Review of My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement

Review of My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Maegan Parker Brooks

Maegan Parker Brooks is an Associate Professor of Civic Communication and Media and American Ethnic Studies at Willamette University. She writes at the intersections of rhetoric, race, and public memory, creating both scholarly and public-facing projectsFannie Lou Hamer: America’s Freedom Fighting Woman (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) is her most recent book.

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Baker, Rene Billups (with Keith D. Miller). My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement. Phoenix: Peacock Proud Press, 2019. 110 pages.

“Sometimes I would be my daddy’s mouthpiece,” remembers Rene Billups Baker within the pages of My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement (9). Over fifty years after her father’s tragic death, Billups Baker found supportive encouragement in civil rights movement scholar Keith D. Miller and she summoned the courage to speak for her father once more. In recovering her father’s activism and in telling her own story, Billups Baker speaks back to oversimplified popular narratives of the civil rights movement in a manner that provides both an enriched version of American history and valuable lessons for America’s contemporary political context. 

My Life provides readers a firsthand account of the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, which was vital to the strategies and successes of the larger black freedom struggle. Billups Baker’s memoir also grants readers a detailed introduction to her father, Charles Billups, a decorated WWII veteran and civil rights movement foot soldier whose activism warrants much further study. Billups pastored the New Pilgrim Church in Birmingham, which his daughter characterizes as a “big spark plug for the movement” (12). In many respects, New Pilgrim was the cornerstone of black life in the city—providing weekly sermons that fortified parishioners who daily struggled against the all-pervasive injustices and indignities of the Jim Crow South; New Pilgrim also provided a daycare center, a credit union, and free Monday night dinners for the community. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), which Billups helped found in 1956, sponsored these Monday night dinners that turned into political rallies. The ACMHR was comprised of a core group of local ministers and parishioners who held their leadership sessions at New Pilgrim and also held their rallies there each week, enlisting the “movement choir” to help inspire Birmingham residents to “join the struggle to eliminate racial segregation” (12). As a core ACMHR organizer and a pastor at New Pilgrim, Billups worked alongside better-known movement greats like Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth, E.D. Nixon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, as Billups’ daughter recalls, King so respected her father’s leadership that he enlisted Billups in his inner circle when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) centered their nonviolent protest movement in Birmingham in the Spring of 1963. Three years later, when the SCLC launched their Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, moreover, King recruited Billups to that northern city to help coordinate the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket initiative.

Written as equal parts memoir, organizational history, and biography, My Life includes rare photographs, historical news clippings, and never-before-published movement memoranda. Billups Baker pairs these valuable primary sources with her own intimate account, informed by eyewitness experiences and the stories passed down within her family about Billups, King, and pivotal moments within the larger movement for civil rights. Scholars interested in the rhetoric of nonviolent social change, for instance, will find Billups Baker’s account of the Miracle March that her father led particularly valuable. As she recounts, on Sunday May 5, 1963, after Birmingham police arrested the white folk singers and civil rights supporters, Guy Carawan and Candy Carawan, Billups led thousands of black parishioners—adults and children all dressed in their Sunday’s best—on a half-mile march toward the jail. Once there, they gathered on the jailhouse lawn, kneeling, praying, and singing movement anthems in solidarity with the Carawans. Bull Connor, the arch segregationist city commissioner, ordered Birmingham’s firefighters to turn their hoses on the protestors and the police to sic their dogs on the kneeling parishioners. “Turn on the hoses! Turn loose the dogs! We will stay here ‘til we die!” Billups defiantly responded to Connor’s orders (Billups qtd. in Billups Baker 56).  At that, the firefighters put down their hoses; the police kept their dogs on leash. Connor commanded them again and again, cursing the first responders, and ordering them to attack the protestors. They refused. Eventually Billups led the peaceful protestors (without incident) from the jailhouse lawn, right by the firefighters and police officers, back toward New Pilgrim. 

