As he launched demonstrations to support striking Memphis sanitation workers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., found himself wickedly parodied by political cartoonist Paul Conrad as a strutting drum major with no band backing him up.
Today, the life of Dr. King is celebrated as a national holiday, his visage the center of an outsized memorial in Washington, D.C. In life, however, he was a flawed human being who suffered bouts of depression and spent the last weeks of his ministry mired in controversy and under fire for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“King was a man, not a saint, not a symbol: He chewed his fingernails, he shouted at the TV quiz shows,” Jonathan Eig concludes in his new biography King: A Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). King “found strength in words,” Eig adds, deploying the English language as a nonviolent weapon against the tear gas and fire hoses used by those who sought to suppress the civil rights movement.
The man’s eloquent words live on 55 years after his assassination on a Memphis hotel balcony. The most famous King speech was delivered at the 1963 March on Washington, an oration taught in schools more than half-a-century later. It is celebrated in a fine book, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, authored by Washington State Rep. Drew Hansen of Bainbridge Island.
We lionize King but often forget the pushback he encountered. President Kennedy described the March on Washington as “a great mistake.” Lyndon Johnson fumed at King’s anti-war stance, which prompted King to say, “I figure I was politically unwise but morally wise.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had agents make secret recordings of King’s trysts with the goal of destroying him. The audio from the Bureau’s dirty work is slated for public release in 2027.
“The portrait that emerges here may trouble some people,” biographer Eig writes. Shelves of King biographies have been written, but the author believes “the literature remains incomplete.” He has used partial release of FBI files, reminisces by Coretta King and friends’ recollections to present a fuller picture of King as inspirational but also frustrated and flawed..
Martin Luther King Jr. came from African American gentry, as much as was possible in a state ruled by demagogue Gov. Eugene Talmadge and patrician white racist Sen. Richard Russell. King’s father and grandfather had served as pastors of Atlanta’s landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Its senior pastor today is U.S. Sen. Rev. Ralph Warnock.) He was “expected to behave,” in Eig’s words King was educated at Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and received his doctorate from Boston University.
Instead of returning to his family’s church, he was called to the pulpit in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The young pastor became a public figure after a black seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. The Montgomery bus boycott marked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement that would dismantle Jim Crow in the Deep South.
King used themes of Amos from the Old Testament to rally his flock, telling them: “We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The boycott involved some 40,000 bus riders. Carpools were arranged, African American cab drivers gave people rides to work and charged ten cents (the normal bus fare). King held firm for a stance of nonviolence even as his home was bombed.
The boycott lasted from Dec. 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956. It ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system. The first rider, on the morning it ended, was Martin Luther King, Jr.
On the national stage for just 13 years, King combined conviction with enormous skill as a tactician. He mastered what Eig calls “the politics of respectability,” leading demonstrations characterized by a disarming dignity and restraint. The movement achieved a high moral ground. King deliberately marched in harm’s way, using TV footage to show a nation the unfairness and ugly face of Jim Crow.
Schoolchildren were knocked down by firehoses deployed by Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor. Arrested for nonviolent protest, King penned his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” responding to eight white clergymen who proclaimed the protest “unwise and untimely.” Its timeless message: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
A half-century later, in Internet-driven America, harsh words and impatience have come to be seen as a virtue. Consider our own city, where radical change agent Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant has deployed mob intimidation in pursuit of her goals. By contrast, consider a favorite King line: “Be assured we will run you down by our capacity to suffer.”
A strategy, born of conviction, accomplished a great deal in those 13 years. The lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Riders on buses, the March on Washington, and schoolchildren of Birmingham laid groundwork for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The brutal suppression of a march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, propelled the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “We shall overcome!” Lyndon Johnson told Congress. Alas, a conservative U.S. Supreme Court has largely eviscerated the act.
King liked to evoke Gandhi and the movement to free India from British domination using the weapons of “soul force, non-injury courage and moral principles.” He responded to intimidation by telling followers: “If we become victimized with violent intents, we will have walked in vain.”
King published his last book weeks before his assassination, its title Why We Can’t Wait. By the spring of 1968, he was exhausted. Everybody, every cause, needed a piece of him. He was called to go everywhere. He had tried to bring the cause of housing integration to a segregated northern city – Chicago – only to be met with rocks and projectiles in the bungalow neighborhoods of the southwest side. Mayor Richard J. Daley made lip-service promises, but the Windy City remained balkanized.
King was being challenged by a new militant leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee which scorned his achievements and doctrine of nonviolence. The civil rights movement had spoken with “a tone of voice adapted to an audience of liberal whites,” protested Stokely Carmichael. “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” said H. Rap Brown.
King was also under fire from the FBI, which made tapes of his assignations and sent them to Coretta. Hoover called him “the most notorious liar in the country” and tried to tie him to communism.. Asst. FBI director William Sullivan sent an anonymous letter to King calling him a “filthy abnormal animal” and told him there is “only one thing left for you to do.”
King seemed to sense that he would not live to see fruits of his labors. “Like anybody I would like to live a long life,” he said in Memphis, the night before he was killed. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will and He’s allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked out and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”
The revealing of King’s flaws in Eig’s book in no way diminishes its subject. Quite the contrary, we are given a greater appreciation of his influence and impact, particularly realizing the forces he was pitted against. The author likens his use of words to “a talented jazz musician” and he found words that appealed to our better angels.
I closed my eyes, after reading this book, and thought back to the morning of April 4, 1968. Running in the Indiana Primary, Bobby Kennedy spoke to a packed house in the Stepan Center at the University of Notre Dame. Later that day, King would step onto the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and be shot to death. RFK broke the news to a largely black crowd in Indianapolis, quoting the Greek playwright Aeschylus in an appeal for non-violence. Six weeks later, Kennedy would be assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel corridor.
What damage these events did to our country! We were, in two short months, deprived of our two strongest advocates for economic and social justice and their eloquent voices deploring division and polarization.