The King God Didn’t Save
This book is news. Time magazine says so. Its publication was announced in the August 17, 1970, issue not back in the “Books” section along with conventional literary events, but right up front in “The Nation,” with a full-page spread including a big picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., leaving J. Edgar Hoover’s office after their famous 1964 meeting. Curious about Time‘s generous attention to the book, I was assured by one of their senior editors that the story is not part of any policy decision to vilify King: “It was probably published because Williams represented a hard look at King by a black man, and his debunking was interesting from a journalistic viewpoint.” The writer of the Time story agrees that there is probably no new information about King in the book, “but Williams’s evaluation that King was a tool of white power is new.” I did not press this point.
Williams’s “message,” according to Time, is that King fatally compromised the struggle for black liberation, that he permitted himself to become an instrument of white strategy, that he was incorrigibly afflicted with the hubris of the black bourgeoisie, and that he was intimidated by the FBI’s knowledge of his “extensive and vigorous sexual activities.” The last item is particularly savored wherever rightthinking Americans gather. At the Rotary Club of Algonquin, Illinois, and the Citizen’s Council of Birmingham, Alabama, the “word” about King’s sex life produces smug smiles of vindication. That King was a Jew-loving commie, clerical charlatan, and the most notorious liar in America, these things were beyond argument; but that he was a lecher and an adulterer, who would have thought it?
We need critical studies of Martin King, not simply to demythologize him, to reduce him to the more pedestrian humanity with which most of us are comfortable, but to understand him as central to a revelatory historical moment in American life. Coretta King’s My Life with Martin Luther King (Holt-Rinehart) is an invaluable memoir, but it is far from the analysis I have in mind. Lerone Bennett’s What Manner of Man (Johnson) is an excellent popular treatment, which I hope will be revised (for the fourth time) soon. Martin Luther King: His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning for the World (Weybright & Talley) by William Robert Miller is flawed by its excessive reverence, but is, nonetheless, the most thorough treatment so far of King’s intellectual and religious development, a side of King that is frequently neglected.
The best study to date is David Lewis’s King: A Critical Biography (Praeger). Lewis, a young black historian, did a prodigious amount of research and produced, within the year following King’s death, a carefully reasoned study of King and his movement. Though he began with strong reservations about King, both as a man and as a political activist, Lewis was compelled to conclude that King’s person was more remarkable than the myth surrounding him, that, at the time …