My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement. You will not know this book because it hasn’t been published yet. In fact, it might never have been published had it not been for the brilliant persistence and effort of Keith Miller, one of my heroes in our field. You do probably know Miller’s work—his books include Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic: His Great, Final Speech and Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources, and his essays on King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglass, C.L. Franklin, and Fannie Lou Hamer have appeared in our field’s best journals. And if you know Miller personally, then you’ll know that saying he is “persistent” is a vast understatement: an absolute ferret for information, Keith will follow a research thread to the ends of the earth—if it relates to social justice and freedom.
It’s this persistence (I’m guessing) that led him to Helene Rene Billups Baker, daughter of Charles Billups and author of the book noted above. Baker had never written about her father, a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and a major leader in Birmingham whom King sought out for advice and counsel. She says she had never written about him—and had not talked much about him either—because of the trauma she lived through in her childhood and young adulthood, trauma that effectively silenced her. A near-death experience made her rethink that silence, however, and the result is this book, which Miller is publishing. A mesmerizing storyteller, Baker lets us see Billups as his daughter knew him, observe him as he takes on major leadership in Birmingham, fear for him as he organizes protests, watch with horror and admiration as he prays for those who beat, torture, and almost murder him, and tremble as he faces Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses, telling them to “Turn on the hoses! Turn loose the dogs! We will stay here ’til we die!” As Baker tells it, her “daddy was shedding tears when he told Bull Connor that nobody was moving.” When the firefighters refused to turn on the hoses, telling Connor to “turn them on yourself,” it marked what some call the “spiritual climax” of the entire Birmingham campaign and illustrated the power of nonviolence. It also left his daughter deeply traumatized and fearful, desperately determined to protect her father.
When Keith sent me the manuscript of this book, I literally could not put it down: I read it straight through, and then read it again, time traveling back to Baker’s childhood and trying to see events through her young eyes. Baker is determined to tell her father’s story, to make sure that people remember him for the hero he was, and to honor that memory. And he comes to life in her pages; we get to know him through his daughter’s words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing assignments and have written recently about the University of Oklahoma’s program assignments, which ask students to (among other things) look closely at a group they belong to and reflect long and hard on how that group influences and informs their values and their thinking and their practices. I wonder how many students, in responding to such an assignment, which calls for meta-cognitive assessment and self-reflection, take a look at their family’s past, at their ancestors, as Baker does in writing about her father. I know, for example, that my great grandfather fought, in Tennessee, on the side of the North in the Civil War and that he and his wife had my grandmother when he was in his 50s; she used to tell me stories of sitting on their porch listening to him and other soldiers who had been through the war talking about those times. But that’s about all I know. What if I used the same persistence Miller has shown in pursuing research to learn as much as possible, not just about my great grandfather but about the regiment he fought with, the battles they were in, the Tennessee Smoky Mountain region he returned to, and its inhabitants at the time? What might I be able to learn that would help me think more deeply and critically about my own beliefs and values, about how they developed and where they came from? And how might that help me think about and try to understand the values held by other people and other groups? It’s a task I’d like to undertake!
I know that many teachers of writing encourage students to engage in this kind of self-reflective research that often includes ethnographic research as well as archival research and that such projects often result in the kind of writing that builds agency in students and helps them experience the power of writing to change them and to change the world. In these soul-destroying times, I can think of no better way to resist nihilism, not to mention deep depression, than to engage in such teaching and learning.
P.S. When Baker’s book becomes available, I will write another post on it; I think you’ll want to read it!
Image Credit: The Birmingham News via KKK savagely beat her father who then taught lesson in forgiveness (video) | AL.com.