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Prophet with Honor

But as with many solitary leaders of genius—and artists, for that matter—what seemed most to energize and sustain King was another kind of self-extinguishment: the impulse to lose and redefine himself in a larger self, a larger reality beyond his particular person. That larger life, for King, became the great historical truth animating a movement that promised, he once said, “to save the soul of a nation…save the whole of mankind.” However harried by doubt and foreboding and sinkings of will, he would still hold to that sense of a vaster and more comprehending self. “I always felt a sense of cosmic companionship,” he confided, “a greater feeling of security.”

Already in Montgomery, King was proposing a struggle that, beyond delivering blacks at last into full citizenship, would “redeem the soul of America”—and it would be the black man who would prove the redeeming agent for the entire society that, for so long, had brutalized him. “It may be that through the American Negro, the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the whole.”

But there is reason now to question whether King’s was not always a movement—an idea—whose effectiveness was peculiar to the sense of community still surviving then in the small towns and cities of the South. The black mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, later observed, “There’s been a personal relationship between whites and blacks down here for so long—a lot of meanness in it, sure, but a lot of compassion, too. Main thing is, it’s been warm, you know. It’s been close, whether hate or love—it’s been human, been real.” But when King tried to amplify his movement beyond the South, into the immense urban isolation of the rest of the country, something seemed to be missing.

Arriving in Chicago in 1966, King encountered a power complex far more elusive and diffused than anything in the South. His Chicago campaign “to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums” simply never worked—because it was an exertion against a nebula of forces: real estate interests, zoning technicalities, not to mention the Florentine intricacies of Mayor Richard Daley’s own political patrimony there. Daley himself was entirely too canny to lend himself to any confrontation with King; instead, he countered with his own antipoverty projects, judicious deployments of his own grants and retainers throughout Chicago’s black community. In contrast to the plain passionate hostility of such antagonists as George Wallace or Birmingham’s Bull Connor, it was like trying to grapple with mercury. King’s venture into Chicago ended with something called a “Summit Agreement,” a voluminous profession of expansive intentions by Chicago realtors, banks, assorted civic commissions, which, aside from its vagueness, also happened to carry no timetable. Publicly, King announced a victory. Privately, it left him desolate. He confessed to several journalists afterward that Chicago had confirmed for him the endemic, intractable, infinitely varied and resourceful racism of white America.

Chicago was especially disastrous for King, at that point in 1966, because as Andrew Young admitted, “We have got to deliver results—non-violent results in a Northern city—to protect the non-violent movement.” With successive flash combustions of disillusionment and fury now in Watts, Newark, Harlem, Detroit, there seemed everywhere a withdrawal of faith in King’s vision of nonviolent redemptive resistance, a contraction of the moral perspective of the movement to a bitter, blank acceptance of humankind’s condition as hopeless and immutable racial estrangement. An angry nihilism among the smoldering young new evangels of the movement, with their demand for “black power,” was accompanied by a deepening impatience over King’s very manner of elevated and preacherly gravity. In the washes of applause at his mass meetings hoots arose from far corners, “De Lawd! De Lawd!” But if there was a widening suspicion that the times had moved irrevocably beyond him King nevertheless continued to insist, “If every Negro in the United States turns to violence, I will choose to be that one lone voice preaching that this is the wrong way.”

More and more, though, King seemed oppressed by a sense that he was in a race between the last hopes for a true national neighborhood and the technological age’s progressive flattening of modern man’s very humanity. And it was at this point that his ministry, born out of the South’s racial conflict, sought to expand “in ever-widening circles,” as he put it, toward its last, national, Gandhian magnitude.

As early as Montgomery, in fact, he had begun evangelizing against “the madness of militarism,” and after the Bay of Pigs invasion, he declared, “For some reason, we just don’t understand the meaning of the revolution taking place in the world…against colonialism, reactionary dictatorship, and systems of exploitation.” Inexorably, his apostleship against racism—its destruction of the natural connection to other men, which then allows any manner of savagery against them—evolved into an early apostleship against Vietnam. “It is worthless to talk about integrating if there is no world to integrate,” he warned. “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” He could not, he explained, protest the violence in Mississippi without confronting “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

It was an outcry, at a time still of general popular indulgence of that foreign enterprise, which unsettled many of his remaining followers, even in the civil rights movement. The effect was to leave King even more isolated. Not only did it earn him the rancor and suspicion of Lyndon Johnson’s Washington, but it scandalized such dependable supporters in the past as the worthy New York Times. The backfire was so stunning, so pervasive, that King once actually collapsed into weeping.

