It is perhaps one of the more unusual turns in American social history that Martin Luther King Jr. has a national holiday named in his honor and that he has become, in some quarters, a rather peculiar saint. As Marshall Frady points out in this new biography of King, part of the Penguin Lives series, "King has passed into the cloudy shimmers of a pop beatification, commemorated with parades, memorial concerts, schools and streets and parks named for him."
For many in the United States, and certainly for most schoolchildren, King symbolizes the civil rights movement, and this is both good and bad as an interpretive device. It admits of a certain kind of civic and political mythology that is dramatic and uplifting, but it tends to boil down to the life of one man a mass movement that involved many people and several different conflicting ideas and aims.
King's peculiarity as an American saint does not lie in the fact that, in this modern world of temptation and distraction, he lived a saintly life in any conventional understanding of the term. He was a compulsive philanderer, embarrassingly and dangerously so, and an egregious plagiarist. (While the theft of the words of others may have been excusable in the pulpit as, apparently, preachers do that sort of thing, it was clearly reprehensible in King's academic work.)
This thick thread of dishonesty in King's character is hardly held against him (except by rabid conservatives). For many, it makes him more human, as his battles with the demons of sensuality and intellectual misappropriation produced its share of guilt in a man who was enormously guilt-ridden. He was probably the first black man to achieve major status as an American political figure for whom the drama of his personal guilt - middle-class black sinner that he was - was so essential to his public and to his mission. He tried to commit suicide twice as a youth, a sign of holy neurosis, transcendent derangement, if ever there was one.
No, what makes King a peculiar saint is that he represented a leftist, nearly anarchic sense of reform that America, being at heart a conservative country that feels uncomfortable with its periods of moral and political excess, uneasily accepts as part of its centrist liberal doctrine of democratic renewal. So powerful is King's presence in shaping our understanding of our democratic liberalism that conservatives have even tried to adopt some version of him, usually by contorting his words instead of simply dismissing them, as they are apt to do with someone like, say, Paul Robeson or W.E.B. Du Bois.
The story Frady tells is familiar to most of us: Born the son of a successful Baptist preacher, King finishes high school at 15, goes to Morehouse, the great black school for the black male elite, then to Crozier Seminary, and finally to Boston University for the PhD.; he gets his first job in Montgomery, Ala., at the Dexter Avenue Baptist church, a "congregation of comparatively affluent, reserved black citizens," and winds up, inadvertently, becoming the leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that makes him a household name, the American Gandhi. A man who already is burdened by history (he is, after all, named Martin Luther) can hear destiny calling him, and neither his God nor his ego will permit him to ignore this siren song.
We get the extraordinary story of King's successes: the Birmingham crusade; the March on Washington; the Selma Crusade; the gut-wrenching, soul-exhilarating courage; the soaring, God-touched rhetoric. And we get the failures: Albany, Georgia, St. Augustine, Florida, Chicago. We see the movement wind down and break apart: King's decision to challenge the national government head on by opposing the Vietnam War alienates many; his decision to challenge capitalism and its vested interests and power alienates still more as being either too radical or not radical enough.
In both instances, King was seen as eminently quixotic, "De Lawd," as young civil rights militants derisively called him. "He had wound up," Frady writes, "the most subversive man in America." And, of course, assassination, something he feared and expected, in Memphis in 1968. There is something about this story, about this period in American history, that no matter how familiar we are with it, we never tire of hearing it again.
Frady does a wonderful job here, packing this small, highly readable book with detail and firm analysis. One might think there is no need for another King biography, but this short book is ideal for undergraduates and reading clubs. Its shortcomings are the incomplete bibliography and the lack of an index. Otherwise, this is a useful, nicely done work.
Gerald Early is a professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.