Book Write-Up: The Martin Luther King Story, by James D. Bales

James D. Bales. The Martin Luther King Story: A Study in Apostasy, Agitation, and Anarchy. Christian Crusade, 1967. See here to purchase the book.

James D. Bales was a Church of Christ minister and a teacher at Harding College. He had a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of education from the University of California, Berkeley. Bales’s Martin Luther King Story is very anti-MLK. This book was published by Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade, which, along with the John Birch Society, was an influential right-wing group, particularly in the 1960’s.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. In certain respects, this book differs from a number of anti-MLK tracts I have come across. Bales never mentions that MLK’s real first name was “Michael,” nor does Bales refer to MLK’s sexual indiscretions. Like most anti-MLK tracts, however, Bales does argue that MLK associates with Communists, both in America and abroad. He talks about the Highlander Folk School, which MLK attended, and which critics accused of being a Communist front that trained people to become effective agitators. Bales discusses the people with Communist records who served on MLK’s staff. And he documents King’s public association with Communist dictators and support for anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist movements, which, for Bales, are essentially Communist. Bales also makes a big deal about MLK’s praise for Socialist Norman Thomas.

B. The topic of race does not occur often in this book. Bales occasionally mentions African-Americans who were critical of MLK. Some saw him as an agitator and a troublemaker, some were concerned about his association with Communists, and there were African-American soldiers who thought that MLK was wrong to oppose the Vietnam War and to express sympathy towards the Viet Cong. The morality or immorality of racial segregation, however, is not really touched on in this book. At the same time, Bales does seem to speak disparagingly of the government telling restaurants whom to serve.

C. What is Bales’s focus? First of all, Bales argues that MLK is wrong to practice civil disobedience, for anarchy will result if people only observe the laws that they like. When MLK and his followers are arrested in big cities for their acts of civil disobedience, they are diverting the police from catching more serious criminals, resulting in higher crime rates. While MLK likens his own acts of civil disobedience to the civil disobedience that occurs in the Bible (Shadrach, Meschak, and Abednego), Bales contends that the Bible does not endorse MLK’s brand of civil disobedience. Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego disobeyed the law when it required them to worship another god, but the laws that MLK disobeys do not do that. Second, MLK is an inconsistent pacifist. He professes non-violence, yet he wants the federal government to send troops to the south to enforce racial integration. MLK also has stated that America was right to fight Hitler in World War II, even as he criticizes the U.S.’s resistance against Communism, which itself is brutal and imperialistic. Third, MLK spreads agitation wherever he goes, agitation that accompanies violence. That is why people, including some African-Americans, plead with King not to come to their cities. Fourth, Bales labels MLK an apostate. MLK has been influenced by the social Gospel, which blames people’s sins on societal problems rather than accepting the orthodox Christian position that people are inherently sinful and need Christ to transform them. MLK also does not believe in the virgin birth and thus rejects Christ’s divinity. Fifth, as was said in (A.), MLK associates with Communists at home and abroad and voices support for Communist movements. Bales maintains that MLK is inconsistent in his international stances: he wants the U.S. to take steps against apartheid in South Africa but not against Communist dictatorships and expansionism. Sixth, MLK, perhaps naively or unknowingly, expresses views that Communist publications and leaders themselves espouse as well as follows the Communist line. Like the Communists, he lambastes the Vietnam War as an act of American imperialism. Like the Communists, he opposes federal attempts to investigate and expose Communist subversion, such as HUAC. And the Communists themselves have revealed their intent to exploit American race divisions and have bragged about their influence in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Seventh, MLK is wrong in his critiques of capitalism. MLK claims that capitalism values things more than people, when socialism and communism themselves value things, even as the American system of capitalism respects individual rights and produces widespread and abundant prosperity, both in America and in countries that its influence reaches.

D. A significant part of the book is Bales’s defense of the Vietnam War, for MLK took a vocal and prominent stance against it. For Bales, the U.S. has been a humanitarian presence in Vietnam, and it goes out of its way to avoid bombing civilians. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong terrorize Vietnamese inhabitants, resulting in numerous deaths and refugees. As far as Bales is concerned, the U.S. is right to be in Vietnam, for its presence there can hinder Communist expansionism and resist Communist brutality, and its presence also honors the U.S.’s SEATO agreement. While MLK questions the necessity of the U.S.’s presence in Vietnam, Communists in the U.S. and elsewhere (i.e., the U.S.S.R.) actively root for America’s defeat or withdrawal there, for they see Vietnam as important in terms of their imperialist ambitions. Bales also disputes MLK’s account of the history of the conflict, as Bales argues against the idea that the U.S. violated the Geneva agreement; what actually happened, according to Bales, was that Ho Chi Minh tried to impose a Communist dictatorship on the entire country. Bales contends that the Vietnamese Buddhists whom MLK claims are victimized by the South Vietnamese government are neither as innocent nor as apolitical as MLK implies. Bales also argues that the U.S. should be even more aggressive in Vietnam: it should bomb key locations, after informing civilians so they can leave the area. For Bales, hawkishness will lead to peace, whereas tepidity will only prolong the conflict.

E. This book is very well-documented. Bales spends a lot of space quoting other sources, including Communist ones. Bales makes similar arguments to those of John Bircher Alan Stang in his 1965 anti-civil rights book, It’s Very Simple, yet Bales goes more deeply into certain topics, such as possible indications that the bombing of Carl and Anne Braden’s house was an inside job. Bales at least tries to give the impression that he is being fair to MLK, for he quotes MLK’s critiques of Communism and praises MLK’s call on the U.S.S.R. to end the death penalty. Some of Bales’s evidence may amount to hearsay: he refers to a source who claimed that the founder of Highlander privately acknowledged to him his belief in Communism. Often, though, Bales makes arguments that deserve consideration. And yet, there is another side to the narrative that Bales tells. Regarding the Vietnam War, Nick Turse argues in Kill Anything that Moves that the U.S. frequently and willfully killed civilians in Vietnam. While Bales acts as if all resistors against imperialist and colonialist regimes in Africa and Asia were Communists, David Talbot contends in The Devil’s Chessboard that not every leader the U.S. accused of being a Communist was in fact that, for some were nationalists who wanted to avoid the Cold War conflict. Bales repeatedly accuses MLK of being a liar, when it is more likely that MLK was mistaken in certain comments or simply had a different viewpoint from that of Bales. Criticizing HUAC is not lying! Bales failed to interact with the question of whether there are actual societal ills that MLK was protesting. And, often, Bales seemed to act as if simply linking MLK with Communist or Socialist positions was, by itself, an argument against MLK. It’s like, “the Communists say this, and King says that, too, so that makes King wrong!” When Bales made arguments, he usually did so well, but he was annoying when he conveyed a tone of “How dare anyone believe that!” (not exact quote). How dare anyone see the U.S. as anything other than a beneficent force in the earth! How dare anyone oppose the fine hardworking men at HUAC!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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