Reclaiming the Dreamer -Part 1

By Dee Dee Risher - Coeditor, The Other Side

Last year, at a Philadelphia event on Martin Luther King Day, one of the keynote speakers made the stunning assertion that King would have supported the war on terrorism. We decided that day that The Other Side needed to do a special issue focused on reclaiming King's legacy. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Popular conception has long frozen the dreamer in that moment. But to remember the dangerous leader who was eventually silenced, we must acknowledge how his critique expanded, and the ways he began to link racism to violence--national and international, economic and military.

King was already two years down from that podium when the first issue of The Other Side, then called Freedom Now, rolled off the presses in 1965. The magazine was an unlikely and distant ally to the civil rights movement--a small, crudely printed ten-page affair written by a fundamentalist White Baptist preacher and missionary primarily for other Whites. Founder Fred Alexander, impassioned about interracial dialogue after working for three years in a desegregated setting, believed that if he could just engage White Christians in questions of racial justice, they would be transformed.

It was a hard sell. The White fundamentalist Christian subculture of which Fred was a member believed that all social ills, including racism, were to be addressed only by personal salvation. Many readers were suspicious of any whiff of "social gospel."

I would like to say that Freedom Now was galvanized and challenged by King's perspectives, but the reality is that the magazine was (to use a kind term) ambivalent about the man when he was among us. Freedom Now's 1966 issue focused on King with such burning questions as "Was he a fundamentalist?" (He wasn't--but he had some real Christian-sounding soundbites) and "Was he a communist?" (Well, no, but he had some dubious allies).

This tentative treatment of King continued until his assassination. But in the May 1968 issue, the magazine's tone changed abruptly. "The time for polite discussion is past," asserts John Alexander in the opening editorial. "The vast majority of America's twenty-two million Negroes are living a degraded existence. It is time for you, your political party, for your denomination to become involved--Don't ask them for a resolution or a home missionary. Ask them for a million dollars and their hundred best men." Founding editor Fred Alexander accepted responsibility for King's death "because we hated him--or ignored him."

Between the lines of that issue are whispers of a conversion with the revolutionary quality of Paul's experience on the Damascus road. These could have been the ephemeral eulogies of memorial services--except that Freedom Now was never again the same. Within the year, the magazine had changed its name to The Other Side to reflect a fundamental shift in mission. Just as King began by challenging segregation, then gradually addressed the broader issues of peacemaking, economic justice, and global cooperation, Freedom Now discovered that focusing on race in America led it to take on peace issues, women's issues, economic justice, and global oppression. It led to a powerful commitment to those "on the other side of the world's affluence, the side of America that is hungry, defeated, and suffering."