The Sun and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name started appearing in The Sun’s news pages in 1955 and 1956 when the young preacher became a key leader of the Montgomery bus boycott that followed Rosa Parks’ arrest after she refused to give up her seat to a white man. But it would be years before the paper’s editorial page would take note of him.

That’s not altogether surprising. The paper’s overall editorial stance in those days was conservative — it had, for example, been a staunch opponent of the New Deal — and The Sun had a fraught relationship with Baltimore’s African-American community. The editorial pages of the 1950s were not actively opposed to the changes in race relations that leaders like King and Baltimore’s own Thurgood Marshall were demanding, but they weren’t enthusiastic about them either, and the writing was flecked with what we would read today as outright racism.

The editorial on May 18, 1954, titled “Challenge to Patriots,” for example, eventually got around to acknowledging that the Supreme Court’s decision the previous day in Brown v. Board of Education was “entirely right in its statement that segregation, however ‘equal’ the physical facilities, does put the brand of inferiority upon Negro pupils in the schools.” But that came after a couple of paragraphs of fretting that “its implications will be painful to many Marylanders” and before proffering that integration might reduce “that criminal activity to which too many of the Negro race are given.”

The first mention of the bus boycott on the editorial page came only after the fact, and it both downplayed the seriousness of the issue (“There is a difference between adult Negroes and adult whites riding a few blocks side by side in a city bus and schoolchildren going to school together”) and rather condescendingly complimented Montgomery blacks’ “wisdom and courtesy” for knowing their place (“They were carefully advised by their leaders how to behave. They were not to push themselves, they were to ask permission to share seats with either white or Negro fellow passengers...”) The piece also rosily assured readers that such problems in Baltimore “sort of withered away” without the need for “any organized push.”

The Gandhi connection

But King did have at least one early admirer at The Sun in Price Day, a former war correspondent who would go on to become the paper’s editor in chief. Day had won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1949 for a series of articles about India’s first year of independence, and the connection between the non-violent methods of King and the other bus boycott organizers clearly resonated with what he had observed on the subcontinent. In 1957, as King was preparing to visit India, Day wrote a laudatory column about Gandhi’s methods of “satyagraha … a combination of the Hindi [words] for truth and for firmness” and its potential in rectifying other injustices around the globe. “The method’s most remarkable extension of all remains its appearance in Alabama’s capital city, whose bus-boycott leaders explicitly proclaimed themselves in this matter to be disciples, and showed themselves to be students, of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Once The Sun’s editorial page started writing about King, it was his dedication to non-violence that captured the editors’ attention. He was first the subject of a brief editorial in the spring of 1960 when an Alabama jury acquitted him on a perjury charge, though that piece reads more as a compliment to the fairness of Alabamans than an acknowledgment of King’s importance. But the first real appraisal of his work came that summer when the paper commented on the sit-ins at southern lunch counters. It supported both the righteousness of the cause (“what mattered here was no the hamburgers but the principle”) and the willingness of young black leaders to make a more aggressive challenge of the status quo than their gradualist elders while staying true to “the passive-resistance approach espoused by Martin Luther King.”

“Their avoidance of hostility, even under provocation, made their appeal for dignified treatment more effective, and they demonstrated in city after city that the time was riper than their elders supposed,” the Aug. 12, 1960, editorial says. “Of greater significance in the long run is the impression made on political parties and officialdom generally that the young Negro leaders have a new earnestness, and a new calmness and firmness, of purpose.”

Moral authority

When King was sent to jail in Georgia that fall, the paper declared that “Nobody in this country has a clearer idea of what he is doing than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.” The editors recognized what King did, that the abuse heaped on him by segregationists and racists only strengthened his moral authority and weakened his opponents’ grip. “Hard as imprisonment may be on him personally, his willingness to subject himself to the humiliation must surely strengthen the devotion and determination of his followers and, at the same time, weaken the confidence and self-respect in the white community,” the paper’s editors wrote. “Who but the most rabid and insensitive segregationists could find justification in the quiet of their consciences for putting handcuffs on a minister who preached steadily against violent actions?”

By 1963, The Sun was defending the March on Washington from those who argued that it served merely to antagonize “fence-sitters” in Congress, which the paper blasted for being too slow to act on civil rights legislation. Curiously, from the perspective of five decades later when the march is chiefly remembered for the “I have a dream” speech, the editorial made only passing reference to King’s “eloquence.” But in the editors’ view, it was the people, not the speeches, that made the march so powerful. It quoted an anonymous diplomat who marveled at how the event looked from a non-American perspective, “democracy and liberty expressing themselves, and seeking to fulfill themselves.”

