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The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King

The decaying, downtown shopping section of memphis—still another Main Street—lay, the weekend before Martin Luther King’s funeral, under a siege. The deranging curfew and that state of civic existence called “tension” made the town seem to be sinister, like some long considered and carefully constructed film set of alienation, breakdown, catastrophe. The scene was empty, yet alive with possibilities for appalling drama. In the silence, the sudden horn of a tug gliding up the dark Mississippi made one jump. The hotel was a tomb, shabby, poorly staffed by aged persons, not grown old in their duties, but newly hired, untrained, depressed, wornout old people. The march was called for the next day, a march originally planned by King as a renewal of his efforts in the Memphis garbage strike, efforts interrupted by a riot the week before. Perhaps there was fear, and yet a humidity of smugness seemed to hang over the white people. Curfew, National Guard, dire warnings, kids home from school, bank and ten-cent store closed: if one was not in clear danger there seemed a complacent pleasure in thinking WE have been brought to this by THEM. “You! You there in the yard. You git back in here!”

Beyond and beneath the glassy beige curtains of the hotel room, the courthouse square was spread out like a target, the destination of next day’s march. All night long little hammer blows, a ghostly percussion, rang out, hammering together the structure for the Monday ceremony. The stage, slowly forming, plank by plank, seemed in the deluding curfew emptiness and silence like a scaffolding for the last beheading. These overwrought and exaggerated images came to me from the actual scene and from a painful crush of childhood memories: Memphis was a Southern town in which a murder had taken place. The killer might be over yonder in that deep blue thicket, or holed up in the woods on the edge of town, ready to come back at night. Here in Memphis it was not the killer, whoever he might be, that was feared, but the killed.

Not far from the downtown was the leprous little hovel where, from the unimaginable toilet window, the assassin could look down upon the new and hopeful Lorraine Motel. At the Motel on Sunday the Memphis Negroes, dressed in their best, filed up and down the ramp, glancing shyly into the room which King had occupied. At the ramp before the door of the room, where he fell, there were flowers, glads and potted azaleas. All over the Negro section rickety little stores, emptied in the “consumer rebellion,” were boarded up, burned out, or simply empty, with the windows broken. The stores were, for the most part, of great modesty. Who owned that one? I asked the taxi driver.

Well, that happened to be Chinee,” he said.

Shops are a dwelling and their goods and stuffs and counters and cash registers are a form of interior decoration. Sacked and broken, the rooms were amazingly small and only an active sense of possibility could conceive of them as the site of commercial enterprise. Is it possible by stocking a few shelves to make money in these little squares of rotting timber? They are like lean-tos, chicken coops—measly temples of consumption. The looters sought the twin consolations of American life—television sets and whiskey. The classical dramas of refrigerators and living room suites, deftly transported from store to home, were beyond the range of Memphis, a medium-sized city on the Mississippi.

THE DAY OF THE MARCH came to the grey, empty streets. The march was solemn and impressive, but perhaps somewhat disappointing. A compulsive exaggeration dogs every enterprise of our lives, turning success to failure. The forty to sixty thousand predicted belittled the eighteen thousand present. The National Guard, tense with gun and bayonet as if for some international battle, made the quiet, orderly march through the still streets appear a bit of a sell. The number of the National Guard, the sheer body count, spoke of a national psychosis. They were on every street, blocking every intersection, cutting off each highway. There, in their huge brown trucks, crawling out from under the olive-brown canvas covers, men in full battle dress, in helmets and chin straps which concealed the pale, red-flecked Southern faces. They guarded the alleys and the horizon, the river and the muddy playground, thoroughfare and esplanade, paper store and bank. It was as if a grisly, cancerous prosperity, by multiplication, turned the sensibly necessary into the terrifying glut.

The march, after all, was mostly made up of Memphis blacks. Was this a victory or a defeat? There were, from town, white students at South western, a few young ministers, and, from New York, members of the teachers’ union, one from each school, with a free day off, and a lunch box. Mrs. King came out of her grief for the march, the memorial to her husband and the tribute to the poor, illiterate sanitation workers for whom it had all begun.

The people gathered early and waited long in the streets, standing in lines. Part of the ritual of every show of strength for peace or justice is the presence of the name or body of a “Notable.” (“Notable” for a routine occasion, and “dignitary” for a more solemn and affecting event.) Like a foundation of stone moved from site to site, only on him can the petition be based, the protest developed, the meeting constructed. In chartered airplanes he goes from meeting to meeting. A limousine waits to take him to the front of the line, or leave him at the door from which one reaches the stage. The motors keep running. After his appearance, his speech, or his mere presence, he is out the back door, freed from the line, slipping into the limousine, back in the waiting plane, and off. These persons are symbols of a greater consensus, meant to boost the weakening consciousness of the unknown faithful; they are priests giving sanction to idea, struggle, defiance. It is believed that only the famous, the busy, the talented, and the good have powers to move the pity of the rich, few of whom could be of sufficient self-confidence to make interesting use of their money without suggestion. But perhaps that isn’t it at all; it is merely the sunshine in the vineyards, warming the lowly grape. And the appeal, to the American soul, of the lucky.

