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BEARING THE CROSS Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow (Vintage Books: $10.95)

January 24, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1987 and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, David Garrow's "Bearing the Cross" vividly recaptures the events of the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. This impressive work of history is based on more than 700 recorded conversations, including interviews with King's closest surviving associates--among them Andrew Young, Ralph D. Abernathy and Coretta Scott King--as well as political opponents. In addition to access to King's personal papers and numerous archival sources, Garrow draws from thousands of hitherto unreleased FBI documents (including transcripts of hundreds of wiretapped telephone conversations) detailing the activities of King and his closest colleagues.

In 1955, King was 26 years old and the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Rosa Parks had just been arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger, and leaders in the black community, among them longtime black activist E. D. Nixon and Ralph Abernathy, secretary of the Baptist Ministers' Alliance and one of the city's most outspoken young pastors, tried to organize a boycott of the city buses. Abernathy and Nixon approached King and asked if he would lend his support to the boycott and his church as a meeting place. From this local gathering evolved what came to be called the Montgomery Improvement Assn., and King was nominated president. "Abernathy fully expected King to decline. Instead, after a pause, King told his colleagues, 'Well, if you think I can render some service, I will.' " Out of such humble and ambivalent beginnings began a political career that in 13 years would change the character of the nation.

"Bearing the Cross" chronicles the most turbulent years of the American civil rights movement. The birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham protests, the march on Washington in 1963, King's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize (1964), Selma (Ala.) and the Voting Rights Act, Chicago and the "War on Slums," the Meredith march, the rise of "Black Power" and King's final efforts to launch the Poor People's Campaign, all are documented through Garrow's exhaustive delineation. King's political genius was sustained by his gifts for oratory and compromise and his passionate dedication to the principles of nonviolence. He survived constant death threats, FBI harassment and surveillance (which plagued him to his grave, as Garrow amply demonstrates) and a near-fatal stabbing by a mentally ill black woman in Harlem (1959).

But, as the cause he championed became national in scope, King felt himself increasingly bypassed by other black leaders who were frustrated with the slow pace of change. "The Negro is shedding himself of his fears," King said, "and my real worry is how we will keep this fearlessness from rising to violent proportions." In the weeks and months before his assassination, King came to see the struggle as lost. He felt that he had been a symbol of nonviolence but that his methods and principles had been abandoned. In despair, and in what may have been only a momentary lapse, he told Abernathy: "Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here, and . . . let violence take its course." But the violence, when it came, came at him. He was assassinated only a few weeks later.

It is the triumph of Garrow's achievement that while he succeeds in de-mythologizing the King of legend, in so doing he reveals in harrowing detail the daily scale of King's heroism and sacrifice. If the book has a flaw, it is that in the accumulation of detail, events are asked to speak for themselves without authorial commentary.

SHADOWS AND WHISPERS Power Politics Inside the Kremlin From Brezhnev to Gorbachev

by Dusko Doder (Penguin Books: $7.95) Dusko Doder, a reporter for United Press International from 1968 to 1971 and more recently Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post (1980-1985), offers in these pages "glimpses into the secret world of Soviet power." Despite his fluency in Russian, Doder admits his difficulties acquiring information beyond what the Soviet government intended for public consumption. Thus the book is the result of its author's journalistic intuition and "reports and rumors . . . circulated among the Soviet elite."

Dimitri K. Simes, writing in these pages, found some of Doder's conclusions less than reliable. By neglecting dissident sources in favor of Soviet officials whom he trusted not to "lie deliberately" to him, Doder tells only a partial story. "Such attitudes allowed Doder to develop impressive contact among the Soviet bureaucracy," Simes wrote. "Those connections helped him with an occasional scoop. But the price in terms of his ability to provide a balanced picture of a very complex and important period in Soviet history to the American reader was excessive."

THE ALL OF IT by Jeannette Haien

(Perennial/Harper & Row: $6.95)

In this lyrical first novel set in Ireland, a priest with a passion for angling is asked to hear the confession of a dying man and, in so doing, makes a shocking discovery: Two parishioners, Kevin and Enda, living 50 years as man and wife had never married and were, in fact, brother and sister.

After Kevin dies, Enda approaches the priest and beseeches him to allow the death notice to read that Kevin is survived by his wife. Thus Father Declan enters the sin of the lie, and he finds himself being pulled further and further away from his priesthood in the name of friendship. Connemara, Ireland, is the author's summer home, and her Irish lilt evocatively captures Ireland's abundance of life as well as its sadness.

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