Three new books reveal how Martin Luther King Jr has been turned into a monument, obscuring his dangerous and disruptive politicsby / March 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Why America May Go to Hell” was the title of a sermon that Martin Luther King, Jr expected to deliver at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday 7th April 1968. But he never had the chance: James Earl Ray shot him dead on 4th April.
On hearing the news, black Americans wailed in disbelief and cursed their country. It was impossible to speak, recalled James Baldwin, “without a sense of loss and grief and rage.” In the weeks that followed, blood flowed and fires erupted. The story had gone tragically wrong: the 39-year-old preacher was supposed to be a black Moses destined to lead his people out of subjugation—not a martyred black Christ. To some, it seemed that King’s undelivered prophecy had come true: America was damned. Not only was the country selfishly indifferent to its suffering black population, but it had silenced the man who had forcefully drawn attention to that neglect.
Following the assassinations of fellow civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, King knew the risks to his own life. Speaking in front of a spellbound congregation in Memphis the night before his death, he confessed that he was not afraid to die: “I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain… And I’ve seen the Promised Land. 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.”
King has been defanged
Fifty years on, King’s death reminds us of the continued racial pathology of America, built on centuries of slavery and a constitution that relegated black people to only partial citizenship. But it is also a moment to reflect on his life, and what it really meant.
In one sense, few legacies seem so secure. King’s birthday has been celebrated as a federal holiday in the US since the 1980s. The history of the civil rights movement, which is taught in every school, is also commemorated in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, a project signed off by George W Bush. King has become a kind of universal symbol—claimed by everyone as their own.
But King has been defanged, his radical politics sidelined. Like his inspiration Gandhi, his canny control over strategy and his self-image has been cloaked by his portrayal as a saintly man of peace. His struggles to unite warring factions within the civil rights movement have been neglected, even though the same fault lines are with us today. That his bust is proudly displayed in the Oval Office by the current occupant of the White House suggests how easy it has become to pay lip service to King without interrogating what he really stood for—and how we have forgotten what a serious threat he posed to the establishment.
The anniversary is being marked by myriad books—at least half a dozen new titles, ranging from legacy stories through to the hunt for King’s killer. They add to perhaps a thousand more works already on the shelves. He has joined an elite group, among them Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Bob Marley, whom authors can’t stop writing about.
Of the present crop, Michael K Honey’s To the Promised Land is the most cogent biography, focusing on King’s fight for economic justice. Honey gives space to King’s thunderous conviction—one that resonates today—that “whether it is the ultra-right wing… or the alliance between military and big business… or the coalition of southern Dixiecrats and northern reactionaries… these menaces now threaten everything decent and fair in American life.”
King’s own scholarship is refreshingly illuminated in To Shape a New World. Through 15 essays on his philosophy, writings, speeches and sermons, we get a kaleidoscopic picture of the man. Of these essayists, Cornel West strikes the most polemical and desolate note. West suggests that by 1968 King was bewildered, a man under extraordinary physical and emotional stress, for whom “self-doubt became more pervasive and persuasive.”
There had been no honeymoon period. King’s near insurmountable task began as soon he first ascended to the leadership of the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s. One of his most pressing objectives was to navigate the territory between competing black voices: the clergymen who counselled patience and the firebrands whose rebellious language (“by any means necessary,” in Malcolm X’s famous words) carried the threat of violence. He also weathered criticisms from black activists in local districts who accused him of being a publicity-seeking celebrity. This stung King. In Coretta Scott King’s posthumously published new memoir My Life, My Love, My Legacy, based on taped interviews with Barbara Reynolds made before her death in 2006, she recalls that her husband even worried about buying a house after they were married, lest people assume that he had profited from the movement.
A leader by chance
King emerged as the civil rights leader “almost by chance,” claimed the journalist LD Reddick in Dissent in 1956. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955, the event spawned a hastily convened mass meeting in which, said Reddick, the local “negro ministers rising to the occasion, improvised a declaration of principles… with some first-class oratory,” led by an unknown Reverend, ML King, Jr. But the truth was more complicated.
The bus boycott that followed Parks’s protest was carefully planned. A teenage black girl had refused to give up her seat almost a year before, but Parks—a respectable stalwart of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP)—was carefully selected to be a more acceptable face of resistance. The Montgomery bus boycott was to serve as a model for other protests. It propelled King to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
King’s new fame led to dangers. FBI head J Edgar Hoover used informants to undermine the movement, as he had done with the early black nationalist Marcus Garvey four decades before. Hoover called King “the most dangerous Negro in America,” not least because of his un-American flirtation with socialism.
As Honey writes, King personally endured more than 20 arrests and was plagued by death threats and accusations of being a communist sympathiser for his stand against Vietnam. By the end of this life, he’d already suffered two bombings and “body blows by a neo-Nazi… stoning by whites armed with baseball bats.”
The FBI wire-tapped King’s hotel rooms and sent him an anonymous letter in November 1964 threatening to leak recordings of his adultery if he did not commit suicide. As recently as 2010, the photographer Ernest Withers, who had spent a lot of time on the road with King riding desegregated buses and documenting demonstrations, was unmasked as an FBI informant. Coretta Scott King, in her memoir, dismisses the stories of infidelity (even though they were widely talked about by the civil rights leadership), characterising the FBI’s actions as an attempt to discredit her husband.
