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Prophet with Honor

For a child so excruciatingly serious, so bountifully gifted, so eager, the chill discovery of his larger, baser lot as a black in a racist order—the immemorial trauma of blacks in the South then—was all the more devastating: white friends of his childhood suddenly vanishing into their own school, forbidden to play with him; a slap from a white matron in a department store, “The little nigger stepped on my foot….” And he came to dwell, even then, at some strange, willed remove of solitary self-possession. “He was the most peculiar child whenever you whipped him,” his father later recalled. “He’d stand there, and the tears would run down, and he’d never cry.”

Part of that same reserve was also a fastidious aversion to the gaudy, bawling style of his father’s religion—the whoops, the sweats, the clapping, the transports. As King later admitted, “It embarrassed me.” In that distaste lurked no small hint of preciousness. But more, it intimated a revulsion, a wariness about belonging in any way to the white Southerner’s minstrel image of blacks then—loud, untidy, witless, innocent of dignity or discipline—an image he had an instinctive horror of being captured in. Indeed, one suspects now it was against that annihilating image that he maintained his staidness in public all his life—the neat dark suits, the almost lugubrious decorum.

Even so, the special importance of the church in the black community, and consequently the special eminence of the preacher, almost inevitably invited his own impatient great expectations. At seventeen, he finally contrived for himself an intellectually suitable peace with the Baptist church by calculating he would be a “rational” minister whose sermons would be “both spiritually and intellectually stimulating…a respectable force for ideas, even for social protest.” With the same studied deliberation, he then set about his own personal exodus out of the cultural bondage of his past, out of the old bleak Egypt of the black condition in the South—from a campus in Atlanta, north to a seminary in Pennsylvania (where he had a short, feverish, hopeless romance with the white daughter of the school’s maintenance superintendent), finally on to the far wintry refuge of Boston University, where he met a bright and compatibly earnest music student named Coretta Scott. After a mannerly courtship of the most ceremonious formality, he married her in a union not unlike the warm, calm alliance of a missionary couple.

Throughout this migration of his, King also undertook an omnivorous, methodical inquiry into religion and philosophy—Plato, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, seminars in personalism and systematic theology, surveys of Hinduism, Jainism, Islam—as if he had determined systematically to stalk and capture the meaning of life: the Truth. The peculiar nature of this effort is described by the subtitle of a recent book by John J. Ansbro carefully mapping its course: “The Making of a Mind.”* It was a prodigious, selfplotted campaign to assemble an intellectual vision for himself.

King himself may never have turned out to be an original thinker—his was always an interested, didactic pursuit, its ends active—but he proved to have formidable abilities to absorb and synthesize ideas, amplifying what remained essentially a Christian perspective. He drew on Niebuhr’s notion of “collective evil” to explain why men in herds will act more brutishly than as individuals; on Walter Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel” calling for “a moral reconstruction of society” to replace “mammonistic capitalism” with a “Christian commonwealth.” Marx had only produced a “grand illusion” of a moral society, King concluded, “a Christian heresy” of a materialistic theology. He became captivated by Thoreau’s proposition that “one honest man” could morally regenerate an entire society. But the greatest discovery for King was Gandhi and the way he transformed Thoreau’s principle of individual passive resistance into an epic popular movement to purge British power from India, not through violence, but through the implacable “soul force” of a patient mass resistance and suffering that would, finally, cause impossible inconvenience not only to the agencies but to the conscience of the rulers.

The quality that made King such a mover of people, however, did not derive from his assiduous scholarship, but from his own disdained lustily pentacostal origins—an instinct for the energy and life of language, for the mimetic powers of oratory in which, as one of King’s aides recounted, “the right word, emotionally and intellectually charged, could reach the whole person and change the relationships of men.” And what was authentically protean and singular about King was that, after such a laborious and premeditated program of reflective studies, he could translate them immediately and spectacularly into historic action, into the urgencies of the times. Indeed, few have made that crossing so momentously.

Still, King was brought into history largely by accident—late on a December afternoon in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, the aching corns of a weary black seamstress led her to refuse a bus driver’s demand that she surrender her seat to a white man. King was then the young pastor of an old brick church only a short distance down the street from the looming white columns of Alabama’s state capitol, still delivering to his congregations sermons improbably freighted with allusions to Aquinas, Freud, Carlyle, and Alfred the Great. Then, as Rosa Parks’s stubborn refusal was rapidly magnified into a boycott of the city’s segregated buses by thousands of blacks in Montgomery, which itself was to magnify in time into tides of marches and demonstrations throughout the South, King quickly emerged as the great folk apotheosis of that movement, bringing now his carefully compiled precepts from Thoreau, Niebuhr, Gandhi, into what would become not only the brief convulsive moral saga of his own life, but perhaps the nation’s highest moral struggle since the Civil War.

