racism, segregation, and inequality among whites and blacks. These were politically trying times because African Americans weren’t allowed to be a member of office, or vote. African Americans non- participation in elections meant less support presidential candidates and undemocratic decisions. This also hurt them economically because blacks weren’t allowed to perform some of the jobs whites did. Even though African Americans were equal to whites as workers, the government thought African Americans were not fit to perform these jobs because of skin color. The African Americans felt left out in the economy and decided it was time to take some immediate action; that’s when Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement began. It continues today; now that people with a middle-eastern background are being misjudged as terrorists just because of their race. If it wasn’t for Martin Luther King Jr. and his dedication to producing an equal society where everyone is treated the same, regardless of color, shape, size, or race: racism would still be strong today.

In conclusion, this was a very informative and inspiring novel. In reading, it became clear to me what exactly it was that Martin Luther King did for black society, and how he managed to accomplish that. It showed how much determination and courage Martin had.

review by Paimon Esfahani

  1. Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman. We Shall Overcome. Pantheon Books. 1990, 15.
  2. Peter, Ronald 16.
  3. Peter, Ronald 16.
  4. Peter, Ronald 19-20.
  5. Peter, Ronald 20.
  6. Peter, Ronald 20.
  7. Peter, Ronald 20.
  8. Peter, Ronald 63.
  9. Peter, Ronald 63.
  10. Peter, Ronald 63-64.
  11. Peter, Ronald 104.
  12. Peter, Ronald 125.
  13. Peter, Ronald 125.
  14. Peter, Ronald 126.
  15. Peter, Ronald 182-183.
  16. Peter, Ronald 183.
  17. Peter, Ronald 183-184.
  18. Peter, Ronald 6.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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