This essay by Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away January 8, 2009 , was originally printed in the October 2002 issue of First Things .
I know it is a fact, but it is nonetheless hard to picture: Had he lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. would now be seventy-three years old. Everybody of a certain age has memories, if only of television images; many were there when he spoke, others marched with him in Selma or Montgomery, and some of us were, albeit intermittently, drawn into his personal orbit. The last I count as one of the many graces of my life, and it no doubt explains why I read, almost compulsively, just about everything published about the man and the time. Now we have Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr. , the latest volume in the “Penguin Lives” series. It is a valuable addition to the many accounts we have of the man and the movement he led.
I am in the minority with my admiration for Ralph Abernathy’s 1989 autobiographical account of the movement, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down . Abernathy was beyond doubt closer to King than anyone else. After the assassination, he took King’s place as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), although he knew as well as anyone that he was no Martin Luther King. His book was harshly criticized for its candor about King’s sexual vagaries, but other published accounts had been more explicit on that score. What I think got to many reviewers is that Abernathy refused to toe the line on the leftist ideology of the movement and even, in the early eighties, took a conservative turn, offering some favorable words on, of all people, Ronald Reagan.
His gravest violation of conventional tellings is that he declined to see black Americans as a victim class oppressed by white racism, or to depict the movement as a response of revolutionary rage. As he told the story, King was a privileged son of the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta and he, Abernathy, was the heir of a tradition of black dignity in a rural Alabama he describes in almost idyllic terms. Abernathy was daringly “incorrect,” and he paid a steep price for it. “Though slavery as an institution was wicked and foreign to the will of our Lord,” he wrote, “it was not uniformly cruel and abusive. Some slaves, in the midst of their degradation, were treated with a measure of Christian charity, just as some prisoners of war have always been treated better than others. In the worst of circumstances, the human heart is still a mysterious variable.”
His grandparents were slaves, but did not understand themselves to be victims. “In Marengo County during the first half of the twentieth century, the name ‘Abernathy’ meant integrity, responsibility, generosity, and religious commitment”and it came to mean that largely through the life and testimony of the black Abernathys . . . . So I feel no shame in going by a last name to which my father and mother brought such character and dignity. It was their name. They didn’t just borrow it from a long-dead white man. They paid for it with their exemplary lives and therefore owned it outright when they passed it along to me.”
Abernathy says that as a boy he was aware of racial segregation, but to him and other blacks in Alabama it was no big deal if the white folks wanted to have their own drinking fountains and a separate entrance at the post office. What did rankle is that white folk wouldn’t call his father “Mister.” The demand for white courtesy, and respect for the dignity that black folk knew they possessed”that was the issue in what came to be called the civil rights movement. That was the issue when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a refusal that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott to which Abernathy recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., thus launching them both on a tumultuous course that they could neither anticipate nor control.
A Legacy Not Well Served
That is in largest part the story of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down : how a modest campaign for basic human decency somehow exploded into an out-of-control movement that, picking up a curious mix of causes and characters along the way, was perceived as a revolutionary challenge to the fundamental institutions and beliefs of the country and the world. Oddly enough, Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr. tells much of the story in the same way, although Frady tends to be condescending, at best, toward Ralph David Abernathy. Abernathy is described as “a stocky, slow badger of a man with a drowsy-eyed, drooping face but a droll and rollicking earthiness, who in their special comradeship over the years was to serve as something like King’s Falstaff.” At another point: “There was already, of course, the dutiful Abernathy, [King’s] baggy, dolorous-faced, waggish Sancho Panza [who was] totally steadfast.” It was easy to underestimate Abernathy, as I too learned. He did play the clown at times, but at times of crisis there was no one whose intuitive judgment King trusted more.
On the other hand, Frady has a high estimate of Jesse Jackson. In 1996 he published Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson , and in the present book he writes: “Jesse Jackson, after founding his own movement organization in Chicago, would eventually convert what was perhaps the largest victory of King’s apostleship”the claiming of the vote for all blacks”into two surprisingly impressive guerrilla presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988: As it turned out, this aide who came latest to King, and was perhaps most mistrusted by him, would come closest to developing into his heir as the single most eloquent symbol of pride and hope for masses of black Americans.” All the worse for masses of black Americans, in the judgment of many. Frady attempts to excuse even Jackson’s smearing of his shirt with King’s blood on April 4, 1968 and then going on television to present himself as the anointed heir.
