“I may not be able to read or write—but I have the capacity to die!”

rubybridges - young black girl going to school

I come back to this famous photo, from 1960, of U.S. Marshals escorting Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. I come back to this photo after seeing documentary footage of Martin Luther King preaching, in April 1963, to black people in a church in Montgomery:

You know when I say “Don’t be afraid,” you know what I really mean—don’t even be afraid to die! But I submit to you tonight, no man is free if he fears death. But the minute you conquer the fear of death, at that moment, you are free. You must say, somehow, ‘I don’t have much money—I don’t have much education—I may not be able to read or write—but I have the capacity to die!”

The closing line—”I may not be able to read or write—but I have the capacity to die!”—is striking enough on its own, but the documentary I was watching showed King’s words being met with loud and enthusiastic applause from the audience.


Every time I return to the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and I return often, I am struck, as indeed many of us are, by the extraordinary courage of the people—of the rank-and-file and of the leaders—who participated in the movement. Bridges was 7 years old. “She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her,” one of the Marshals later said.

All but one of the teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. The one exception, Barbara Henry, ended up teaching Bridges for a year alone. Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her. Another woman put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges later said had “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.” Meanwhile, Ruby’s father lost his job, the grocery store the family shopped at turned them away, her sharecropper grandparents were turned off their land.

We need to keep repeating the details so we can appreciate that there is another, more courageous and transcendent way of living.

We all know pieces of this history; it comes on television and into our schools every winter as part of Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. And yet, a bit like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, I feel we need to keep repeating the details, both so that we will not forget, and also so that we can appreciate that there is another, more courageous and transcendent way of living, a way different from how we are living today.


I came back to Bridges’s story after watching the first half of Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis, a three-hour documentary carefully stitched together from archival footage. Ruby Bridges and her struggles do not have a place in this film. It focuses on the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 Birmingham anti-discrimination campaign, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech about death was new to me, but of course others of the speeches and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” were quite familiar. And yet the film, and without using any narrator or interviews with historians, pressed one of its central points home. The courage, at least of the African-Americans in Montgomery and Birmingham, was fired and sustained both by King’s own courage and by his extraordinary capacity to make people feel they were engaged in something historic, something that was lifting them above the terms of ordinary human existence. As indeed they were, and as indeed it did.

mlk-montgomery-bus-boycottI will try not to quote at length from King’s well-known speeches, but I will say that Landau’s film made me feel that King’s speech on the first day of the bus boycott was greater than his more often re-broadcast “I Have a Dream” speech. The latter feels a bit canned and unfocused, as if King were going through the motions of being this King he had become in the media. But in the December 5, 1955, Holt Street Baptist Church speech, which King made when he was 26 years old, and which he subsequently claimed to have written in twenty minutes, everything comes together.

“We are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning”—that is one of my favorite lines. And this passage, perhaps better known, is certainly brilliant politically:

My friends, don’t let anybody make us feel that we are to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or with the White Citizens Council. There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and lynched for not cooperating. There will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation.

But it is these words from the conclusion that makes the real difference:

Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people, a black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.” And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.

As indeed they did.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor



Credits & Links

Photo of King by the bus was taken 26 December 1956, after the Montgomery bus boycott had ended. Photo Credit: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Again I must note that in the days after the boycott was, ostensibly, successfully concluded and the buses officially integrated, the attacks by white racists redoubled. There was the shotgun fired into King’s home, the buses were fired upon by snipers, the bombs that destroyed five black churches and the home of one of the few white Montgomerians who had publicly sided with the boycott. The struggle never ends, either. At least one New York apartment building is going to come with a “poor door.” How far is this from the “colored” drinking fountains of the South?

Photo at right is of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers preparing to go to Belzoni, Mississippi, in the fall of 1963 to organize for the Freedom Vote. Photo: Courtesy of Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis. The film was publicly shown for only one night, in 1970, but then released in 2014 on DVD, by Kino. I first read about this documentary in an excellent New Yorker piece by Louis Menand: The Color of Law: Voting rights and the Southern way of life, 8 July 2013.

The text and audio of King’s December 5, 1955, Holt Street Baptist Church speech is on YouTube.

Snowden/Jesus discusses courage and happiness (if not transcendence) in another, more recent political context. See section (5).

I began this piece as a rumination on a comment made by Darryl Pinckney in a New York Review of Books piece about the movie Selma:

 A film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one [e.g. Selma], can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the US is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument. Imagine Henry Hampton’s documentary Eyes on the Prize as just image, no script. We still need the voice-over of Julian Bond, among others, for perspective and context.

Point well taken, and certainly as regards a Hollywood movie such as Selma. Another example: Spielberg’s Lincoln, which my son and I, at least, found unwatchable, not because it didn’t allow for complicated arguments, but it seemed to lose or varnish over the complexity of the plot, of Lincoln’s and others’ roles during the Civil War. But are there not at least exceptions that prove Pinckney’s rule?

In other pieces I have argued that Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza and Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (or 1 + 1) make complicated arguments. And I wonder what we would say about the complicated arguments underlying Landau’s A Filmed Record ? One of these arguments, I am proposing, has to do with the value and purpose of a human life, and with fear of death. Even as I recognize that the Civil Rights Movement could not have succeeded if the activists had not shown an almost superhuman courage, and even as I feel this movement was one of the great events in American history, still I would have human beings recognize what it means to be human, which would include recognizing our very real fears—to include of death and of human selfishness and cruelty.

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