The march in Memphis was quiet; it was designed as a silent memorial, Hold your head high, the instructions said. No gum chewing! For protection in case of trouble, no smoking, no umbrellas, no earrings in pierced ears, no fountain pens in the jacket pocket. One woman said, “If they make me take off my shades, I’m quittin’ the march.” Many of those from outside had decided to come to the march in Memphis rather than go to the funeral in Atlanta the next day. “I feel this is more important,” they would say.

And what did they mean beyond a wish for the genuine act, a consoling communion with the garbagy streets? In the march and at the funeral of Martin Luther King, the mood of the earlier Civil Rights days in Alabama and Mississippi returned—a reunion of the family at the grave. And no one could doubt that there had been a longing for the reunion among the white ministers and students, the liberals from the large cities. The “love”—locked arms, songs, comradeship—all of that was remembered with nostalgia and feeling, like Irish Revolutionaries remembering Easter Sunday. This love, if not actually refused, was seldom forthcoming in relations with new black militants, who were determined to break the dependency of the black people even on the cooperation, energy, and checkbooks of the guilty, longing, loving whiteys. Everything separated the old Civil Rights people from the new militants, even the use of language. The harsh, obscene style, the unforgiving stares, the insulting accusations and refusal to make distinctions between bad whites and good—this was humbling and perplexing. Many of the white people had created their very self-identity out of issues and distinctions. They felt cast off, ill at ease with the new street rhetoric of “self-defense” and “self-determination.”

Comradeship, yes, and being in the South again gave one some remembrance of the meaning of the merely legislative. Back at the hotel in the late afternoon the marchers were breaking up. The dining room was suddenly filled with a few not-too-pleasing Negro boys—not black notables with cameras, or briefcases, or in the company of important, busy-looking people from afar—just poor boys from Memphis. The aged waitresses, heavy, their grey hair in nylon nets, false teeth, rimless glasses, padded about on aching feet. Up, up they went, perforce, to the boys, breathing. “You all want a minyou?” Yes, they wanted a menu, “Cream in yuh cawfee?”

At last, business was business, not friendship. The old white waitresses themselves were etched deeply in the stain of plebeianism. Manner, accent mark them as “disadvantaged”; they were diffident, ignorant, and poor, and themselves would cast a blight on any hopeful dining place—the blight cast on the gentility of the South by the old, retired trailer camp couples, with their tattooed arms, permanent waves, old thighs in cerise stretch pants, wandering the warm roads, the sight of their traveling kitchenettes and motorized toilets bringing shivers of distress to the tasteful.

In any case, joy and flush-cheeked nuns were past history, a folk epic, full of poetry, beauty and piety. The pastoral period of the Civil Rights movement was over.

AT THE FUNERAL in Atlanta, rising above the crowd, the nez pointu of Richard Nixon… Lester Maddox, short-toothed little marmoset, peeking from behind the draperies of the Georgia State House…. Many Christians have died, but few have died for Christian principles. The belief of Martin Luther King—what an unexpected, peculiar strength it had! His natural mode of address was the sermon. “So I say to you, seek God and discover Him and make Him a power in your life. Without Him all our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights.” At the end of his life, King seemed almost in a mystical state, even though politically he had become more radical and there were traces of disillusionment. He had observed that America was a lot sicker than he realized when he began his work. The last, ringing, “I have been to the mountain top!” gave voice to a transcendent experience. It is this visionary strain that makes him a man elusive in the extreme, difficult to understand as a character.

How was it possible for one so young as King to seem to contain, in himself, so much of the American past? At the very least, the impression he gave was of an experience of life conterminous with the years of his father. The depression, the dust bowl, the old back-country churches, the earlier militance of the IWW—he suggested all of this. He did not seem to belong to the time of Billy Graham (God bless you real good) but to a previous and more spiritual evangelism, to a time of solitude and refined simplicity. In Adam Bede, Dinah preaches that Jesus came down from Heaven to tell the good news about God to the poor. “Why, you and me, dear friends, are poor. We have been brought up in poor cottages, and have been reared on oat-cake and lived coarse… It doesn’t cost Him much to give us our little handful of victual and bit of clothing, but how do we know He cares for us any more than we care for the worms and things in the garden, so long as we rear our carrots and onions?” There is all of this old, pure tradition in King. Rare elements of the godly and the political come together, with an affecting naturalness. His political work was indeed a Mission, as well as a cause.