King mistrusted Jackson with good reason, and the following decades have vindicated that mistrust as Jackson has time and again acted as an opportunist, an ambulance chaser, and a publicity hound, who has skillfully exploited the memory of the movement by turning it into a lucrative extortion racket for shaking down corporate America. With a few honorable exceptions, such as Andrew Young, King’s legacy has not been well served by those closest to him. While excusing Jackson, Frady is appropriately critical of Coretta and the children for their continuing efforts to tightly control and financially milk the relics of the martyr.
Days of Delirium
Frady captures well the exhilaration of the time. “The civil rights movement became the nation’s latest attempt to perform in the South an exorcising of its original sin, and it turned out our most epic moral drama since the Civil War itself.” All of us at the time had a dream of possibilities hitherto unimagined. For this young inner-city pastor in black Brooklyn, as for so many others, a new world was aborning. John XXIII was Pope, John F. Kennedy was President, and Dr. King had sighted the promised land of “the beloved community.” As Wordsworth said of an earlier moment of tragically disappointed hope, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” Frady puts it nicely: “They were days delirious with belief.” I do not want to exaggerate my own delirium. After all, I was a Lutheran, attuned to “two-kingdom” skepticism about social change and steeped in Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of the ironies of history. But, as much as a Niebuhrian Lutheran could be, I too was caught up in the epic moral drama.
The story line of the drama was challenged early on by young blacks high on the delirium of their own radicalism who derided King as “de Lawd” and had little patience with his devotion to nonviolence. SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, at first worked closely with King, but soon fell into the hands of violence-prone nonstudents incapable of coordinating anything, but masterful in generating rage. The cry of “Black Power” was heard in the land, and later would come the murderous Black Panthers. Stokely Carmichael, whom Frady describes as “the long lean black Robespierre,” hijacked SNCC, declaring, “I’m not gonna beg the white man for anything I deserve. I’m gonna take it !” Frady writes: “Romanticism about the movement in the liberal salons of the North had begun shifting to its incendiaries like Carmichael, with their terminal cynicism about the efficacy of the ethic of nonviolence, their Malcolm [Malcom X] mentality of a final, bitter acceptance of the human condition as one of hopeless racial antagonism. What seemed to be happening everywhere around King, in fact, was something like the tidal ebbing of faith in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach : a withdrawal to naked shingles of anger.” In his devastating depiction of the liberal salons of the North, Tom Wolfe would write of the “radical chic” that has not yet disappeared entirely, and may never disappear, from what are deemed to be the commanding heights of the culture.
In an early (1970) book, King: A Critical Biography , David Lewis argued that King was much more of a radical than was generally believed. Lewis writes, and Frady quotes him approvingly, that in “the nation’s canonization of Martin King . . . we have sought to remember him by forgetting him.” Frady says that King’s message “inexorably evolved into an evangelism against what he saw as the moral coma of the country’s whole corporate, technological order: its loud and vicious void of materialism . . . and the measureless vandalism this new kind of high-tech barbarism was visiting not only on the life of America, but elsewhere in the world, most luridly at that time in Vietnam. In effect, he came to pit himself against his entire age.” I am not persuaded that King ever came to a systematic endorsement of the kind of ideological radicalism that Lewis and Frady attribute to him.
Not So Radical
King was an exuberant rhetorician, and rhetoric has a way of getting out of hand. Frady gives due attention to King’s dependence on Stanley Levison, a wealthy New York lawyer and wheeler-dealer, who dropped his membership in the Communist Party lest it become an embarrassment to King. The Old Left with its ties to communism was an integral part of much of what was viewed as mainstream liberalism in the 1960s. Even the more established liberal organizations that maintained an “exclusionary clause” against Communists did not take seriously the claim that communism posed a domestic threat. The great threat of the time was thought to be anticommunism, as evident in the rambunctiously reckless attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy and the catchall term of opprobrium, “McCarthyism.” King’s refusal to break with Levison, despite pressures from the FBI and others, indicates not that he was a Communist puppet or had embraced Marxist ideology but simply that he was a good liberal, although less scrupulous about”probably because less knowledgeable about”the Old Left with which more establishment liberals were so unhappily familiar.
King, writes Frady, “was to arrive in the end at a kind of Christian socialism of conscience, once professing to a friend, ‘If we are to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.’” But of course. Almost everybody in the left-liberal orbit of the time professed to be a socialist of one kind or another. King is quoted as saying at a private retreat of movement leaders that “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation . . . something is wrong with capitalism.” The liberals at the time who did not claim to be socialist had no inhibitions in declaring themselves strongly opposed to capitalism. They were typically for a “third way” between socialism and capitalism. In those days, in those circles, actually affirming capitalism was simply beyond the pale. Frady quotes King telling David Halberstam, “You have got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” Of course. What liberal preacher or politician has not said the same, and said it many times? Depending on what unhappy aspect of society is being deplored, conservatives frequently say the same.
