This comprehensive, scholarly yet accessible biography of Dr. King has already won the Pulitzer. Neither Net Galley nor Open Road Integrated Media really needs a review from me. Yet, because it is only now being released digitally, I saw the opportunity to read it free, and I leapt up hungrily and grabbed it while I could. But if you have to pay to read it, I will tell you right now, you will get your money’s worth and more.
The crossing of that bridge in Selma, Alabama was 50 years ago. You don’t need me to tell you that racist cops are still a problem throughout the USA, but the institutionalized American apartheid that was Jim Crow throughout Dixie is dead and gone. Much remains to be done, but what was accomplished by Dr. King and hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, along with other people of color and a handful of progressive white folks, is very much worth celebrating.
For many years I have wanted to read more of Dr. King’s speeches. School children are sick to death of the Dream speech, however brilliant and visionary it was at the time. It’s been used so often that it’s almost like the Pledge of Allegiance, tired and recited without a lot of meaning or enthusiasm by those too young to recall how radical the Civil Rights activists were considered back then. Garrow draws heavily from King’s speeches and letters here, and I was once more electrified to see what an eloquent person he was.
As Garrow explains, Dr. King did not set out to be a leader of anything except a good-sized church. He saw his entry into the theological world as that of a social activist, certainly; he received his BA in sociology, not religion or philosophy. But he had initially perceived his leadership role as that of mentor and guide to the congregation of a Black church in the American south. That was all he expected to become. When Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to yield her seat at the back of the Birmingham bus, demonstrations began to burgeon, and E.D. Nixon, a leader in the struggle, called upon King to speak at a key rally. After that, events unfolded and he found himself at the helm of a movement that was larger than any one person, but it needed a leader, and he was that man.
He was just twenty-six years old.
King quickly learned that in order to effect change, he had to gain the sympathy and agreement of a large segment of the American public, and at the time, that public was overwhelmingly Caucasian. Black folks were less than fifteen percent of the population, so they would need allies. In order to gain allies, he needed the media, particularly the big-city newspapers and television stations of the north. And in order to grab those headlines, show up on the evening news, he had to expose ugly, brutal repression. Because attempting to gain integrated facilities in a southern locale where he and his fellow activists would merely be cold-shouldered was just not newsworthy. Smart southern sheriffs who adapted the strategy of not hauling away those who sat illegally at lunch counters or entered stores through the whites-only entrance, but merely telling the proprietors to leave them there but not serve them and eventually they’d go away, were wicked but smart. The media would leave, disappointed to have traveled all that way without bloodshed or arrests, and the practice of segregation would continue, legal or not.
So in order to get the national news coverage that the Civil Rights movement had to have in order to turn the tide of public opinion, King had to lead people right into the teeth of the buzz saw, over and over and over again. Where’s Bull Connor? Let’s go there! Where is the Klan the ugliest, nastiest, most brutal? Put that place at the top of the list! And over the course of time, Americans saw it on the evening news, on the front page, and they responded.
The death threats piled up. Were it not so horrifying, it would be funny to note the number of times a vehicle blew up, a building was hit by a Molotov cocktail, shots were fired just where a moment ago Dr. King had been sitting, standing, talking, sleeping. He spoke to his wife and associates often about death, because he knew he could not get out of this movement alive, nor could he abandon it.
He had never, ever led anything before, apart from being student body president at his small college. Now he was thrust into the ultimate position of leadership. The activists who were already involved in struggle needed a minister, because a minister was a peaceful person, above reproach morally. They needed someone handsome, someone inspirational, a man that could speak eloquently. And Martin King, as he was then known (his father being “Daddy King”) was their man.
Years later, exhausted, suffering from clinical depression, King considered looking for a successor. Surely one person should not remain at the helm indefinitely. Perhaps he could, after all, lead a normal life, go home to Coretta, who was pissed at him for always being gone and not including her in his activities, and become a full time pastor at his church once more.
Then he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and although he was overjoyed at the honor, in another way, it weighed heavily upon him, because it was clear that now, he was the symbol. He was in it for keeps. The eyes of the entire world had likened him to the struggle against racism.
There was a lot of money attached to that prize, too. King was determined to donate all of the proceeds to the movement. Coretta asked if they couldn’t just take a small piece off for the children’s college funds? Nope. He didn’t even want to own a house, didn’t want anyone to charge that he was living larger than the average Black man in the American South. He was determined to live in the same kind of house, in the same neighborhoods that everyone else lived in. Eventually he agreed to buy a small brick house in an African-American section of Atlanta, but he worried that even that was too much. Others saw it and were surprised by how small, how humble it was. But King was concerned lest he place himself above others in struggle.