In spite of the heat of his sermon oratory, King seems aristocratic and often removed by the singleness of his concentration. There is even a coldness in his public character, an impenetrability and solidity often seen in those who give their whole lives to ideas and causes. The racism in America threatens to exhaust the minds and bodies of the Negro leaders. It leads to the urban, manic frenzy, the sleeplessness, hurry, and edginess that are so striking a contrast to King’s heavy steadiness and endurance.

Small-town Christianity made King’s funeral supremely moving. It was root American, bathed in memory, forgotten knowledge of prayers and hymns and dreams. Mule carts, sharecroppers, dusty poverty, sleepy Sunday services, and Wednesday night prayer meetings: the life of the people, trying to endure. There in the pews were candidates, former candidates, and hopeful candidates, illuminated, as it were, exposed to the public on prime viewing time, free of charge, free, certainly, of the cost of a past contribution or a future pledge. The rare, young man murdered was mourned and the world without him was feared. The other side of the funeral, like an Act Two ready in the wings, was the looting and anger of a black population inconsolable for all its many losses.

Jesus is a trick on niggers,” a character in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood says. The strength of belief shown by King and Reverend Abernathy is not quite usual and expected, but a sort of irregularity. It stands apart, because of the genuine feeling, from our perfunctory addresses to “this nation under God.” In a later address, Abernathy has said that God, not Lester Maddox or George Wallace, rules in the South. So, Negro justice is God’s work and God’s will. The popular Wesleyan hymns have always urged decent, sober behavior. As you sing “I can hear my Savior calling,” you are invited to accept the community of the church and also very insistently to behave yourself, stop drinking, gambling, and running around. Non-violence of a sort, but entirely personal, looking back to an agricultural life, far from the uprooted, restless, communal explosions in the ghettos of the cities. The political non-violence of Martin Luther King was an act of brilliant intellectual conviction, perfectly consistent with evangelical religion, but not a necessary condition as we know from the white believers.

One of the cruelties of the South and part of the pathos of King’s funeral and the sadness that edges his rhetoric is that his same popular religion is shared by the poor, ignorant whites and, of course, by many white people not poor nor without education. The religion does not seem to have sent any peaceful messages to them in so far as their brothers in Christ, the Negroes, are concerned. Experience leads one to suppose there was more respect for King among the Jews, atheists, and comfortable Episcopalians, more gratitude and grief, than among the congregations who use, with a different cadence, the same religious tone and the same hymns heard in the Ebenezer Church. Under the robes of the Klan there is an evangelical skin; its dogmatism is touched with the Scriptural.

At one of the first memorial gatherings in Central Park after the murder, a radical speaker shouted, “You have killed the last good nigger!” This threatening observation was not meant to dishonor King—the tendency of the white leaders to characterize everything unpleasant to themselves in Negro response to American conditions as a desecration of King’s memory was the most sordid footnote to what they called the “redemptive” moment—but it told in a harsh way of the peculiarity of the man, of the survival in him of habits of mind from an earlier time. King’s language, in the pulpit and in his speeches, was effective but not remarkably interesting. His style compared well, however, with the speeches of recent Presidents and even with those of Stevenson, all of them sadly flat in print. In many ways, King was not Southern and rural in his address, although he had a melting Georgia accent and his discourse was saturated in the Bible. His was a practical mode, inspiring the Southern Negroes to the sacrifices and dangers of protest and yet reassuring them by its clarity and humanity. King’s speech was most beautiful in its sudden simplicity, as when he summed up the meaning of the gathering of poor people in Washington. “We have come for our checks!” The language of the younger generation of militants is another thing altogether. It is an effort to share the brutal life of the city poor—a Godless people, if the rhetoric is a true indication. It is also a repudiation of false courtesy and bureaucratic euphemism.

The murder of Martin Luther King was a national disgrace. This we said over and over and it would be cynical to hint at fraudulent feelings in the scramble for suitable acts of penance. Levittowns would henceforth not abide by local rulings, but would practice open housing; Walter Reuther offered $50,000 to the poor sanitation workers of Memphis, the Field Foundation gave a million to the Southern Christian Leadership movement; New England boarding schools offered scholarships to the King children; Congress acted on the open housing bill. Nevertheless, the mundane continued to nudge the eternal. In 125 cities there was burning and looting; smoke rose over Washington.

The Reverend Abernathy spoke of the plate of salad shared with Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel, picturing in his grief a sort of Last Supper. How odd it was, this exalted Black Liberation, played out at the holy table and at Gethsemane, “in the Garden,” as the hymns have it—all of it irredeemably Southern and historical, calling from the very bone of Christian memory. Perhaps what was celebrated in Atlanta was an end, not a beginning—the waning of the slow, sweet dream of Salvation, through Christ, for the Negro masses.

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