“You can’t weigh that, or measure that, or put it in a package, or feed it through an electronic computer, but it is the story fo Wednesday in Washington,” the editorial said. “It is Wednesday’s lesson, and it is a lesson that will not be forgotten as we seek on and on to realize our destiny as a nation.”

Putting King in a box

The Sun’s admiration for King was not absolute. It loved him for passive resistance but tut-tutted any time he moved out of the box the paper wanted to put him in. The Sun supported home rule for Washington, D.C., but when King proposed a march of African Americans to demand it, the paper opined that it “could do more harm than good.” His effort to aid in bringing an end to the Vietnam war was, the editors believed, a possible violation of the Logan Act, the prohibition on diplomacy by private citizens that has been much in the news recently in relation to the Trump transition team’s contacts with Russia. When King urged young men to declare themselves conscientious objectors rather than submit to the draft, the paper complained that he was likely to “break down the rules which respect the true conscientious objectors without really strengthening his argument against the war.” And the paper proclaimed “danger” in King’s efforts to merge the civil rights and anti-war causes, saying it could alienate pro-war, pro-civil rights voters and sideline King from his leadership in the cause.

What really got the paper exorcised were the occasions when King suggested using boycotts to achieve the movement’s aims. In 1965, on the eve of King’s appearance in Baltimore at a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The Sun opined that his idea for an economic boycott of Alabama in order to pressure then-Gov. George Wallace from office “would harm citizens more than it would harm the Governor and his associates, and in the end it might well hurt the cause of civil rights.” (King didn’t take our advice and pushed the idea in his Baltimore speech anyway.) In 1963, The Sun wrote a heart-wrenching editorial about the murder of four children in a Birmingham church bombing, saying “we are all to blame … because the nation came too late to the full realization of a condition whose earlier correction could have saved these young lives.” But when the SCLC and King proposed to actually do something about it with a nationwide African-American boycott of the Christmas season, the paper balked, calling it the “poisonous bitterness of extremism.”

Still, the paper would never stray too far from its support for King because it eventually came to realize that the alternatives, from its perspective, were far worse. The riots in several cities in 1966 prompted The Sun to argue again for their conviction that non-violence was the only way for blacks to win gains in the civil rights struggle and to urge King to keep the movement on that path. “‘A riot is the language of the unheard,’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says. The ‘unheard’ are for the most part the very poorest urban Negroes, the people who have not enjoyed the fruits of of the victories of the civil rights movement over the last decade. They need leadership and help. If Dr. King and Roy Wilkins don’t lead them, the Stokely Carmichaels will — and their victories are dangerous for all concerned.”

The assassination

It was, then, with both sadness and trepidation that The Sun reacted to King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968. The Sun asserted in its lead editorial on April 5 that “there was none other of his stature, that here was a man committed to a Gandhian principle of non-violent, passive resistance who again and again demonstrated that social changes could be brought about through peaceable means.” But it also fretted that “the nation can only anxiously wonder what voices will take King’s place.” On April 6, a tone of desperation ran through an editorial titled “A Nation Tested” imploring that “Somehow the emotion, the shock, the grief, the anger generated by this new national tragedy must be kept from exploding into more violence and more killing, which would only add to the sense of disaster.”

Of course, that was not to be. Baltimore erupted into rioting that evening, unrest that would last several days. When The Sun sought to pick up the pieces, it observed, “We now must know that merely to put the pieces back together as before is not sufficient. Any previous white satisfaction that Baltimore had moved fast enough or far enough in race relations has been shattered. The rumbling discontent has split open the surface calm.”

“What can anyone do?” The Sun asked. “One answer lies with the Negro boys and girls who will be graduating this June from Baltimore high schools. If they get decent jobs and a toehold on a brighter future, which they have been assured repeatedly are the rewards of staying in school, the fulfillment of their faith in the American promise will be an object lesson to others who may falter. But if they end up no better off than the dropout, the object lesson will be more of the same disillusionment, which serves as an excuse for the lawless element to try it the wrong way.”

Our predecessors wrote that on April 11, 1968. We could have written almost exactly the same thing after the riots of 2015. We could write it again today. During King’s life, the attitudes of this community, and the editorials of this paper that both reflected and sought to guide them, underwent a real and substantial change. But they didn’t go far enough. Fifty years later, we still haven’t.

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