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Prophet with Honor

He was close, before it was over, to becoming the American Gandhi—a stocky, solemn man, deliberate and ponderous of manner in his deacon-sober suits. His round face, black as asphalt, had a bland gaze of bourgeois placidity, even while, from the pulpit, he bayed forth his billowing moral metaphors like a pipe organ. “For too long have we been trampled under the iron feet of oppression, too long bound in the starless midnight of racism”—the real eloquence of his heaving locutions was in the cry of the human spirit gathering itself for slow and terrific struggle. But beyond his Promethean part in the “black awakening” of the Fifties and Sixties, Martin Luther King, Jr., was on his way to becoming a prophet to the whole national community at America’s Augustan high noon of pride and power. To the extent he failed in both those struggles we sense the immensity of his absence now.

At his simplest, King acted as a witness to the nation’s primal and continuing crime against the black people abducted violently into its midst and subjugated for the centuries afterward. Even so, in spite of all he set in motion to bring down the public edifices of that crime, effectively this nation remains—in where blacks can live, what they subsist on, the quality of their lives, and the future they can expect—still two countries, separate and unequal. As Tocqueville recognized over 150 years ago, it is racial schism that, more than anything else, could finally devour our democracy. Virtually every social crisis takes on, in America, the complexion of race: poverty, hunger, crime, underclass imprisonment have become, here, fundamental black conditions, mostly because a folk racism that is at once overt and unthinking, direct and diffused, has worked over generations to lock blacks into those conditions. And precisely that same racial alienation continues to confound any resolution of those inequities, those tensions. Thus in this country there steadily amasses a large shadow population of interior exiles, something like our own Palestinians, empty of belief or hope, combustible. Even if it is more abstracted and polymorphous now, the American disease of racism endures.

The black movement itself has been amorphous and unfocused in the fifteen years since King’s murder, spending itself in sporadic skirmishes over “black power,” busing, affirmative action, the vagaries of government social programs. After the long hiatus of distraction, a nostalgia for the simple purpose and brave possibilities of King’s time seems to account for much of the vitality of the presidential adventure of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the volatile, safarisuited, former assistant to King. Jackson, for all of his incandescence, seems far more guerrilla politician than prophet. But deriving from perhaps the largest victory of the movement in the Sixties—the claiming of the vote—Jackson’s candidacy promises, if nothing else, to measure the potential power of blacks on a national scale more clearly than ever before, and also to measure, less directly, just how remote this nation yet remains from any prospect of true racial conciliation. In all this, Jackson also happens to be politically resurrecting, with his proposed “rainbow coalition,” something like King’s last, large vision before he was shot—a grand social offensive of blacks, Hispanics, Indians, poor whites, all the forgotten and discarded and dispossessed of America, along with a reconstituted new liberal constituency, to radically reorder the values and the power system of the nation.

That was the final, huge, Gandhian ambition that came to consume King: through the same nonviolent mass confrontations that had remade the South to do nothing less than to re-create America itself. He was moving against what he saw as the moral coma of corporate technological America: the loud and vicious void of its materialism, its insulations of people from one another, its technician’s detachment from the human effects of its interests and policies and deeds, and the incalculable brutality all this was visiting not only on the life of America, but elsewhere in the world—most conspicuously, then, in Vietnam. In the end, King had ranged himself against the spirit of the age.

For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South,” he confided shortly before his death to David Halberstam. “Now, I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values,” In that sense, King had become perhaps the most subversive man in America. As one of his advisers later recalled to Stephen Oates, King’s most recent biographer, “There was an awareness that we were going to confront the economic foundations of the system…what the powers of the country will kill you for.” He was, in fact, only really beginning, when he wandered out to his motelroom balcony in Memphis that April dusk in 1968.

For King, his movement was all along a surpassingly religious, if not mystical, undertaking. Its confrontations proceeded from the conviction that there exists in every human being—white or black, sheriff or Klansman or hardware dealer or governor—a natural identification, however dim or buried, with all other human beings. Therefore, no man could continue to abuse another human being without eventually wounding himself, feeling at least discomfort or the stirrings of shame. Indeed, in such purging confrontations, when violence was met with a forgiving love, a human being could be vitally touched and redeemed, while the society itself beholding such confrontations would be quickened to compassion and justice.

