Five years from now, Martin Luther King Jr. will have been dead longer than he lived. In the decades since his assassination, his life and words have become a touchstone for interpreters of America’s long struggle for racial justice. Children all over this country are raised now with his name on their lips; almost everyone will recognize the sonorous phrases of the speech he made at the March on Washington in 1963. For many around the world, “I have a dream” means Martin Luther King, and his dream is the American dream.
Of course, a hero is always a man mythologized. And always, too, there are contests over the myth. In Dr. King’s case, these contests began early. There was Martin Luther King as prophetic leader, Moses “parting the waters,” as the title of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography had it1—an identification encouraged by King’s own references to his having “been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.” Then there was King as Christ, suffering imprisonment and assault to redeem his people, “bearing the cross,” as the title of David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize– winning biography had it2—an image that was also endorsed by King’s own preaching, in which his personal suffering emerged as a kind of imitatio Christi. Others, in the liberal Protestant tradition, saw Martin Luther King less grandly as the heir to the social gospel of the Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch. But not all the religious images of King come from this Christian repertoire: many in the far-flung network of pacifists saw King as an American Mahatma. These visions—as liberal theologian and as philosopher of nonviolence—he sometimes encouraged as well.
Needless to say, there were many less flattering images of him. Some Southern segregationists placed him at the other end, so to speak, of the theological spectrum, dubbing him “Martin Lucifer Coon.” Malcolm X and many in the Black Power movement saw Dr. King as an effeminate Uncle Tom: a real man, they thought, would respond to force in kind. And J. Edgar Hoover apparently believed the leading American campaigner for civil rights was a sexually depraved Soviet cat’s paw, and spent a good deal of US taxpayers’ money on surveillance, bugging King’s telephones and many of the hotel rooms in which he stayed, in order to provide material to support his view, material that was then leaked to politicians and the press.
One might propose a reconciliation of these visions of King (leaving aside the accusation that he was a Soviet agent), for the fact is that these different stories are not as inconsistent as they might seem. He did lead black America, for a while, speaking to it and for it. He did suffer for his people, as did thousands of others in the movement; and the force of his acceptance of that suffering was part of what made possible the legislative reforms—the Civil Rights and Voting Rights
Acts—that provided legal recourse to blacks in the American South. And so he was both a Christ and a Moses.
But he was also no saint, by the standards of his day or of ours. He was, by our standards, remarkably chauvinist, consigning his wife almost exclusively, against her apparent wishes, to the role of manager of his house and his children, and denying proper recognition in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to a number of women—Ella Baker prominent among them—who served that organization and the wider movement as well. There is no doubt, too, that he offended against his own standards. He was an energetic adulterer, and the language he used when alone with some of his close male friends was certainly saltier than most Americans expect in their ministers.
Assembling these different aspects into a single picture is by no means easy, and the difficulty is surely inherent to the genre of biography. We want to relate a life that makes sense; and the way we make sense of a life is by turning it into a tale that works. We want a solid plot: and so we flail about unhappily when confronted with a life like King’s that begins in privilege and achievement and ends with failure. Wouldn’t it be a better story the other way around? And we want characters with, well, character: faced with a Martin Luther King who is loyal to his principles and his followers but not to his wife, we want to know whether, deep down, he was really loyal or not.
But people just aren’t as our everyday moral common sense supposes them to be: to stay true to your friends and faithful to your spouse is not to exercise two varieties of something called “loyalty.” These are different things and you can easily have one without the other. More to the point, people display different characters in different circumstances. The courteous minister with his oratorical mastery in the pulpit is the same person as the philandering and foul-mouthed sinner who stays up late at night drinking with his buddies. We want one to be real, the other bogus. We want to say one is betraying the other; and perhaps he is. But betrayer and betrayed here are equally real.
So it seems better to treat each new attempt at biography not as an effort to consolidate all the aspects of a life, but rather as an attempt at one interpretation of it; partial, no doubt, but still an interpretation… and something, if well done, eminently worth having to place alongside other interpretations.
Marshall Frady’s engaging new biography of King is published in the Penguin Lives series, and it aims, in the spirit of that series, to provide a lively narrative unencumbered by the scholarly apparatus of footnotes. Mr. Frady is a distinguished journalist and he begins by explaining how, as a young “apprentice correspondent in the Atlanta bureau of Newsweek—still a raw provincial just emerged out of a Southern small-town upbringing,” he found himself embroiled in the “folk morality play” of the civil rights movement in Alabama. He tells us, too, how when he first met Martin Luther King, in 1964, he found him “a startlingly unprepossessing figure—a short, chunky man, with a manner of unremitting and ponderous gravity in his deacon-sober suits.”