In my movement days, I would, when feeling mischievous, observe that I was not and never had been a socialist. This would predictably meet with startled incredulity, and the discussion would inevitably turn to what is meant by socialism. I would usually end up by saying something like this: “If by socialism, you mean reforms in the political economy that help the poor to be more fully included in the opportunities and responsibilities of society, then I admit to being a socialist.” This almost always met with great relief, my faux pas was forgiven, and I was restored to ideological communion. If the above formula is accepted as the definition of socialism, I’m very much a socialist today.
I do not for a moment deny that there were hard-core socialists, ideological Marxists, and, probably, even active collaborators with communism in the leadership of the movement. There is every reason to believe Dr. King knew that and he should have been more concerned about it than he apparently was. He thought he could use them, and he was probably at times used by them. But I am confident that he and his closest associates, such as Abernathy and Young, were not among them. His most radical program for change was the Poor People’s Campaign launched in 1968. It was supposed to bring many thousands of people to encamp on the Washington Mall until the government agreed to expend an annual $30 billion in expunging poverty, committed itself to full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and the building of 300,000 low-income housing units each year. After his assassination in April, a bedraggled and dispirited SCLC tried to go ahead with the plan, ending up a few weeks later with a handful of supporters holding out in mud-besotted tents before federal rangers moved in to clear them out and clean up the mess. It was an inglorious ending to a misbegotten plan.
King’s occasional rhetoric of “revolutionary” change and the proposals of the Poor People’s Campaign do not, I think, support the claims of Lewis, Frady, and others that he was an ideological socialist, never mind a revolutionary in the Marxist vein. That was a time when radical talk seemed to be the mainstream. A few years later, George McGovern’s presidential campaign would embrace most of the proposals of the Poor People’s Campaign. McGovern was wrong, and he may have been dumb, but he was not a revolutionary bent upon overthrowing the constitutional or economic order. He was what was then de rigueur among most liberals”a “radicalized” liberal. So also with Martin Luther King.
By his own admission, Dr. King was by 1968 frustrated, tired, and confused. I recall conversations at the time when some were urging him to launch a presidential “peace campaign,” or to join with Senator Eugene McCarthy in the challenge to Lyndon Johnson. He spoke about his uneasiness with the ambiguities of electoral politics in all its forms, and the need to recapture the uncomplicated moral drama of Birmingham and earlier campaigns in the South. In New York, a few months before his death, we had lunch, together with Young and Al Lowenstein, an activist who would later be murdered by one of his protégés, and King turned philosophical about the limits of political change. It was a leisurely and convivial lunch. The restaurant had been alerted that “the famous Dr. King” was coming, and the waiter assumed that the white man in the clerical collar must be he, and so throughout the lunch addressed me as “Dr. King.” It both astonished and amused that one of the most famous people in the world was not recognized, and King enjoyed it immensely, taking the opportunity to smoke cigarettes throughout lunch, a regular habit that he usually indulged only in private. Among many other things, we talked about the abiding wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr and the need to recognize the distinction between the morally imperative and the historically possible, agreeing also on the moral imperative to press the historically possible. It was the last time I saw him.
I am surprised that the editors of the Penguin Lives chose Marshall Frady to do the book on Dr. King, or maybe it is they who are surprised by the book he wrote. Had this been the received picture of King in the years following his death, it is almost certain that his birthday would not be a national holiday. “The fact is,” writes Frady, “King was always to fail more often than he would succeed.” He rightly notes that the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1956 did not prevail but was rescued by a federal court order. Six years later, “Birmingham had become the first clear, authentic victory, actually won in popular confrontation and struggle, for King’s movement of nonviolent mass protest.” After his emergence from obscurity in Montgomery, King had only twelve years to live, and it is fair to say that Birmingham was the only such victory. The effort to take the movement to the North, to Richard Daley the Elder’s Chicago, was a disaster. King’s courtly Southern ways did not resonate with the slum dwellers of the North. He was not angry enough. As he said, “You just can’t communicate with the ghetto dweller and at the same time not frighten many whites to death.” At that time, Malcolm X was exulting in frightening whites to death, and King looked moderate”i.e., weak”by comparison.
