Remembering, and Misremembering, Martin Luther King Jr.
April 4, 2008
Richard John Neuhaus
From left to right: Andrew Young, Dr. King, Richard Fernandez, RJN. (The crease is a newspaper fold, as we were not able to obtain the original photograph.) This was a news conference on April 4, 1967, precisely one year before Dr. King's death.
This is a week of remembering. Wednesday evening I celebrated and preached the Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral recalling the death of John Paul the Great three years ago April 2. This Friday, also at St. Patrick's, I will concelebrate--Edward Cardinal Egan celebrating and Father George Rutler preaching--the memorial Mass for William F. Buckley Jr. In 2005, April 2 was the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, and John Paul's last words were, "Let me go to the house of the Father." In the issue of First Things that subscribers will be receiving this week, I have an extended reflection on my friendship with Bill Buckley. In our last conversations, it was evident that he heard the Master calling and readily went.
And then there was the killing of Dr. King on April 4 in that apocalyptic year of 1968. For all the horror and heartbreak of the time, there were sustained moments in which one thought with Wordsworth, "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven." For those of us who were there, it not easy to recognize that, had he lived, Dr. King would now be seventy-nine years old. Not to mention that John F. Kennedy, killed in 1963, would be ninety-one, and Robert, also killed in 1968, eighty-three. But the memories still break out of amber and renew the luster of a liberalism that was.
I have in First Things several times offered reflections on the times with Dr. King. One has no choice but to risk the use of the much-abused term prophetic in describing his historic role in addressing what Barack Obama and many others have called, politically speaking, America's "original sin" of slavery, along with its aftermath. I am in a distinct minority in believing that the best single book for getting an honest feel for Dr. King and the movement he led is Ralph Abernathy's When the Walls Came Tumbling Down.
Nobody was closer to Dr. King than Ralph Abernathy, who had recruited the young preacher to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. His book, published in 1989, was much criticized at the time and has long been out of print. The ostensible reason for the criticism is that he gave a candid account of King's inveterate womanizing. That was not news. J. Edgar Hoover's use of tapes of King's multiple trysts had been given prominent attention in the national media. In 1970, John Williams had published The King God Didn't Save, with sordid depictions of King's sexual indulgences. I wrote a sharply critical critique of Williams in the New York Review of Books. In retrospect, I am somewhat embarrassed by that review. It was an exercise in damage control. I didn't want to believe this seamy side of Dr. King's life, or at least I didn't want to believe that it was quite so seamy. More important, I didn't want it to besmirch the memory of a man whom I greatly admired and loved.
I believe that the real reason for the savaging of Ralph Abernathy's book was that his account of King and the movement he led was an embarrassment to those who were using that legacy for their own ideological purposes. Numerous books have been written depicting King as an apostle of Gandhian nonviolence or, alternatively, as a quasi-Marxist revolutionary. In these versions, and especially in the latter, the soaring sentiments of the "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington are treated as the American soft soap that he employed to sell his cause to the general public, and to disguise his more radical purposes. That claim is voiced to this day also on the fringes of certain right-wing circles.
As Abernathy tells it--and I believe he is right--he and King were first of all Christians, then Southerners, and then blacks living under an oppressive segregationist regime. King of course came from the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta in which his father, "Daddy King," had succeeded in establishing himself as a king. Abernathy came from much more modest circumstances, but he was proud of his heritage and, as he writes, wanted nothing more than that whites would address his father as Mr. Abernathy. He and Martin loved the South, and envisioned its coming into its own once the sin of segregation had been expunged.
"Years later," Abernathy writes that, "after the civil rights movement had peaked and I had taken over [after Martin's death] as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," he met with Governor George Wallace. "Governor Wallace, by then restricted to a wheel chair after having been paralyzed by a would-be assassin's bullet, shook hands with me and welcomed me to the State of Alabama. I smiled, realizing that he had forgotten all about Montgomery and Birmingham, and particularly Selma. 'This is not my first visit,' I said. 'I was born in Alabama--in Marengo County.' 'Good,' said Governor Wallace, 'then welcome back.' I really believe he meant it. In his later years he had become one of the greatest friends the blacks had ever had in Montgomery. Where once he had stood in the doorway and barred federal marshals from entering, he now made certain that our people were first in line for jobs, new schools, and other benefits of state government." Abernathy concludes, "It was a time for reconciliations."
Others who claimed the mantle of Dr. King were in no mood for reconciliation, and are not to this day. When making his birthday a national holiday was being discussed, a black preacher friend remarked to me, "Well, if we can't have Malcolm or Huey, we might as well settle for Martin." The reference, of course, was to Malcolm X, originally of the Nation of Islam, and Huey Newton, the latter being the founder of the Black Panther Party in 1966 who was killed in a dispute over a cocaine deal in 1989. They were figures much more to the liking of those who construed the civil rights movement not as the rectification of a great injustice but as the precursor to a revolutionary new order.
Then, and still today, there are some for whom Dr. King was not "black enough." That note was sounded already in the mid-1960s with the rise of the "black-power movement." Now-forgotten figures such as Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) derided King as "d'Lord." White radicals, and radicalized liberals of the political class, cheered them on as they declared that King's day was past. King was accustomed to receiving death threats from whites, but now he was receiving death threats from blacks who accused him of being an Uncle Tom. When Dr. King was killed in 1968, many on the left said privately, and some said publicly, that it was just as well, since he had outlived his time.
And now, exactly forty years later, these arguments are being revisited. Last Friday in this space, I wrote about Senator Barack Obama's Philadelphia address on race. While criticizing some of the more bizarre statements of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the senator said, "I could no more disown him than I could disown the black community." Whatever Obama's intentions, the implication is that the Rev. Wright is representative of the black community. Thus, however inadvertently, did he and some of those who wrote in defense of his speech reinforce an ugly stereotype of blacks being just a little, and maybe more than a little, crazy. The suggestion is a vile slander of the great majority of black Americans.
The question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard), Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, "he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy." He adds, "The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too." From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King.
Forty years later and the argument is by no means settled whether Martin Luther King Jr. was black enough to be part of "the black community." That in no way detracts from his greatness. As long as the American experiment continues, people will listen and be inspired by his "I Have a Dream," and will read and be instructed by his Letter from Birmingham Jail, and will once again believe that, black and white together, "We shall overcome."
John Paul the Great, William F. Buckley, Martin Luther King. It has been an extraordinary week, marked by sorrow and gratitude. I count it a gift beyond measure to have known each of them as a friend. Each was great, albeit in very different ways. The life of each awakened us to the possibilities of life lived greatly.
"The Theses of Martin Luther King, Jr.," February 1991
"The Way of Revolutions," The Public Square, January 1999
"Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.," October 2002
"The Strange Ways of Black Folk," Daily Article, March 28, 2008