Frady states, near the start of his book, that King was a mass of contradictions, and lays these out in his introduction. King lived modestly, for example, confined to a “meager salary, a small rented frame house in a humble neighborhood, an old car, plain dark suits. Yet those suits were often silk, as were the pajamas he would have brought to him wherever he could for his stays in jail.” Mr. Frady’s holy dreamer was also a man with many worldly vices. The book records accusations of vanity, pomposity, opportunism, and administrative incompetence, and relates the accusations of “lickerish rompings in hotel rooms, multiple humid affairs….” Of course, these “lapses into a lesser self” left the preacher troubled and guilt-ridden, Frady tells us. “In a sense, then, the outer turbulence attending King’s movement was all along matched by an unseen, equally turbulent struggle within King himself.”
The turbulent struggle in Mr. Frady’s introduction is with the problem of navigating, in a brief and summary biography, these seeming contradictions. Once the narrative begins, he largely puts aside these problems to tell us, elegantly and persuasively, the central facts of the life. Mr. Frady’s prose retains a faint air of Southern Gothic and a penchant for piling up offbeat adjectives. But after a while you get caught up in the story, and it is a story that does seem to call for a certain heightening of language.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. His father, Daddy King (as he was later called), was a prominent clergyman in Atlanta, and his mother was the daughter of another; the young King thus had the privilege, rare among African-Americans, of a secure, middle-class, urban upbringing in the South. Less secure, perhaps, was his sense of vocation. When he arrived at Morehouse College, his father’s alma mater, at the age of fifteen, he spent a good deal more energy carousing and chasing young women than was fitting in the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. Still, after contemplating careers in medicine and the law, he decided to enter the ministry to which his ancestry might seem to have fated him. Soon enough, he was giving his first trial sermon as assistant pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, his father’s congregation. The sermon, with its “polysyllabic unfurlings of language and the passion of his message,” was accounted a great success. No one at Ebenezer needed to know that it had largely been borrowed from one of the published sermons of the preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. to build Riverside Church.
Keith D. Miller, in his study Voices of Deliverance,3 has explored King’s preacherly borrowings as part of the practice of recirculating both the structure and the language of sermons within the Protestant communion. In May of 1956, for example, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, King gave a sermon under the title “Death of Evil on the Seashore,” that echoed precisely in a number of places the words of “Egyptians Dead Upon the Seashore” in Phillips Brooks’s Collected Sermons. “Three Dimensions,” the trial sermon he gave when he was being considered for appointment to his first church at Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, was based on Phillips Brooks’s “The Symmetry of Life.” If he had been trying to hide his dependence on others, Miller argues, he would not have announced titles for his sermons that so often reflected the titles of published sermons by figures as well known as Phillips Brooks.
Other instances of King’s borrowings have presented a greater challenge to his interpreters. After graduating from Morehouse, King went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, whose white faculty and integrated student body were a substantial change from life at Morehouse, and there, Frady says, he “turned into a ferociously diligent student.” Indeed, he would graduate as class valedictorian, in reward for which his father bought him a green Chevrolet. But as researchers at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project reported in 1990, at least some portions of his schoolwork were plagiarized. And after he entered Boston University, with the scholarship he had won by his scholarly triumph at Crozer, both his term papers and his dissertation contained large swatches lifted from other people’s work.4
These revelations were deeply unsettling to King’s principal biographers, who wondered about their larger significance. Instead of viewing the young King as hungering for philosophical and theological sustenance, David Garrow has proposed, we might instead think of King in those years as an insecure dandy playing the role of an intellectual sophisticate. “We would do well to remember that the young Coretta Scott, on first exposure to her future husband, was most struck by his penchant for ‘intellectual jive,’” he writes.5 On the other hand, Frady, who dispatches the matter in a brisk sentence or two, sees little in it other than a “careless hurry of impatience.”
