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How MLK became an angry black man
April 16th, 2013
12:40 PM ET

How MLK became an angry black man

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - By the time Clarence Jones reached him, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in bad shape.

He was unshaven, dirty and dejected. King had spent several days alone in solitary confinement with no mattress in a filthy dark jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.

"Take this out of here," King whispered as he grabbed Jones' belt and stuffed bawled-up newspapers and toilet tissue down his pants.

Jones, King's lawyer, wondered if King was starting to lose it. He didn't pay attention to what King had given him - it was just a mish-mash of words and arrows scribbled on bits of paper.

"Not until five days later did I actually read a mimeographed copy of the letter," says Jones. "To be honest with you, I was more worried about bail money, not what he had written."

Millions of people have since read what Jones first ignored. As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on Tuesday, the document has become an American epistle. It's considered a classic defense of civil disobedience.

Were you at MLK's 'I Have a Dream' speech? Share your story

But those who see King's letter as just a tract on nonviolent resistance make the same mistake King's lawyer made: They miss what's special about something that's right in front of their eyes, some King scholars say.

The letter is one of the most intimate snapshots of a King most people don't know: An angry black man who once hated white people and, according to one scholar, was more dangerous than Malcolm X, a man King admired.

"Before everything else, (the letter) is a black man's cry of pain, anger and defiance," says Jonathan Rieder, author of the just-released "Gospel of Freedom," which looks at the "furious truth teller" revealed in King's classic letter.

King's blackness - his fierce racial pride, his distinctively black Christian faith and his belief that most whites were "unconscious racists" - is on full display in his letter, scholars say. The anger that drove King's letter would become more prominent in the speeches King gave until, literally, his last hours, Rieder says.

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March 26th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

The voting rights martyr who divided America

Editor's note: The following is an edited excerpt from John Blake's 2004 book "Children of the Movement" about Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who was killed while working for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. In the accompanying video clip, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett discuss their participation in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and their memories of Viola Liuzzo. This story is being republished on the anniversary of her death, and contains objectionable language.

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - On March 26, 1965, Penny Liuzzo was watching the "Donna Reed Show" at her home in Detroit when a wave of nausea suddenly swept over her. In an instant, she knew what had happened.

"Oh my God," she thought as she stood up and walked out of the room. "My mom's dead."

When Penny's mother, Viola Liuzzo, had called home a week earlier to tell her family she was going to Selma, Alabama, Penny had been engulfed by a sense of dread. She tried to talk her mother out of going.

"I'm never going to see you again, Mom. I know it. I just feel it. Please let me go in your place. I'll go."

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The voting rights martyr who divided America
Viola Liuzzo's murder made her a scapegoat. It also sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act, which may soon be overturned.
February 28th, 2013
12:36 PM ET

The voting rights martyr who divided America

Editor's note: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week over a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The following is an edited excerpt from John Blake's 2004 book "Children of the Movement" about Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who was killed while working for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. This story contains objectionable language.

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - On March 26, 1965, Penny Liuzzo was watching the "Donna Reed Show" at her home in Detroit when a wave of nausea suddenly swept over her. In an instant, she knew what had happened.

"Oh my God," she thought as she stood up and walked out of the room. "My mom's dead."

When Penny's mother, Viola Liuzzo, had called home a week earlier to tell her family she was going to Selma, Alabama, Penny had been engulfed by a sense of dread. She tried to talk her mother out of going.

"I'm never going to see you again, Mom. I know it. I just feel it. Please let me go in your place. I'll go."

Liuzzo laughed off her daughter's fears. Viola had been determined to help marchers in Selma after watching newsreel footage of civil rights marchers being beaten there. She had cried after the newscast ended. "I'm tired of sitting here watching people get beat up," she told her family before driving off to Selma.

The call came at midnight. After experiencing her bout of nausea, Penny had gone to bed but could not sleep. She heard her father answer the phone. "Penny, your mother's dead! Your mother's dead," he wailed.

Then something happened that Penny still cannot explain 40 years later. Her 6-year-old sister, Sally, walked into the bedroom and said, "No, Mama's not dead. I just saw her walking in the hall."

The murder of Viola Liuzzo was one of the most shocking moments in the civil rights movement. On a winding, isolated road outside Selma, Liuzzo was ambushed and shot to death by a car full of Ku Klux Klansmen.

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May 11th, 2012
10:07 AM ET

Complexity in black church reactions to Obama’s gay marriage announcement

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) – After Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first gained wide public recognition in the mid-1950s, he made a special request to evangelist Billy Graham.

King was poised to join Graham on one of his barnstorming crusades, but would do so only on one condition. He asked Graham to publicly speak out against segregation, a request Graham declined, says San Diego State University historian Edward Blum.

“What Graham feared was losing all of his influence,” Blum says. “For him, personal salvation was primary, justice secondary. For King, justice was primary.”

After President Obama this week became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage, black clergy and churchgoers could face a similar question to the one that fractured King and Graham: Should my ideas about personal holiness trump my notion of justice?

Read the full post on CNN's Belief blog

America’s ‘angriest’ theologian faces lynching tree
A crowd gathers in Marion, Indiana, in 1930 to witness a lynching. This photograph inspired the poem and song “Strange Fruit.”
April 23rd, 2012
11:18 AM ET

America’s ‘angriest’ theologian faces lynching tree

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) – When he was boy growing up in rural Arkansas, James Cone would often stand at his window at night, looking for a sign that his father was still alive.

Cone had reason to worry. He lived in a small, segregated town in the age of Jim Crow. And his father, Charlie Cone, was a marked man.

Charlie Cone wouldn’t answer to any white man who called him “boy.” He only worked for himself, he told his sons, because a black man couldn’t work for a white man and keep his manhood at the same time.

Once, when he was warned that a lynch mob was coming to run him out of his home, he grabbed a shotgun and waited, saying, “Let them come, because some of them will die with me.”

James Cone knew the risks his father took. So when his father didn’t come home at his usual time in the evenings, he’d stand sentry, looking for the lights from his father’s pickup truck.

“I had heard too much about white people killing black people,” Cone recalled. “When my father would finally make it home safely, I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be.”

Cone left his hometown of Bearden, Arkansas, and became one of the world’s most influential theologians. But the memories of his father and lynch mobs never left him. Those memories shaped his controversial theology, and they saturate his recent memoir, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Read the full post on CNN's Belief blog

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Trayvon's death: Echoes of Emmett Till?
Some see similarities in the death of Trayvon Martin, left, and the 1955 killing of Emmett Till.
March 24th, 2012
08:10 PM ET

Trayvon's death: Echoes of Emmett Till?

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) -  Both were African-American teenagers who left home and never came back. Both forced the nation to talk about unwritten racial codes. Both didn’t live to see what symbols they became.

Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till.

They died 57 years apart, but their names and legacies may be forever merged. Some are saying Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager who was shot to death by a white Hispanic neighborhood watchman is on the verge of becoming this generation’s Emmett Till.

Thousands of angry Americans – of various races - have taken to Facebook and news sites and the streets to compare Martin’s fate to Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly violating an unwritten Southern racial code by whistling at a white women.

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