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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.

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.

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.

Letters

Let the Trumpet Sound’ January 19, 1984

  1. *

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

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