Coretta Scott, who typed King’s Boston University course work, had been studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music when they met. So much for his father’s hopes that he would marry into Atlanta’s black elite. A year and a half later, in the summer of 1953, the two were wed on the lawn of her father’s house in Marion, Alabama. (Because the hotels of the region were segregated and closed to them, they spent the first night of their married life in the guest bedroom of a black funeral parlor.)In August 1954, Martin Luther King went off with Coretta to his first pastorate, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Resisting Daddy King’s pressure to join him in Atlanta, he had set out on his own. This choice was fateful in ways that the twenty-five-year-old cleric could hardly have anticipated.
The precipitating event of the episode that would set King’s life’s trajectory was the arrest on December 1, 1955, of Rosa Parks, whom Frady describes as “a trim, soft-spoken, bespectacled woman of tidily proper comportment.” Mrs. Parks’s offense was her refusal to obey the bus driver’s order to get up and allow a white man to take her place on a crowded bus.
That weekend, a group of black leaders in Montgomery planned a Monday bus boycott, and King joined others in printing and circulating a leaflet urging the boycott. Together with his friend Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, he traveled the city’s nightspots in order to make sure, as Abernathy later put it, that the “saints” who heard of the boycott in church on Sunday would be joined by the “sinners” in “the clubs and dives” of Montgomery.
When Monday came, the boycott was almost total. That afternoon, King, Abernathy, and other local black leaders met at the Mount Zion Church. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, and King, to his surprise, even consternation, found himself nominated to lead it. King’s reply, phrased with characteristic old-world formality and with a gravity far beyond his years, was, “If you think I can render some service, I will.”
Taylor Branch summarizes the various alternate interpretations of this key moment in King’s life thus:
Idealists would say afterward that King’s gifts made him the obvious choice. Realists would scoff at this, saying that King was not very well known, and that his chief asset was his lack of debts or enemies. Cynics would say that the established preachers stepped back for King only because they saw more blame and danger ahead than glory.
What’s plain is that King did not, at in the first instance, seek out struggle; the struggle sought him out. And it was pleased to make his acquaintance. If there had been any doubts that Dr. King was the right man for the job, the first speech that he gave as president of the MIA that evening (one that he had barely had time to prepare) must surely have allayed them. He began by explaining the legal background, and raising the question of the constitutionality of the ordinance under which Mrs. Parks had been ordered to yield her seat. Then he connected this episode with the whole system of racial oppression under which black people lived in the South. And finally he insisted that the response of the community should be a nonviolent one, grounded secularly in the American right to protest and spiritually in God’s justice:
If we are wrong—the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong—God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong—Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth. If we are wrong—justice is a lie…. And we are determined here in Montgomery—to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Frady writes that King displayed here “that mystic capability of leaders of genius, at certain critical moments, to suddenly transmute into someone, something, awesomely larger than their ordinary selves.” This oratorical alchemy was achieved by blending faith in the Constitution with an affirmation of the power of Christian love. It was a pastor’s message: but it was the message of an American pastor.
Nearly half a century later, the demands of the Montgomery bus boycott seem almost unbearably timid. Not an end to segregation on the buses, but a system in which blacks would fill each bus from the rear, whites from the front, and, once the bus was full, no one would have to yield a seat to anyone. Not integration, but courtesy to black riders. Not the right to compete fairly for jobs as drivers, but the right to be considered for jobs on predominantly black routes. Yet the city fought back as if its way of life were under siege. When the MIA persuaded black taxi drivers to carry passengers at a discounted fare, the city threatened to arrest any driver who charged below the statutory rate. When the MIA organized a free car pool, the Montgomery police harassed its drivers, “issuing citations for whimsical traffic violations.” In January 1956, King himself was arrested, allegedly for breaking a twenty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit. By the evening an angry crowd had gathered outside the city jail and the authorities decided it would be prudent to release him on his own recognizance. This arrest was the first of many.
And so were the death threats and bombings that ensued. “Listen, nigger, we tired of you and your mess,” one anonymous caller told him. “If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we gonna blow your brains out and blow up your house.”6 That night, King reported later, he was overwhelmed with a sense of his own unworthiness and he felt he just wanted to give up. So he prayed for help:
It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” …Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
The strength that King gathered from this often-recounted epiphany was severely tested just a few nights later: a bomb exploded under his house while he was conducting a meeting at Reverend Abernathy’s church. Though his wife and baby daughter were unharmed, the explosion gathered an angry, armed crowd of black citizens and King once more used his extraordinary rhetorical powers to great effect, telling the crowd, even in this moment when his family’s very life had been threatened, that the right response was always nonviolence. “We want to love our enemies—be good to them. This is what we must live by, we must meet hate with love. We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us.” It was likely, many thought, that King’s words that evening prevented an angry riot and the death of some of the white officials gathered at the scene of this crime.