Later, he would ignore the advice of others in the movement when they told him to back off his opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a principled stand, and it cost him his support from the Johnson administration. He saw it as a key part of antiracist work; the US war against the people of Vietnam, the constant bombing, was related to race, and he saw it and said so.
The biography, which is carefully documented and also has a complete index, chronicles his most glorious triumphs, and also his struggles. Depression laid him really low, and nobody had any Prozac back then. I found myself wondering whether “hospitalized due to exhaustion” simply meant that his depression had got the better of him, and he had gone to bed and was unable to get up. I’ve been close to depressive folks, and I have seen it happen. It’s almost as if they are weighted to the bed. And again I find myself thinking what a young age he was, so very inexperienced, to be saddled with this enormous task.
There were other struggles as well. The FBI wired everything, everywhere he went. They documented his affairs so that they could blackmail him with them. Oh minister who is above reproach, look what we’ve got on you! And back then, that was a real thing. It would have created a scandal. King told one of his closest associates that he lived out of a suitcase for 25-27 days out of the month, and that sex relieved tension. And in 2015, the public, even probably many churchgoers, would see it and nod. His marriage was very tense, but Coretta was careful to present a staunchly supportive front, because there had to be unity in order to keep the focus on ending institutionalized racism. But in 1965, a prominent minister with women-on-the-side might well have been shunned by his own people, no matter how many times he stood at the pulpit and proclaimed himself a sinner.
Politically he foundered at times as well. During the struggle to end Jim Crow, primarily from 1955-1963, the crowds were there, overwhelmingly African-American of course, and they were ready to do what it took. They would march with or without him, but to prevent agents provocateur from turning peaceful marches to riots, King’s staunchly nonviolent leadership was key.
But what if the courts told King he could not march? Should he go, or should he stay? He waffled. He wasn’t sure. What was at the root of racism? He was sure it was the profit motive, and repeatedly stated, later in his career, that there needed to be a radical restructuring of the country’s wealth. But to foment an armed revolution was beyond him, and he was stuck in the rut of calling for mass civil disobedience.
At this point in my review I will break away from King’s story for a moment and speak of my own experience as an activist for various causes. I organized a lot of marches, carried a lot of bullhorns, and I will tell you this one thing: masses of people will not usually commit civil disobedience. When the march is over, the marchers don’t need a police record. When it’s time to wake up and go to work, they can’t be in a jail cell. They may have people depending on them, or they may just not want to go through the prison system, and who can blame them? Frankly, I wouldn’t either. I sometimes worked with people that wanted to participate in civil disobedience, but that whole thing had to be kept clear and separate from the rest of the march. The crowd needed to know when it was time to go home if they didn’t want to face arrest. And Dr. King did not understand this. You can have mass marches and mass rallies if you build them and promote them well enough. Or you can have a few people commit civil disobedience. But the one thing he wanted, later in his career while trying to end racism in Chicago, in Cleveland, in Detroit, and that in most situations you just cannot have, is massive civil disobedience.
So toward the end of his career as well as the end of his life, King was trying to put together a march on Washington, DC in which the participants would put up tents on the lawns of the capitol, sit in the Attorney General’s office and refuse to leave, until…and there, the list of demands was ever-changing. This was never going to happen, and he was frustrated by the lack of support he received from others in the movement when it came down to this plan.
If you are unfamiliar with the various organizations and individuals within the Civil Rights movement, you may have difficulty keeping up with the names and the acronyms. I had no trouble, but I also came to the book with the basics under my belt. The most famous organization, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was fiercely jealous of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). They saw it as divisive to have more than one civil rights-based organization. They also saw it as a threat to their dues base. Everything possible was done to keep these backroom skirmishes out of the public eye and present a solid front, but sometimes word leaked out. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the group that brought the lunch counter sitters and the Freedom Riders. They were bitter, and at times rightfully so, because they went out on a limb and did things that SCLC promised to reimburse and then failed to do so. When the big collection was taken at one march or another, they expected their gas money back, and money for car repairs. They’d gone into this with little other than the shirts on their backs, and when the money promised them never arrived, they were pissed. They also never forgave King for refusing to go on the Freedom Rides with them.
But when all is said and done, King did the very best, if not better, than any man in his circumstances could be expected to do. He knew it would cost him his life, and he did it anyway. Without his leadership, what would have happened? History always marches forward, never backward, but things might have played out very differently. A lot more people might’ve gotten dead trying to achieve the same objective.
For those seeking the definitive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, look no further. This excellent, Pulitzer winning work deserves a place of pride in everyone’s library.