Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Life as a Writer

My Holocaust survivor parents arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and followed the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s with hope and horror. When they saw TV footage of demonstrators being dragged, beaten, attacked by dogs, it triggered terrible memories of Nazis and other oppressors for them. But they sincerely believed that this country would fulfill its promises of freedom and equal rights.

As a kid I read a lot about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, especially biographies, but none of those figures moved me the way Martin Luther King, Jr. did. His eloquence and passion weren’t something from the past: they were immediate–like his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

LIFE Magazine was always in our house along with a handful of newspapers, and somewhere, somehow in fourth or fifth grade I read at least part of King’s powerful and eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I was an early reader and read beyond my grade level, but this manifesto was completely different from the books of various country’s folk tales, books about dolphins, and science fiction that I brought home from the local public library every week.

King offered poetry, passion, and inspiration–things I hadn’t truly encountered in any book before.  My favorite books at the time were Alice in Wonderland, Cheaper by the Dozen, and The Three Musketeers, each of them entertaining in different ways.  But King’s words soared:

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

I can see myself curled up in a big, wide-armed living room chair, some green material shot through with bold threads, transfixed.  And in my own head, I made connections between how Jews had been considered less than human in Nazi Germany with how America’s blacks were being treated as they fought for equality.

I did a school report on King and it must have been noteworthy because it was sent to a display at the local school district’s offices.  I have no memory of what was in it, but can picture the illustration pasted to the construction paper cover: a black hand reaching up, something I’d probably cut out from LIFE.

It was the first time my writing had been recognized, but more importantly, it was the first time I’d felt propelled to write, to pay tribute.  And the first time my writing had affected anyone but me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the real start of my career as a writer because I discovered the power of words to change the world.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

 

Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” As an Adult

When the first Hobbit movie was coming out, I re-read the novel I loved as a kid to reacquaint myself with the story and was more enthralled than I expected to be.

The wry voice was something I missed as a twelve-year-old in love with the adventure and fantasy, and I reconnected immediately with what moved me most the first time: the ways Bilbo’s fooled Gollum and the dragon. In each case, the small, clever Hobbit outwits a fierce enemy.  That was a real treat for me as a bookish, picked-on kid with a tough older brother.


Harper Lee’s Scout also defeated monsters when she helped defuse the mob in front of the jail. It’s one of the best scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird–if not entirely believable.  But Scout herself doesn’t hold up for me today because I just don’t believe her voice. She often sounds too mature for an eight-year-old, like when she thought near the end of the book (according to her adult self) “there wasn’t much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”

190px-MockingbirdfirstAnd I’m mixed about the book itself: it feels like an uneven blend of southern novel of manners with the “race novel” Lee originally intended, folded into a  courtroom drama which seems clichéd–through no fault of hers. We’ve all read so much John Grisham and Scott Turow, or maybe I have as a long-time crime fiction reviewer.  The story of the rape accusation takes way too long to get going.  And in terms of suspense, the final appearance of Boo Radley is a letdown after all the mystery and tension.  He’s just not that interesting.

Some of Atticus’s sentiments also grated on my nerves, like his belief that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.” That feels hopelessly naive and sentimental–especially when you consider that Lee wrote the book after The Holocaust.  But closer to home, there was the brutality she saw in the south directed at Civil Rights protestors.

Flannery O’Connor damned the novel with pretty faint praise when it came out: “I think for a child’s book it does all right.” That seems unduly harsh (and unfair to YA literature). What works best for me as an adult reader is the local color, the barbed social comedy, and the graceful prose.

Of course the book’s dramatic core couldn’t be timelier: today’s America is still grappling with racial injustice just as Harper Lee’s fictional town was in Depression-era Alabama.  That’s sadly a story which seems to make the news every week–if not more often.

Lev Raphael’s 25 book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a suspense novel about militarized police.  It was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.