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 of his death, he was on the way to building a movement of “internationalist populism” that overshadowed in its promise all his prior achievements.
John Williams’s The King God Didn’t Save is something else. Querulous, unorganized, wrong on factual matters of both a major and a minor kind, self-contradictory to the point of incoherence, it has passages of powerful prose and moments of plausible anger, but it finally subtracts from the sum of our knowledge about King. With a few small reservations, it may be said of The King God Didn’t Save that what is new is not true and what is true is not new.
John A. Williams is a writer of some distinction (This is My Country Too, The Man Who Cried I Am) and a black man who alternates between being a literary exile and an American social critic. Between 1956 and 1968, Williams commuted between Europe and his Manhattan (Chelsea) apartment. Often, as he says, he was “watching from 1700 miles away.” The subtitle, “Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” suggests the book he might have written, personal and impressionistic, and enhanced by the insight sometimes manifest only from a distance. Instead, Williams offers us a pastiche of old newspaper clippings, discarded memos, lengthy quotations from his other books, and random conversations with a few people who knew King: all of these glued together with the subterranean gossip and rumors which commonly attach to famous persons. An exposé of King’s private life may have some conceivable purpose, but Williams obscures more than he exposes, and what he does reveal (contrary to the promotion in Time and elsewhere) will surely disappoint readers with an appetite for the salacious.
Readers who share Mr. Williams’s antipathy to King may contend that his numerous misstatements of fact do not invalidate the essential thesis, and perhaps they are right. Carelessness about particulars does, however, tend to weaken the force of argument. A few examples are in order: Williams claims that King was “beating the hustings” for LBJ in the 1964 election at a time when King was recuperating in an Atlanta hospital and, later, preparing to receive the Nobel Prize. John Kennedy, Williams writes, co-opted the 1963 March on Washington and “ironically linked the aspirations of the march…to labor and Labor Day”; when, in fact, an increased minimum wage was among the March’s central demands. Williams attributed singular blame to King for the insistence that SNCC’s John Lewis tone down his speech at the Lincoln Memorial; in fact, King was in Atlanta when that discussion took place and SCLC was represented in Washington by Walter Fauntroy, who agreed with the unanimous decision of the leadership that there should be no direct personal attack on Kennedy, which is what Lewis intended to deliver.
Williams describes the Kingsponsored Union to End Slums as “painting and refurbishing” the Chicago apartment before “the big wheel” and his family moved in for the Chicago campaign; in fact, the apartment was hastily repainted by the slumlord, much to the embarrassment of King and UES. Williams suggests that Bayard Rustin was influential in pushing King toward more radical opposition to the Vietnam war; in fact, Rustin, who supported both Johnson and Humphrey, and later broke with SCLC on the Poor Peoples’ March, was clearly one of the more conservative forces in King’s work. (Although Williams is bitterly critical of almost everyone involved with King, he is strangely sparing of Rustin. It is from Rustin that Williams gains corroboration for his judgment that King was too middle-class and out of touch with grass-roots black people. The humor of this will not escape those familiar with Bayard Rustin’s career.)
Williams sees a white conspiracy in the “poor reporting” and “soft pedaling” with which the press received King’s April 4, 1967, Riverside Church speech on Vietnam; in fact, that statement was probably given more exposure than any other speech of King’s since the “I have a dream” speech of 1963. Williams says that the Roman Catholic hierarchy desperately opposed King’s proposal for a guaranteed annual income because it “flew in the face of a church tradition, the corporate gathering of wealth.” The sins of the bishops are many and odious, but the social action arm of the US Bishops’ Conference has been on record in favor of guaranteed income proposals at least since the early days of the New Deal. And so the errors accumulate.
Williams is a hard man to satisfy. At one point we are told, “The record revealed that during every demonstration in which King participated, at the key moment when he was most acutely needed to lead a mass confrontation, he was absent.” Then, a little later, “He went to jail in St. Augustine, of course, for that was the pattern; he and Abernathy always went to jail—but on their own hook, away from the hymn-singing demonstrators, almost never caught up in the mobs.” If King gets arrested early, he is aloof from the mobs; if he gets arrested late, he misses the confrontation. King can’t do anything right.
According to Time, Williams “interviewed many of King’s friends and associates in preparing his book.” Williams himself, wisely, makes no such claim. Of the people he does cite, Rustin and Harold DeWolf, King’s theological mentor, might be described as “friends and associates.” (Rustin, as I’ve suggested earlier, had at best an ambivalent relationship to King, especially toward the end, and Williams dismisses DeWolf as “more a businessman than a theologian,” whose testimony is tainted by a racist double standard.) Other major witnesses are James Meredith (whom Williams considers “spooky” and severely disturbed) and Ella Baker, a woman embittered by her removal from SCLC leadership whom David Lewis describes as believing that “Martin was a phantom of the news media, a symbol without more substance than that of hundreds of other Southern Baptist preachers” (quoted by Lewis, p. 213).
Williams apparently tried to interview others, but too often their statements were inconvenient to his argument. For example, he cites “a young man connected with SCLC” who said in 1963 that there was a move under way to replace King as SCLC president. Others were not so critical, writes Williams, “but then nearly all of them had grown up with King.” The reader is given the impression that King surrounded himself with sycophants. Williams concedes that there were also stronger personalities, but “even those who were bright and strong became real followers.” Naturally there are witnesses to King’s modesty, fearful sense of duty, and self-sacrificing devotion, but their opinions must be discounted since what they say only reveals the seductiveness of King’s egoism.
Time says Williams is a man gripped by “seething black anger” who has something to say. And Saturday Review (August 22) says this is a “most intelligent” book. In the light of these recommendations, one should of course keep an open mind. But Williams finally overpowers the reader’s best effort to take him seriously. For example, he advocates revolutionary violence, on the one hand, and affirms the vote as the black man’s most powerful weapon, on the other. He tells us that King died before his time; just as he was entering upon his most creative work, while at another point Williams agrees that “King’s killing was the best-timed one [for black people] in this century…. He was on his last legs.” We read that King “did not understand that it [white power] had armed him with feather dusters…. He was a black man and therefore always was and always would be naked of power, for he was slow, indeed unable, to perceive the manipulation of white power, and in the end white power killed him.” Good, we think, we have grasped Williams’s argument, until we are confronted with the statement that King was as threatening to white power as Malcom X and that both had to die because “they attempted to mount programs involving not only blacks, but the oppressed of every race and kind.” Indeed one could say that The King God Didn’t Save is refreshingly free from that excessive ideological consistency that mars so much radical literature, especially the kind that is characterized by “seething anger.”