Etched in memory and granite
Former ‘Voice of the South’ Boyd Lewis recalls a lesser known side to King and the struggle for civil rights
By Lionel Rolfe 08/25/2011
When President Obama on Sunday dedicates the $120-million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall — where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963 — Altadena’s Boyd Lewis will feel especially stirred by the events.
Lewis, once National Public Radio’s “Voice of the South” and now a teacher at a school in Sun Valley, was one of few white men front and center in the struggles in Atlanta, where King was born and spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960s with historic marches and sit-ins.
Sunday’s events will not be without their own controversy. One involves the 30-foot-tall statue of King itself, created by sculptor Lei Yixin in China. Boyd points out that Yixin is perhaps even better known for his massive “socialist realistic” images of Mao Tse Tung.
Boyd is upset that “a prominent black sculptor in Atlanta was bypassed for the work,” and in his mind, this connection with China “has never been completely explained,” he said.
“Despite the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Jesse Helms, the Chinese communists had nothing to do with Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.
Lewis is critical of the statue and how it came about, mostly due to the fact that the secretive arrangements for its creation and financing were made by the King family, with the help of some of the country’s most powerful corporations. He feels they have joined forces to smother the real legacy of the man who, after all, was a revolutionary, only a peaceful revolutionary, in the way of Gandhi.
It helps to know that the Chinese have some of the world’s best granite quarries. But it’s not clear how much that was a factor in the selection. Still, Lewis maintains that the King family has been too secretive in making the arrangements.
Lewis, now 66, comes from a Louisiana family that included members of the KKK and the White Citizens League, which were often the South’s post-Civil War answers to federal demands that blacks be given the vote. Like many boys of the time, he grew up belonging to a white gang. “We used to go down a block and throw rocks at black kids. They would come into the white neighborhood and throw rocks at the white kids,” Lewis recalled. “One day I went diddy-boppin’ down Taylor Street and turned right on Marengo, right into a gang of black kids with sticks and baseball bats. They proceeded to flail at me. I fell back into some heavy bushes and shrubbery, but it was at that point I started asking myself if racism was really such a good idea,” he said.
It probably is not coincidence that he chose to buy his house in Altadena, in part, because it is on Marengo Avenue.
Lewis and his wife, Deborah James, came to Altadena in 1997, when he was at the top of his game. He had been a writer and editor at CNN and, perhaps more importantly, he had become the “Voice of the South” on National Public Radio, so dubbed for a series of radio programs called “Southwind” that he was doing for Atlanta’s public radio station, WABE. The show, which was often broadcast nationally, covered the great civil rights struggles in Atlanta that King had inspired. As it happened, though, he arrived in Atlanta a few months after King was assassinated.
Lewis went to work as a photographer for the two black-owned newspapers in Atlanta, and now possesses incredible images of such civil rights luminaries as Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Tyrone Brooks, Jesse Jackson and Joseph Lowry from the late 1960s through the mid- ’70s that are frequently displayed. He came to know these key players personally.
Although Lewis first arrived in Atlanta a few months after King was killed, he says the great man’s influence was everywhere.
Lewis has strong opinions about the statue. He claims, for instance, that a federal arts panel ordered the sculptor to give Dr. King a “thoughtful, even smiling face, to make him appear less confrontational.” He says they, meaning the powers behind the statue, wanted to paint King not as a man who strongly believed in economic democracy, but “more the cardboard cutout of an inoffensive super hero; an inert, non-confrontational dream.”
Despite the statue that will be spotlighted Sunday, Lewis notes that King had told his staff in 1966, two years before he was assassinated, that he considered himself a democratic socialist. Lewis said that “he was planning massive encampments of the poor and the jobless when they offed him. Massive civil disobedience. Nonviolent resistance. Right on.”
Lionel Rolfe is a journalist and the author of seven books, including “Literary L.A.,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” “Fat Man on the Left” and “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” all available on Amazon’s Kindlestore.