A Good Man Is Hard to Find

The road to hell, I was taught as a child, is paved with good intentions. Surely no one could fault the intentions of the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy—Martin Luther King's right arm and successor in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—as revealed in this fascinating and moving autobiography. Inspired by faith in Divine mercy, by a Christian vision of brotherhood among the races, and by hope of succor for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed, Abernathy has devoted his life to the cause unstintingly, courageously, even heroically. Moreover, grand as this dream may have been, it was the moderate position in the context of the civil rights movement of the 1960's, even as SCLC's advocacy of nonviolent demonstrations was the tactic of moderation. SCLC stood midway between an older generation that preferred not to rock the boat and a younger one, led by the likes of Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, whose counsel was "Burn, baby, burn."

But the enterprise was inherently flawed. For openers, almost extra-human discipline was required to keep nonviolent demonstrations nonviolent, and though SCLC managed to do so for a while, the movement ultimately and inevitably got out of hand. The riots in Watts (about which Abernathy is strangely silent) followed the last great peaceful march at Selma by only five months. And even in the most controlled phases of the movement, there was something intrinsically...

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