He led marches for housing desegregation through white neighborhoods of Chicago, meeting with outraged anger. At one point he said, “I have never seen so much hatred and hostility on the faces of so many people as I’ve seen here today.” Frady writes, “He had in fact come up against the innermost reality of racism in America.” The larger fact is that King had no plan for the racial integration of Chicago, nor did anyone else. Nor, except for a few mainly upper-income neighborhoods, has anybody come up with a successful plan for integrating housing to this very day. After Montgomery, King had said, “I’m worried to death that people will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of a hat for the rest of my life.” A problem with Frady’s account, it seems to me, is that he is among those who judge King by whether he succeeded in pulling rabbits out of a hat.
In his calculation of success and failure, Frady tends to be dismissive of the inherent worth of King’s preaching, exhortation, inspiration. Every preacher who has been around a while finds consolation in the promise of Isaiah that “the word shall not return void.” To preach well is success. I recall rallies when, in the course of his preaching, King would hold forth on the theological and moral foundations of the movement. The klieg lights and cameras shut down, only to be turned on again when he returned to specifically political or programmatic themes. “Watch the lights,” he commented. “They’re not interested in the most important parts.” But as for the judgment that King finally achieved very little, Mr. Frady might recall his own statement that the chief consequence of King’s legacy was securing the vote for all blacks. No little achievement, that.
Death in Mid-Passage
Frady tends to agree with those who say that King died at the right time and in the right way. “Some have since suggested that it was just at the point where King seemed passing irretrievably into decline that he came by the terrible exaltation of violent martyrdom”a kind of historical editing, before the disillusionment could become total, that spared him from what could well have become a progressive marginality and tiresomeness and bankruptcy of his image . . . . If King had lived, most likely he would, with his increasingly radical gospel, have departed steadily further from the temper and received liberal sophistication of his times, drifting to the outermost fringes of apparent relevancy.”
I am inclined to the view that Dr. King was taken in mid-passage; he was not yet forty and nobody knows what he might have become and might have done. He might have departed further “from the temper and received liberal sophistication of his times,” not because of the radicalism that Frady attributes to him but because of a deeper radicalism grounded in the Christian gospel. I have entertained the hope that King would have confronted the epoch-defining moral crisis posed by what then was called, long before Roe v. Wade , “liberalized abortion law.” That is no more than a hope. I have no idea what he would have done with respect to this crisis of all crises in our time. But recall that Jesse Jackson, to his credit, was a powerful defender of the unborn for several years after 1968. About abortion he declared, “The war on poverty has been replaced by the war on the poor and the most defenseless.” To his great shame, he promptly switched sides when he was bitten by national political ambitions. Had King lived and continued in his aversion to politics, it is reasonable to hope that he would have made the obvious connections between the civil rights struggle and abortion, both being the cause of expanding and defending the community of human dignity. That is, of course, no more than a hope, and we will never know.
Abernathy was severely castigated for writing about King’s deep moral flaws, but he tended to treat them as somehow incidental to his character and work. In Frady’s portrait, they are more central to understanding what he depicts as the tragedy of Martin Luther King. That King plagiarized a large part of his doctoral dissertation at Boston University is now well known. Frady describes this as “an inclination to casual textual appropriation that was to become an unhappy habit of King’s.” That the books that were published under his name were, for the most part, written by others is not so well known. There is no doubt, however, that he really is the author of the classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Yet plagiarism is not the chief sin.
“The Pelvic Issues”
Dr. King was, for all that was great about him, an adulterer, sexual libertine, lecher, and wanton womanizer. In this he set the moral tone for others. Of the movement leaders Frady writes, “They were . . . a raunchy troupe for the most part, some roistering outrageously at times among whatever likely young ladies were at hand”the movement generally, for that matter, was hardly ‘a sour-faced, pietistic’ adventure, one veteran has since attested; ‘everybody was out getting laid.’” King was a celebrity always surrounded by likely young ladies. On his last night on earth”the night of the unforgettable declaration, “I have seen the promised land” ”King returned to the motel and “flung himself into a final, all-night release into carnal carousal” with no fewer than three women in succession. For years the FBI and, through the FBI, political opponents had tapes of King’s nocturnal debauches and attempted to use them for purposes very much like blackmail. Coretta knew, and put on a brave public face of not knowing. The major reporters from newspapers and television networks knew but, Frady writes, “none of this material found its way into their reportage, a restraint virtually inconceivable in these times, meaning, of course, that King would very likely never have survived now as the figure he was then.” It is not possible to disagree.