The Miracle March deeply affected King, who referred to it as “one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story,” from which he felt “for the first time the pride and power of nonviolence” in Birmingham (King qtd. in Billups Baker 56-57). The Birmingham story, moreover, was a pivotal force in the overall movement for nonviolent social, political, and economic change. As famed performer and ardent movement supporter, Harry Belafonte proclaimed: “For the civil rights effort in America, Birmingham was the turning point . . . it was the most astonishing victory of nonviolent action that any of us had even seen” (Belafonte qtd. in Billups Baker 61). Within the pages of My Life, Billups Baker details the national and international attention the nonviolent movement for civil rights in Birmingham received. She also connects its success to nonviolent demonstrations across the South and even to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Through his dedicated activism in Birmingham, Charles Billups became a trusted advisor to King. Andrew Young referred to Billups as “one of the most faithful and fearless leaders of the old ACMHR,” and Billups Baker recalls the long nights her father spent strategizing with King, the SCLC, and local leaders in Birmingham’s Gaston Motel (57). In 1966, when King announced the SCLC’s Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, therefore, it was not surprising that he recruited Billups to help with the effort. Moving to Chicago was exciting for Billups Baker, then just a teenager. For two years, her father supported the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. Shortly after King was assassinated in Memphis, however, Billups was shot in the chest and killed in Chicago. “The police never arrested anyone for murdering my father,” Billups Baker laments, “and the case was never solved” (82). For a time, the authorities suspected that Billups’s murder was tied to King’s assassination. Fearing more violence, they closely guarded the Billups family, but officials eventually reasoned that Charles Billups was likely the victim of a random armed robbery and essentially dropped the case. The grieving and fearful Billups family—Rene, her mother, Almarie, and two sisters, Charlotte and Lisa—moved back to Birmingham and distanced themselves from the movement. 

“I hated the civil rights movement” recalls Billups Baker, “because it had simply meant trouble and pain for me” (90). This through line, encapsulated by the book title’s post colon emphasis, “Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement,” will likely be of particular interest to Peitho’s readers. Billups Baker’s memoir offers a first-hand feminist history of her experience growing from a black child into a black woman, all the while navigating the trauma and grief wrought by white supremacy. The long nights her father spent strategizing with King and other movement leaders in the Gaston Motel, for instance, are particularly memorable for Billups Baker because her mother worked the graveyard shift at a hospital and so her father would bring her and her sisters to those meetings. Unlike the family-friendly atmosphere of contemporary Black Lives Matter meetings, wherein activists are encouraged to “fully participate with their children,” the Billups children were not welcome in the Gaston Motel strategy sessions (Black Lives Matter, “What We Believe”). Their father would, thus, leave Charlotte, Rene, and Lisa in the family’s car, parked under a streetlight outside the motel. Their teachers complained about how tired the children seemed at school on the days following these late night meetings. The teacher complaints created tension in the Billupses’ marriage. Billups Baker remembers her mother, fed up with the strain that the movement placed upon their family, taking the girls and leaving her father on more than one occasion. It wasn’t just the time Billups Baker’s father spent organizing for civil rights that her mother found difficult to bear; it was also the harassment and violence his activism engendered. The Klan burned crosses in the family’s front yard; the homes of their activist friends were bombed; and their neighbors shunned the Billups out of fear that their activism put the entire neighborhood in danger of white supremacist retaliation. 

Among Billups Baker’s most haunting childhood memories was the time her father narrowly escaped a Ku Klux Klan lynching. On the evening of April 10, 1959, Billups was returning from his job as an airplane mechanic when he was forced at gunpoint into a Klansman’s truck, taken into the woods, tied to a tree, and lashed by a white mob. Billups Baker recounts how her father prayed aloud and “asked God to care for the children of these men who were cruelly beating him and were about to murder him”; she characterized her father as a “deeply Christian man, a nonviolent man,” who “didn’t want any revenge” (21). Her father’s vocal prayers spared his life, according to Billups Baker. Moved by the power of Billups’ words, the Klansman who had driven the mob into the woods decided not to kill Billups and the other Klansmen fled the scene along with their leader. After being rejected from a nearby veterans’ hospital, Billups finally received lifesaving treatment for his severe wounds. Billups Baker recalls that he “looked a horrifying sight! Nobody wants to see their father or mother looking like that!” (23). Nor should any child have to live with the reminders of this white supremacist brutality. For the rest of his life, Charles Billups would “get frantic if anyone touched him in certain places . . . the Klan scarred him and left their souvenirs on his body” (24).