Around the same time, he also began proposing a “Poor People’s Campaign” to challenge the nation’s entire economic power structure, not just Washington agencies but the big corporations, the high bishops of American commerce. “The non-violent movement,” he averred, “must be as much directed against the violence of poverty, which destroys the souls of people, as against the violence of segregation.” As early as St. Augustine, he had called for a trillion-dollar domestic Marshall Plan to liberate the nation’s poor at last from their old enduring ghettoes of economic helplessness, and he now determined the only way to effect that deliverance was to expand his movement into a huge national front of not only blacks but all the nation’s desperate and outcast—Appalachian whites, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Chicanos—who would mount “major massive dislocations” to alter the fundamental economic arrangements in the country: he sought a guaranteed income for the destitute, possibly the nationalization of vital public services and industries. As one of his aides realized then, “We are going for broke this time.” King was approaching now the last, most radical, venture of his career: a continental Gandhian mass movement to reconstruct the terms on which America worked. And this presented a specter that could not have been more unnerving for many in power in America.

King had already come to obsess J. Edgar Hoover as a deep danger to his own orderly pieties, not much moved beyond the America of Calvin Coolidge. But Hoover was only one of a great many who became alarmed and uncomprehending as King followed his vision to its ultimate implications—what he had in mind was a different matter altogether from simply according constitutional rights to Southern blacks. Misgivings, defections collected around him. He spent one long night in a Manhattan West Side brownstone with a couple who had been among his closest patrons, entreating their support for this final grand hope of his while he drank one orange juice and vodka after another; he departed stricken by their refusal. Finding himself suddenly enjoying far less company than during the civil rights struggle, King arrived now in that far region of all true prophets—that lonely terrain beyond the morally stylish, the conventionally enlightened. But from the beginning, he almost certainly had to wind up there.

Still, his “poor people’s campaign” may have been a hopelessly misbegotten crusade from its very inception. Like his Chicago expedition, though on a heroically larger scale, it was addressing nothing so tangible as the bluff simplicity of Al Lingo’s Cossacks on Selma Bridge, but a myriad of interests far more baffling and morally abstract, federal bureaucracies, company boardrooms, glib and amiable spokesmen—a constellation of power in which, in the words of an old gospel song, “It’s hard to find the blame / It’s too smart to have a name / It’s not flesh and blood we fight with / It’s powers and principalities.” Lacking the tension of a focused confrontation, the suspense of crisis that had always served as the vital dynamic of the movement in the South, King’s poor people’s campaign gathered only fitfully, sluggishly.

But almost in inverse measure to his growing despair as his “last, greatest dream” faltered before him, King’s vision seemed to swim even wider, beyond the nation now to embrace the world itself, expanding into the almost deliriously cosmic: America’s malaise, he pronounced, “is inseparable from an international emergency which involves the poor, the dispossessed, and the exploited of the whole world.” It was as if, since his extraordinary pain as a boy when death struck his grandmother, his spirit had come to be weighted now with all the planet’s grief, famines, massacres, storms of war, the slums of Cairo and Calcutta and Lima, all the earth’s cruelty and anguish. On Christmas Eve of 1967, from his pulpit in Atlanta, he appealed for nothing less than a movement to accomplish a new global order for all humankind, beyond class, tribe, race, nation, “a world unity in which all barriers of caste and color are abolished.”

Finally he told his congregation in Memphis that hot, raining April night, “It really doesn’t matter what happens to me now,” as he had been saying every since Montgomery,

Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land…the brotherhood of man will become a reality.

On a plane several weeks later, Ralph Abernathy recalled that next afternoon on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Abernathy, a badger of a man with a dolorously drooping face, had served as a kind of Falstaff to King. He was slumped now in a front-row seat, a rumpled, displaced curiosity in his soiled denims among the cabin of businessmen in synthetic suits with wafer-thin briefcases; and in the dull jet roar of wind, speed, he seemed still in a stupor from the impossible rifle-crack in the soft April dusk.

I rushed out and saw him lying sideways where the bullet had knocked him. I bent over and patted him on the cheek, and said, “Martin, Martin, this is Ralph. Don’t worry, it’s gonna be all right.” He tried to say something, his lips tried to move, but all he could do was look at me. It was like he was talking through his eyes—and what they were saying was, It has come. It has happened….

But by then, many have insisted, the movement had already begun to dissipate into the incidental and inconclusive twilight maneuvers of the last fifteen years, occupied not so much with trying to revolutionize the heart of the nation, but with matters of political and structural mechanics. And the nation itself seemed rapidly to weary of all the brave and turbulent exertions of the King years, its moral exhaustion consummated in the 1980s by the president himself. Inevitably, the question stirs of whether, again, a catalytic folk figure is not in fact indispensable to any movement that would be wide and urgent enough to answer that exhaustion. But the suspense—the faint but momentous possibility—now hanging on the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson, far larger than his own particular prospects, is that it could gather, after so long a pause, into a rematerialization of King’s movement, in a different form: one that would, following King’s original vision, bring about the political arrival at last, on a national scale, of blacks in America.


Let the Trumpet Sound’ January 19, 1984

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