Faced with the continuing intransigence of the white leadership of their city, the MIA did what the NAACP would have done at the start: it began legal proceedings to challenge the constitutionality of the segregation laws of Alabama. On December 17, 1956, for the first of many times in King’s short career, the federal government—this time in the form of the Supreme Court—finally intervened, the justices affirming that the segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
The boycott had captured the national media and produced a great outpouring of support from an astonishing range of people and places. “The United Auto Workers, sympathizers around the globe from Paris to New Delhi,…even the stodgier NAACP, despite its antipathy to street protests, stirred to contribute,” Frady recounts. The MIA’s planning was guided in part by contacts made as a result of King’s newfound fame. Bayard Rustin, a gay former Communist and Quaker peace activist, who had come to Montgomery as a committed Gandhian, helped to develop King’s ideas and organizational skills, and connected him with new sources of money in the North. In late 1957, a couple of weeks after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin introduced King to Stanley Levison, a well-to-do lawyer from New York who had managed to combine left-wing sympathies with a successful career in car dealerships and real estate; Levison was to be King’s closest white confidant for the rest of his life. Levison helped write King’s major books (indeed, it might fairly be said that it was sometimes King who aided Levison and other ghostwriters). But above all Levison was a worldly and disinterested source of independent advice.
Levison’s friendship came, however, with a price of which King was not, at first, aware. The left-wing lawyer’s support for Communists in the McCarthy era had called him to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who was always convinced that Levison was himself a Communist. And it was largely this indirect connection to American communism—and thus, in the official logic of those days, to the Soviet Union—that allowed Hoover (himself as friendly to America’s traditions of white supremacy as most Southern legislators) to justify drawing King into an ever-widening network of FBI surveillance.
King’s fame as the leader of the bus boycott also made him a much-sought-after speaker on the liberal church circuit around the nation and he was able to raise large amounts of money, first for the MIA and later for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he helped found in early 1957. The SCLC began as an organization devoted both to desegregation and to voter registration, but very little of its early work achieved much. Nevertheless, raising funds for the organization and preaching desegregation and voting rights around the country kept Reverend King on the road a good deal, and rumors about his womanizing began to circulate. Some colleagues and supporters, Ralph Abernathy among them, warned him that he risked discrediting the movement. When Reverend Abernathy suggested that one of his more enduring affairs was becoming conspicuous, King said that he had “no intention of cutting off this relationship.”
It is in dealing with what Frady calls “King’s sexual corsairing in his coursings about the country” that he seems most deflected by the urge to square King’s vices with his virtues. Less, I think, would have been more here. At one point, he ventures that “it was from the tension of this inner dichotomy between spirit and flesh that much of his momentous public force derived.” King himself had preached, after all, that guilt could be constructive if it led to repentance, but that it could also lead a person to “drown the guilt by engaging more in the very act that brought the guilt”:
In this way, it may not be too fanciful to suggest, King—in a variant of Martin Luther’s own precept “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still”—was driven to crucify himself over and over again on a cross of guilt with his secret licentiousness in order to renew his soul with the experience of yet another resurrection into grace and restoration to his high calling.
This seems to me, alas, exactly too fanciful: and it is easier to accept King’s own more straightforward observation that “fucking’s a form of anxiety reduction.”
In the years immediately after the triumph in Montgomery, the SCLC struggled to find a role for itself. King’s major achievements were probably the development of a national audience of all races in his marathon of church appearances and the assembling of what Mr. Frady calls “that inner company of lieutenants who would come to be called King’s Horsemen in the campaigns ahead,” including Andrew Young, Wyatt Tee Walker, and a “mystically intense” Mississippi divine named James Bevel. As this “more or less running free-for-all of egos” looked for new fronts on which to wage their struggle for justice, four students in Greensboro, North Carolina, unprompted by either the SCLC or the older civil rights organizations, began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter and initiated the student-led “sit-down protests” that were to mark the next phase of the civil rights movement. Many of the new young recruits to the movement joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which originated at a student conference organized by the SCLC in April 1960.