But I have never forgotten one summer night four years before Memphis, in 1964, in St. Augustine, Florida, a little, moss-hung antique of a city, where, as a Southern correspondent for Newsweek, I was covering a series of demonstrations mounted by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference—marches that assembled every night on the square under darkly clacking palms and a mottled moon, and were met by a swirling, dog-snapping violence from whites who had come in through the sullen, hot twilights from the surrounding flatlands of palmettos and smoldering pine stumps. After those nights on the square in St. Augustine, the newsmen there—many of them veterans by now of racial uproars all the way back to the Autherine Lucy riots of 1956—would repair to their motel rooms to get swiftly drunk.

Then came a particular Walpurgis Night of fury, a storm of fists and baseball bats, tire tools, trace chains, kicks and rebel yells, through which the black marchers made their way with a kind of mute, unbelieving terror and urgency in a long line, leaning like a canebrake in a wild wind. Reaching the refuge of the black section of town again, they straggled on aimlessly, bleeding, clothing torn, under the faint street lights. Sobs were now breaking out everywhere, scattered wails. Suddenly I glimpsed King in cool, white shirt sleeves, standing in the shadows of a front porch, and apparently unnoticed by anyone else. With his hands on his hips, motionless, he watched the marchers stumbling past him in the night; on his face there was a look of stricken astonishment.

Later that night, sitting in the darkened front parlor in the black section, I heard him place a distraught call to Burke Marshall in the Justice Department, which had little help to offer. He sat holding a large kitchen glass of ice water with a paper napkin wrapped around the bottom, and talked in a soft voice. “You question sometimes—when things happen like this tonight—what are we doing to these people? Is it worth it?” But in the face I had seen watching from the shadows of the front porch, beyond shock at the violence visited on those marchers acting on his exhortations, and beyond even his own fear, there seemed a detached sense of wonder, a fascination before this tumultuous and climactic encounter that had been set off by his grand moral dramaturgy of good and evil—and, at the same time, a deeper dread of that very fascination in himself.

From that night in St. Augustine, I became intrigued with the possibilities of a biography of King. Initially, as I followed him intermittently through the few years remaining to him, he seemed monumentally sober and self-contained, with a stilted, almost Victorian reserve about him, as if he wished always to present to reporters, or perhaps simply to whites, the effect of what Matthew Arnold termed “high seriousness.” On his strangely impassive, vaguely Mongolian face, he wore an expression of remoteness and imperturbability, giving one the impression, even in the swarm of marches and mass meetings, that a deep center of the man was lost in secret communion with something far beyond the moment.

Not long after his death began the ripple of reports of his extradomestic and lickerish disportings in hotel rooms. They were almost impossible to believe at first—not because such dalliances would compromise his moral significance to the nation, but simply because they seemed so wildly at odds with that other nature of his, the “high seriousness” he carried. But as such reports gradually collected into the approximate truth, King assumed yet another dimension—that of a harrowed man holding in him almost insupportable tensions: the exertion of a high spirituality alternating with the release into brief moments of sensual riot. Even more than I had felt the night I watched him in St. Augustine, King’s was a story of how mysteriously mixed our prophets are, and in what unexpected and torturously complicated forms they come to us.

As reported in the reverential but worthily diligent biography by Stephen Oates, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, King as a boy was “small and plump-faced, with almond-shaped eyes” and a rich appetite for soul food and for opera. The firstborn son of a strapping Baptist preacher from south Georgia who was himself an assertive figure in the black society of Atlanta during the Thirties, King was a singularly favored young man, precociously intelligent—and not unaware of it. He liked to startle his teachers by producing such constructions as, “Cogitating with cosmic universe, I surmise that my physical equilibrium is organically quiescent.” He seemed to revel giddily in the spilling discovery of his gifts. Reaching his teens, he became something of a swell, disposed to snappy tweed suits, dazzling young ladies with orotund flourishes of language in sonorous tones.

But at the same time, having grown up extravagantly cherished and attended to by his father’s congregation, there was cultivated in him a sense—a weight—of being at the center of the world around him, and at the same time at the center of responsibility for what happened in it. Even as a small boy he showed an exorbitant—and not a little self-impressed—compulsion to take upon himself great cargoes of guilt. It even impelled him, twice before he was thirteen, to bizarre gestures of suicide. He instantly assumed that his having slipped away one Sunday to watch a downtown parade somehow accounted for the death that afternoon of his grandmother, and he flung himself out of the second-floor window of his house.

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