“I spent my childhood living in fear, always living in fear,” Billups Baker remembers (42). Fear that the Klan would try again to lynch her father, fear that the police would once again arrest him, and fear that their house would be firebombed never left her mind when she was a child. All of this fear engendered deep anger and distrust toward white people. After Billups narrowly escaped the Klan lynching, for example, a young Rene told her father that she “would get a double-barreled shotgun and kill all the white people” (33). Her father scolded her for this idea and Dr. King said, “I would hate to see her grow up with hate in her heart” (33). They took her on peaceful marches, which she enjoyed, until the sight of the police dogs brought fearful tears to her young eyes. “If you cry, you can’t go with me,” Billups Baker remembers her father telling her. “Because I wanted to go with him, I stopped crying,” she writes (34). 

After her father died, remembers Billups Baker, “I wanted to commit suicide . . . It was just terrible, just awful! Mama ordered me to say nothing about the murder. Because we didn’t know who murdered him or why they did that, she worried that our lives might also be endangered” (82). Grieving for her father and terrified that her own life was in danger, a teen-aged Rene repressed her feelings, just as she had been forced to do as a young child marching for civil rights. It wasn’t until years later, after her mother and older sister died, after years of encouragement by her supportive partner, Winston Baker, and after she recovered—against all odds—from cancer surgery, that Billups Baker decided: “God left me here for a reason. I am speaking and writing about my father because the world needs to know about Charles Billups” (101). 

In the process of remembering, writing, and speaking about her father, Billups Baker appears to have found some peace. “In some ways, our family life during my childhood was terrible. Just awful, over and over! We had to live in so much fear! In other ways,” she recalls now, “life was rich and wonderful. My daddy and I had lots of good times over fifteen years. He told me not to hate white people. He told me to forgive” (98). While refusing to be consumed by hatred and promoting the type of forgiveness that lightens one’s own emotional burden are doubtlessly healthy attitudes to model, the way in which black forgiveness of white supremacist-inflicted tragedy has become an expected social script is highly problematic. Widely lauded statements of forgiveness by black people following the Charleston massacre and the murder of Botham Jean, for instance, have compelled cultural critics to wonder: are some actions too horrific to forgive? Does black forgiveness let white people off of the hook, divesting them of responsibility for the lethal effects of white supremacy? How can our nation heal from wounds we refuse to acknowledge, much less treat? Billups Baker’s recurrent reflections on her own fear, anger, and the compulsion to forgive encourage readers to think more deeply, and perhaps differently, about the expectation of forgiveness in the process of racial reconciliation.

Billups Baker’s description of the Children’s Crusade that her father organized and her account of her own childhood activism similarly compelled me to consider the climate change and gun violence activism spearheaded by children in our current political moment. While adults widely praise the child-activists’ bravery and leadership on issues that we have failed to confront ourselves, Billups Baker’s vivid descriptions of childhood trauma should give us all pause. Are we matching our encouraging gestures and words of praise for these young activists with mentorship and mental health support? Billups Baker’s experiences suggest the importance of validating not only the trauma that sparked the activism, but also the importance of working through the trauma of the activism itself. 

My Life provides a localized history that demonstrates the complexity of activist struggle and centers previously overlooked participants. More than this, though, Billups Baker’s memoir raises difficult questions and proffers thoughtful answers drawn from the crucible of her experience. My Life imbues civil rights history with much-needed humanity, vividly compelling readers to experience the toll that civil rights activism exacted from devoted families. Billups Baker’s memoir aptly demonstrates that localized histories, bravely told by survivors who have overcome trauma’s propensity to silence, provide significant counterpoints to oversimplified popular narratives of the civil rights movement even as accounts such as My Life share important lessons to inform contemporary activism.