Though the SNCC began within the bosom of the SCLC, the two organizations soon parted ways. The young activists were suspicious of what they saw as the milquetoast moderation of the middle-class ministers of King’s organization. The real action, so it seemed to them, was elsewhere. When James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set in motion the Freedom Rides of the summer of 1961, in which integrated groups of students set out to challenge the segregated facilities in the interstate bus system, they were met with astonishing brutality on the part both of policemen and of white mobs. King’s reluctance to risk assault and arrest in that struggle produced an even greater skepticism in the SNCC activists. Indeed, for the rest of his life, King was subjected to constant pressure from the student militants of SNCC as he stuck doggedly to his own beliefs about what means were and were not morally permissible and politically effective in the battle for black equality.
And the sense that he had lost his place in the civil rights vanguard was worsened by the debacle that was King’s first major public interven-tion after the summer of the Freedom Rides. It was in support of the Albany Movement, a faltering attempt to desegregate public facilities and improve the treatment of blacks in that small Georgia city. As would soon become apparent, though, Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett, was a far cannier opponent than the authorities who had bludgeoned the Freedom Riders and shocked the nation that summer. Mr. Pritchett was especially solicitous of the white newsmen from out of town who covered the story; he was restrained with protesters; and when King came down and managed to get himself arrested, he invented a black benefactor to pay the fine King had refused to pay, and had him released.
Then the city authorities got a local segregationist federal judge to issue an injunction prohibiting further demonstrations in the city. King was faced with having to disobey an order of the very federal courts on whose decisions he had so often predicated his challenges to the state laws that enforced white supremacy. When King left Albany eight months after he arrived, almost nothing had been achieved; his radical critics—in the SNCC and elsewhere—denounced his interventions as too moderate, his critics in the established civil rights movement accused him of meddling, unprepared, in a place he did not understand, and the national press echoed and amplified these criticisms. For the first, but not the last, time Martin Luther King faced a very significant, very public failure.
Among the lessons of Montgomery had been the power of courtroom drama and imprisonment willingly accepted to grab the nation’s attention; among the lessons of the Freedom Rides was that Southern racist violence against peaceful demonstrators could gain the sympathy of Northern whites. In Albany, the white leadership denied King each of these advantages. But when King and the SCLC took up a new cause, this time in Birmingham in the following year, the nature of their opposition was not yet entirely clear. A reformist white elite, under the leadership of Albert Boutwell, was seeking to replace the traditionalists, epitomized by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s public safety commissioner, whom Frady describes as “a bombastic segregationist of the old, unapologetically bluff sort—a podgy, strutful, middle-aged bossman in a snap-brim straw hat who knew only one word for King and his people, ‘nigger,’ and held a famously irascible temper.” Though Birmingham’s (white) voters gave Boutwell a substantial eight-thousand-vote margin in the elections of April 2, 1963, Connor was not inclined to accept the new arrangements and he mounted a legal challenge to the election and the new city charter that had come with it, while retaining control of the city’s police officers and firemen.
Into this uncertain climate, King and the SCLC entered with the ambitious aim of using civil disobedience to force the city to end segregation. At first, though, few people proved willing to march into the jails of Birmingham. When Connor arranged for an injunction against demonstrations from a compliant local judge, King decided that his own arrest for breaching that injunction might help to raise the level of commitment. On Good Friday, 1962, dressed in a work shirt and jeans, King marched into Bull Connor’s jailhouse, where, with tidily Christian symbolism, he was kept incommunicado until Easter morning. It was in that Birmingham jail that he composed a letter—in response to the rebukes of the local religious leaders who had urged him to withdraw—that was to become famous as one of the most powerful defenses of his program of protest.
King’s arrest did not have the effect he had hoped for, and the letter, for all its eloquence, at first fell on deaf ears. It was James Bevel, the mystic from Mississippi, who had the idea that the high school students of Birmingham could be persuaded to march when their parents could not. This was a risky gambit. Then and later, many of King’s allies and admirers were discomfited—and his enemies were openly dismayed—by the decision to instruct the children to march toward the dogs, the fire hoses, and the clubs that were the instruments of the law in Bull Connor’s Birmingham. But it worked. The national media filled with images of Connor blasting children with fire hoses so powerful they could tear their garments off, scattering them like rag dolls, and setting loose German shepherds on them. Frady writes,
One news photo of a policeman clutching the shirtfront of a black youth with one hand while his other held the leash of a dog swirling at the youth’s midsection happened to pass under the eyes of the president in the Oval Office, and he told a group of visitors that day, “It makes me sick.”