We must meet the forces of hate,” he said, “with the power of love.” When the marchers faced the dogs and clubs of Birmingham, he cried out:

We must say to our white brothers all over the South…we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering…. Threaten our children, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes, and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you…. We will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.

A most implausible proposition, it struck many then—a visit to South Africa now is like traveling back in time to what it was like in the American South during those days, the drab, curt little plaques over drinking fountains and doors to cafes, “Whites Only…Non-Whites Only.” What one hears in South Africa today is strikingly similar to the serene rationales for segregation heard from countless officials and even state school superintendents in the neo-Confederacy twenty-five years ago. “You can’t take a horse and a cow and put them together. There is separate development. You can take the birds, you can take anything, the wild life proves to us that there must be apartheid.” In retrospect, the transformation that took place in the South’s old order of apartheid is nothing short of epochal. And the legacy of racial amity that has, perhaps more astonishingly, followed that transformation would very likely have been impossible without King’s nonviolent strategy of sorrow and understanding for one’s very oppressors.

King’s feat is even more remarkable, in that he was facing political obstacles more forbidding, in a way, than those that confronted Gandhi in India. Gandhi’s Indian multitudes could easily arrest, through their inert, preponderant numbers, the workings of the Raj, while for King, with blacks a minority in the South, the numbers were weighted heavily against him. Beyond that, King was hardly contending with an alien colonial presence, but with the laws and passions of a native folk, the whites of Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi, for whom the stakes—the uncertainties, the forebodings—were much more intimate and immediate. In all this, King really had nothing to rely on or to appeal to but the notice and conscience of the rest of the nation—the press, the powers in Washington, the democratic principles of the law of the republic.

The only way to reach that national constituency beyond the South, King calculated, was for the Southern black to engage in a moral theater of direct public confrontation with the entire apparatus of segregation, so precipitating those cathartic clashes—violent moments of truth—in which the white segregationist was compelled “to commit his brutality openly, in the light of day, with the rest of the world looking on.” As he impatiently admonished an aide once in Selma, “It was a mistake not to march today. In a crisis, we must have a sense of drama.” Nevertheless, in mounting those dramas of confrontation, King’s own lasting disposition to extravagant agonizings of guilt also left him brooding that he was centrally accountable for the suffering they occasioned, and it filled him with woe. He was, he allowed more than once, “a troubled soul.”

In fact, he dwelt in a constant private Gethsemane. Haunted by a reverence for the ascetic and austere, he almost grimly labored to maintain, in place of Gandhi’s fasts and spinning wheel, at least a simple modesty in his own circumstances—yet he remained infatuated with glossy cars and gilded hotels, the company of the rich and consequential. His uneasiness over all this was attended by intermittent stomach pains, insomnia, sleeping pills, the undertow of sluggish depressions. He became aware that he was under the scrutiny of the FBI. “I am a sinner like all of God’s children,” he periodically professed, and was given to deploring what he termed “the evils of sensuality.” He declared in one sermon, “Each of us is two selves. And the great burden of life is to always try to keep that higher self in command. Don’t let the lower self take over.” To justify King’s own lapses into that lower self, some of his apologists—including Oates—have attributed them simply to King’s vital nature, his ardent, uncontainably urgent heart. Rather, one senses that for King, inextricably caught in the duress and fear and solitude of the unremitting moral struggle he had to sustain, those episodes were an almost unthinking reflex of escape, complete and obliterating, into the luxurious, sweet swimming anarchy of the flesh.

But for someone of King’s huge propensity for guilt, it was as if all his despair over such private betrayals of his high meaning—and more, his ministry’s toll on his own people—could only be expiated by surrendering himself to a readiness to die. As early as his first rallies in Montgomery, he was already casting himself in the same drama of crucifixion that he would invoke, thirteen years later, at the mass meeting in Memphis on the last night of his life. Suddenly strangling into tears before a startled congregation, he blurted out, “Lord, I hope no one will have to die as a result of our struggle for freedom here in Montgomery…. But if anyone has to die, let it be me.” And later, when his house was bombed, he proclaimed, “If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy—because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the Promised Land!” For the rest of his life, he went on repeating the same invocation of fatality.

  1. *

    Martin Luther King, Jr. (Orbis, 1982).

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