We have 10 federal holidays and three celebrate people: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. Their days are occasions for homage, though pretty perfunctory except for King’s, and Columbus gets some blowback: Indigenous Peoples Day is held alternatively that October Monday. Meanwhile, reverence for Washington blandly marks February, and King’s glorification arrives in January, as you’ll see tomorrow.
Around one MLK Day a few years back, the principal then at my daughter’s grade school, who is African American, spoke at an assembly. Without King, he said, he wouldn’t be where he was today, and neither would President Obama. Children of every color quieted. I felt myself tear up; we’ve come so far.
But “[t]o hallow a figure is almost always to hollow him,” writes Marshall Frady in his great, slim biography “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Viking, 2002). King has sunken to “pop beatification,” he adds. We forget how “tenuous, fitful and uncertain was his progress.”
I’m with Frady here: It can be positive to go negative. Maybe on Washington’s birthday, we should mention that the future president was demoted, in the French and Indian Wars, for fatally bad judgment. On Columbus Day, we might recall that the explorer lost the Santa Maria during his voyage. Those fiascos are as much their story as the holiday-making triumphs.
In reading about King, also, I was struck by his failures — but more by his persistence in pushing past them, carving “a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment,’’ in his words. To the wider public, King has been attenuated to the “I Have a Dream” speech, or perhaps images from his two most famous successes: the Montgomery bus boycott or the hard-won demise of segregation in Bull Connor’s Birmingham. But Frady first met King while covering civil rights protests in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964 — which was a debacle.
Indeed, the local sheriff abetted the local Klan (who wielded bicycle chains and iron pipes on the black marchers) but finally a judge forced the city to form a biracial committee to consider desegregation. King thought that was the breakthrough. Instead, the white members simply quit the committee and resegregated the city.
This was one of multiple “alarums and flash-outs,” writes Frady. Read here about King’s misguided, spread-too-thin strategy in Albany, Ga., for instance, or how as militancy grew in the black community, King’s nonviolence seemed nonsensical, and outside a Harlem church he was pelted by eggs.
“We have frozen his legacy in worship,” writes Michael Eric Dyson in “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King” (Free Press, 2001). Dyson says that liberal and conservative alike want to claim King as a feel-good symbol of colorblindness, and he’s been bled of the unnerving extremism of his nonviolent philosophy. The reality is his martyrdom resurrected his reputation. King’s star was falling in the last years of his life, as he leveraged his focus on racial justice to a radical vision of economic justice. By 1967, he was left off a Gallup poll’s 10 most admired Americans list, where he’d been for a decade.
I say that his failures don’t get much play. But that’s not so, of course, for the revelations of King’s extramarital sex life. This makes for painful reading, but David J. Garrow walks through the fire levelly in “The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Penguin, 1983). King told friends he used sex (with prostitutes and mistresses) to relieve his tremendous anxiety and his ever-present fear of death. No excuse, but he was away from Coretta 25-27 days a month.
The FBI wasn’t only after sex scandals, though; it first targeted King’s links to alleged Communists. In 1964, just as King won the Nobel Peace Prize, the bureau informed him of the worst of it. We now know King realized that either disgrace or death would get him first. Some crucial perspective here: J. Edgar Hoover, who referred to King as “that burrhead,” launched his pursuit after King gave a speech on the lack of integration in federal agencies, like the FBI.
It’s a relief that Garrow moves from the profane to the sacred in his “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (William Morrow, 2004). This book leaves no doubt faith was the core force at work. Garrow paints a powerful vignette of “the most important night of his life,” Jan. 27, 1956, when King fell into desperate prayer after an arrest during the Montgomery bus boycott, and phone calls threatening his life and family. He heard Jesus speak to him, telling him to fight on, and that He would never leave his side.
At every downfall in the years to come, King drew strength from that moment. Imagine what it must be like to believe from the age of 26 — when Montgomery activists drafted him into leadership because he was new in town and had no enemies yet — you’d meet a violent end. As King preached, prophetically, in 1967: “The cross is something you bear, and ultimately that you die on.”
The reverend wrote three books, and “Strength to Love” (HarperCollins, 1963) most showcases his tremendous power in the pulpit (though the magic really comes from hearing him). It’s a collection of his best sermons, with some slightly pompous phrasing, but mostly it’s just beautiful, shuttling between Matthew and Psalms, St. Augustine and Shakespeare. Human salvation, King says, lies in “the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority” and “dangerous altruism” like that of the Good Samaritan, is the highest calling. He adds: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”
What he did suffuses “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Warner, 1998). This isn’t a conventional memoir, of course, which King’s death precluded. But it’s a welcome fallback, a collage of King’s writings, chronologically laid out, and thoughtfully edited by Clayborne Carson. At 14, we learn, King gets “the angriest I have ever been,” when, on a bus home to Atlanta after winning an oratorical contest, the driver makes him give his seat to a white passenger; he must stand in the aisle for 90 miles. At 27, he’s “worried to death” that “[p]eople will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of the hat for the rest of my life.” At 39, in the sublime “mountaintop speech” in Memphis, he all but sanctifies setbacks: “[O]nly when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Because I’m focusing on King, and not the whole movement, I won’t go into detail on Taylor Branch’s magnificent trilogy on the King years — and all the other leaders whom King, unjustly, has overshadowed. But my God, read it. Instead, I’ll end with a biography that broke new ground in its time, Stephen B. Oates’s “Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.’’ (Harper & Row 1982). What a path he trod, this grandson of a slave who renewed himself over and over, through practicing Gandhian principles, through helping Selma protesters and Memphis sanitation workers, through channeling his matchless gift of eloquent inspiration to the cause for which he gave his life.
By the last chapter, just as at that MLK Day school assembly, I was left in tears. Oates paints a heartbreaking portrait of King’s funeral. There is the unbearably sorrowful Coretta and their four children. There is the casket, drawn by a farm cart and two mules, the symbol of his last poor people’s campaign. And there is Daddy King, sobbing “He never hated anybody, he never hated anybody.” I have a dream that we celebrate that on Martin Luther King Day, along with his failures, and his greatness.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.