As the press turned its attention fully to an epic struggle, the black community, until now disunited and uncertain, rallied behind its children, parents joining their young. When more than a dozen groups of marauding teenagers made it into downtown Birmingham one lunch hour—to the astonishment of the white businessmen and shoppers—the business leaders of the city had had enough. Beginning with the fitting rooms of the stores downtown, and then with lunch counters and water fountains, the city would be desegregated and a biracial committee would work to complete the process. Eight days after the “Children’s Crusade” had begun, on May 10, 1963, King had his victory.
Birmingham turned Martin Luther King Jr. from the scorned loser of the Albany campaign to Time’s 1963 Man of the Year. The triumph in Birmingham, and the demonstrations it unleashed across the nation, helped impel the Kennedy administration toward proposing its first substantial civil rights measure, a bill to desegregate public accommodations. “We are confronted primarily,” the President said in words that could have come from Martin Luther King’s mouth, “with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” In the name of these American values, sacred and secular, he was “asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores….”
It was, in part, as the victor in Birmingham that Martin Luther King Jr. was the headliner of the August March on Washington. The great march, which King’s Autobiography calls “the most significant and moving demonstration for freedom and justice in all the history of this country,” enlisted the participation of all the leading civil rights organizations, working, for once, in unity. With A. Philip Randolph as its official leader, and Bayard Rustin as its mastermind, the march had as its official purpose to stir Congress into passing the Kennedy public accommodations bill. (When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas some three months later, it would be left to his successor, LBJ, to push the bill through.)
In the White House, President Kennedy, watching King’s now legendary speech on television, was heard to say, “He’s damned good. Damned good.” What he experienced was the rhetorical power that the Reverend Dr. King had honed in the marathon of sermons and public speeches to audiences of all races around the country, the marathon that had consumed him for nearly a decade.
King lived for nearly five more years after his apotheosis on the Mall in Washington. In December 1964, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, cementing his international position as the voice of black America and the leading apostle after Gandhi of non-violent campaigns for social justice. In Selma, in 1965, he and the SCLC conducted a voting-rights campaign that once more captured the nation. And as, in Birmingham, the horrific violence of the white supremacists had opened the pathway to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so, in Selma, the media’s relentless coverage of the struggle gave powerful support to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and the national government’s engagement with the promise of full voting rights that had lain neglected with the Civil War amendments for almost a century.
Yet Selma would be King’s last unequivocal success: the years that followed saw the steady erosion of his public influence. It was a measure of the depth of Martin Luther King’s commitment to nonviolence that he was one of the most vocal of the early leaders of American opposition to the Vietnam War and that he persisted in this cause against the urgings of many in the civil rights movement; a measure of his concern for all human suffering, black and white, that his last major initiative, four months before he died, was the Poor People’s Campaign.
Still, little came of King’s efforts in these years. Ralph Abernathy, in his memoir And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, summarizes the reasons plausibly. First and foremost, King’s movement was a victim of its own success: after the mid-Sixties, statutory discrimination had been all but dismantled, either by the Supreme Court or by congressional legislation. Then, too, Northerners who regarded racism as a regional problem peculiar to the South were less pleased when the SCLC directed its attentions to cities like Chicago. And when King came to focus more broadly on economic rather than strictly racial disadvantage, he lost the moral consensus that had buoyed his earlier protests. As Abernathy writes,
There were many people who opposed racism as a matter of principle, but who didn’t want to see the economic apple cart upset. They were perfectly willing to help us do whatever was necessary to gain racial equality, but they believed that economic equality was an impossible goal….7
In Frady’s own view, “If King had lived, most likely he would, with his increasingly radical gospel, have departed steadily further from the temper and received liberal sophistications of his times, drifting to the outermost fringes of apparent relevancy—to the final true desert of the prophet, in a reverse of the scriptural sequence going back, as it were, to John the Baptist.”