James Baldwin believed that King’s biggest threat to the authorities was that he appealed to the impoverished of all ethnicities, which culminated in his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. After all, as King said many times, there was little point integrating the lunch counter if you couldn’t afford to eat there. King’s fate was sealed, wrote Baldwin, when “he attempted to release the black American struggle from the domestic context and relate it to the struggles of the poor and the non-white all over the world.”
Early signs of radicalism
King’s trajectory has often been characterised as a radical awakening—moving away from an early and largely ineffective Christian advocacy that appealed to the better angels of white people’s nature, towards a radicalism that hardened as time went on. That assessment was promoted by those close to him, among them Baldwin, who contended that King and Malcolm X began “at what seemed to be very different points… and espousing, or representing, very different philosophies,” but “by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them.”
Signs of radicalism, though, were always there for those who cared to look. King knew that appealing solely to the morality of white Americans simply wouldn’t work; no group in history had ceded power until it needed to. He stood behind the NAACP in its drive to use legal arguments where moral ones failed—as in the case of Parks. As he explained in 1957: “One thing the gradualists don’t seem to understand: we are not trying to make people love us when we go to court; we are trying to keep them from killing us.” It wasn’t a flippant remark: the previous year their house was bombed while Coretta and their baby girl were at home.
King’s increasing frustration with fair-weather white sympathisers culminated in his open “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, where he wrote trenchantly about the poverty of empathy of some white liberals who “deplored the [civil rights] demonstrations,” but not the “conditions that brought the demonstrations about.”
Today King appears an ethereal and avuncular figure, but at the time he was despised and feared by a majority of white Americans as a battle-hardened radical. As a seminary student, he had been influenced by the Christian socialist thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, author of Moral Man and Immoral Society. He agreed with Niebuhr’s assertion that the root of social injustice stemmed from the political and economic power of one dominant group—something that didn’t just affect black people, but also poor whites. As the historian Thomas Jackson has written, on his pilgrimage to Christian socialism, King “arrived at a dialectical ‘middle way’ between communist statism and unfettered free-market capitalism.”
This belief that the conditions African Americans found themselves in owed more to economics and structural racism than individual or collective prejudice was difficult to articulate, even among black allies. This was an era when anti-communist sentiment was pervasive and it was dangerous for African-American leaders to express left-wing views—as Paul Robeson and WEB Du Bois had already learned to their cost. Nonetheless, King defiantly forged lasting alliances with radical figures such as Asa Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the principal organisers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
King often espoused Marxist-inflected thoughts, notably in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, which argued that “capitalism has often left a gap of superfluous wealth and abject poverty [and] has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.” In an interview with the New York Times a few months before his death, King said that much of his work had been “engaged in the class struggle.”
As well as class, gender is the other forgotten strand of the movement King led. These new books are timely reminders of the brilliance and fortitude of the women at the centre of the struggle. Women such as Ella Baker, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who spearheaded voter registration in the South. Baker was sceptical of the promotion of a handful of powerful, pristinely dressed and beautifully spoken men as the rightful custodians of the civil rights struggle. Similarly, when Coretta, who had dreamed of becoming a classical singer, lent her voice to the civil rights crusade, she acknowledged that it was her vocation as much as her husband’s: “God appeared to have appointed Martin and me… to become the messengers.”
Many saw the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 as the culmination of King’s dream: the ascent of an African American to the highest office in the land, to live in a White House built by slaves. But Cornel West maintains that Obama squandered the moral currency bequeathed him: “King would shed tears from the grave to see eight years of black symbolic celebration [while] one in three black children live in poverty.”
The original “Yes We Can”
And while the struggle for civil rights in the US is certainly not over—as Trump’s presence in that same White House testifies—neither is the rancour between some of its most visible exponents. Last December, West launched a stinging attack on his main rival for the mantle of the pre-eminent African-American public intellectual, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Though both men share the view—which King, too, shared—that black people have been the object of “plunder” (Coates’s word) throughout US history, they appear to vie for the title of “authentic black voice.”
West (the elder) casts his rival as an unthreatening repository for white guilt. It’s the kind of accusation that was—and still is—levelled regularly at King. For while King is an acknowledged spiritual guide for many African Americans, protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement seem more inclined to invoke the more obvious radicalism of Malcolm X.
But long before Obama, it was King who said “Yes We Can,” and kept hope alive in the bleakest hour. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he had dared to imagine that one day America would deliver on the promissory note of black freedom. And from the pulpit on 3rd April 1968, he saw the promised land, and cried out “from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, an anthem written to end slavery, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’” King was a dreamer and doer—prophet of the here today and the hereafter.
King may be embraced by bigots in the White House but if he’d been around today, marking the demonstrations over hate crimes and the resurgence of black consciousness, he would be “taking a knee” along with the NFL protesters labelled “sons of bitches” by Trump. For J Edgar Hoover was right: Martin Luther King was “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King with Barbara Reynolds is published by Hodder, £10.99
To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M Terry is published by Harvard, £25.95
To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice by Michael K Honey is published by Norton, £20