When we say his name today, then, it is not the King of these last years whom we remember, but the young man who came victorious out of Montgomery, who triumphed in Birmingham and Selma; the man, above all, whose rhetoric enthralled his nation that August day in Washington. Meanwhile, the burden of the biographer is to create a life—a career—from a series of incidents, and a man—a coherent character—from a series of actions. It is to reconcile the role with the person who played it. The search for the real King can lead us to give special attention to the man’s behavior away from the public eye—to seek truth in the putative candor of the dressing room. Hence the disquiet that greeted Abernathy’s 1989 memoir—which depicted a King who did not merely have feet of clay but was, so to speak, clay from the waist down—and, even more, the subsequent revelations from the King Papers Project. The illustrious historian David Levering Lewis, who was King’s first academic biographer, would respond to those revelations from with the self-berating conclusion: “Who he was simply escaped me.”8 David Garrow, reviewing the same evidence, which emerged several years after he completed his own monumental study of King, asks us to “ponder whether… the tough-minded integrity, and the courage, that Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrated so repeatedly and so often in the years after 1956 was not something he brought to the black freedom struggle, but rather something he gained from his involvement in it.” And he quotes Ella Baker’s simple, resonant statement: “The movement made Martin, rather than Martin making the movement.” No doubt this points us in the right direction, but that either-or should be resisted.
For the truth about the man at the pulpit is not to be found in his grad student cribbings, or his motel room philanderings. Frady’s proposal that King was driven to sin so he could be resurrected into grace is, as I say, a generous but unnecessary conceit. The dandy in the green Chevrolet, the prophet on the mountainside, the uncompromising, compromised pastor—these images only conflict if we insist on reconciling them, like the sums of a bookkeeper’s double ledger. King was not a brilliant strategist like Bayard Rustin. He was not a gifted organizer like Ella Baker. What he was, first and foremost, was a performer—the galvanizing voice and countenance of the civil rights struggle. And the theater of protest was always crucial to his successes. Where a protest failed as spectacle—as with the political jujitsu of Albany’s police chief—it failed as politics.
The ultimate truth about the man in the pulpit will be found—where else?—in the pulpit. Mr. Frady’s narrative is punctuated with accounts of significant orations; and that is surely as it must be. For if there is a mystery to King’s power, the solution to that mystery lies, like the purloined letter, in plain sight; or rather in plain hearing. In the preface to Strength to Love, a volume of his sermons, King wrote that he was “rather reluctant to have a volume of sermons printed” because “a sermon is not an essay to be read but a discourse to be heard.” It is a reasonable reservation; for on the page even the greatest of his speeches has power only if we hear in our heads an echo of the way he spoke them. Yet once we do remember King’s sound, his voice, his intonation, his cadences, there is no real question about why it is he, of all the leaders of the civil rights movement, whom we remember most.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (Simon and Schuster, 1988).↩
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Morrow, 1986). ↩
Keith D. Miller's Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King Jr. and Its Sources (University of Georgia Press, 1992).↩
Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, "The Student Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (June 1991), pp. 23–31. The issue was probed, independently if less exhaustively, in Keith D. Miller, "Composing Martin Luther King Jr.," PMLA 105 (January 1990), pp. 70–82.↩
David J. Garrow, "King's Plagiarism: Imitation, Insecurity, and Transformation," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (June 1991), p. 90.↩
This is Frady's version, p. 45. Branch follows King's account. See The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (Warner, 1998): "Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you; before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery." See also Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper and Row, 1958), p. 134; as quoted in Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 162. ↩
Ralph David Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (Harper and Row, 1989) pp. 495–498.↩
David Levering Lewis, "Failing to Know Martin Luther King Jr." in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (June 1991), p. 84. He refers to his King: A Critical Biography (Praeger, 1970), p. 42.↩
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (Simon and Schuster, 1988).↩
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Morrow, 1986). ↩
Keith D. Miller’s Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King Jr. and Its Sources (University of Georgia Press, 1992).↩
Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, “The Student Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (June 1991), pp. 23–31. The issue was probed, independently if less exhaustively, in Keith D. Miller, “Composing Martin Luther King Jr.,” PMLA 105 (January 1990), pp. 70–82.↩
David J. Garrow, “King’s Plagiarism: Imitation, Insecurity, and Transformation,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (June 1991), p. 90.↩
This is Frady’s version, p. 45. Branch follows King’s account. See The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (Warner, 1998): “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” See also Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper and Row, 1958), p. 134; as quoted in Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 162. ↩
Ralph David Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (Harper and Row, 1989) pp. 495–498.↩
David Levering Lewis, “Failing to Know Martin Luther King Jr.” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 1 (June 1991), p. 84. He refers to his King: A Critical Biography (Praeger, 1970), p. 42.↩