I did disagree once. When, shortly after his death, the first book appeared detailing this shadowed side of King’s life, The King God Didn’t Save by John A. Williams, I reviewed it very critically in the New York Review of Books . The evidence, I wrote, was hearsay, third-and fourth-hand, circumstantial, unsubstantiated, and highly improbable. I could not write that review today. The book was shoddy and sensationalistic, but thirty years later most of its substantive claims appear to be supported by more reliable witnesses. I had no personal knowledge of Dr. King’s sexual wanderings, and I suppose it is possible that I did not see what others saw because I did not want to see it. To be forced to acknowledge that the stories are probably true”no, almost certainly true”still makes me sick. For the fact is that I admired and loved King, and still do. Then and now, I think it possible and necessary to make a crucial, albeit not unambiguous, distinction between the very broken earthen vessel and the treasure of truth that vessel contained and so powerfully communicated.
This must also be said: From very early on, the rhetoric and habits of the movement evinced a recklessly casual attitude toward sexual morality. It became a cliché in activist circles that there were many more Bible passages condemning inequality of wealth and other injustices than there were condemning sexual misconduct. Conventional religion was routinely assailed for being inordinately preoccupied with “morality from the belly button down.” Among liberals to this day these are derided as “the pelvic issues.” The movement at its best, by which I mean the civil rights movement through the mid-sixties, contained moral ingredients that would later become the libertine “counterculture” of drugs and sexual license. That was the turn, joined most decisively by the agitation for the abortion license, that resulted in my breaking ranks with the left. That turn among left-liberal activists, extending through the 1970s, also has a strong bearing on today’s scandals about miscreant sexual conduct by clergy, Protestant and Catholic, who were formed by, and conformed to, the aberrations of the time.
What Jesus Promised
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian. Despite all. As we are all, in the final analysis, Christians despite all. Many of his biographers, and the public school texts, tend to downplay that. Much is made of his having been enlightened by reading Gandhi, and he is frequently depicted as a forerunner of New Ageish spirituality. But King was emphatic in asserting, “This business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.” Frady and others have recounted his telling of the time in Montgomery when he was first receiving death threats and wanted out. Frady tells it this way:
He was overwhelmed with woe over his own unworthiness, his life of bourgeois privilege even during this ordeal into which he had led the city’s black community, and finally about the superficiality of his “inherited” call into the ministry, although he “had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must . . . if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life.” As he later recalled that late night hour of desolation, “I couldn’t take it any longer” and “tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” Dropping his head into his hands, he suddenly realized he was praying aloud in the midnight hush of the kitchen: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right . . . . But Lord, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this . . . . But I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” And at that moment, as King would tell it, he seemed to hear “an inner voice . . . the voice of Jesus,” answering him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” That voice of Jesus, King recounted, “promised never to leave me, no, never to leave me alone.”
A few days after the assassination, I took part in a huge memorial service in Harlem. The service was reported on the evening news. The reporter, microphone in hand, stood in front of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and said, as I recall his words, “And so today there was a memorial service for the slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a religious service, and appropriately so, for, after all, he was the son of a minister.” That rather totally missed the point, as the point has been missed so often in the years since then.
Marshall Frady depicts a man desperately riven and driven. “In King’s lapses into that ‘lower self’ he so often decried, one sensed an extraordinarily harrowed man”caught in the almost insupportable strain of having to sustain the high spirituality of his mass moral struggle, while living increasingly in a daily expectation of death”intermittently resorting to releases into sweetly obliterating riots of the flesh. He seemed thus to move through some endlessly recycling alternation between the transcendently spiritual and the convulsively carnal.” At a later point he writes: “In the widening beleaguerment of his latter years, it would sometimes seem as if he were, as in the Keats ode, ‘half in love with easeful death,’ almost wishful for its surcease from all travail, proposing once that he just might withdraw into a fast ‘unto death.’”
I have no doubt there were times when that was the case. He was, after all, for twelve years and almost daily on the receiving end of death threats, thought he had come close to being killed several times, and was finally gunned down. Of course he thought about death more than most people have occasion to think about death. But it was in those latter years, especially the last two years, that I came to know him personally. Not on a day by day basis, to be sure, but enough to form a firm judgment of the man. From the first day I met him, I was impressed not by any morbid preoccupation with failure and mortality but by what appeared to be his inner peace, an almost triumphant tranquillity. Surrounded as world-class celebrities are by groupies and sycophants, he seemed not to be taken in by it all. I most clearly remember thinking, “Here is a man who has his ego under control. He knows who he is, and who he is not.” I admired, and I envied, that. And that, despite all, is the way I remember him to this day.
Marshall Frady and others are right: If everything was known then that is known now, Dr. King would early have been brought to public ruin, and there would almost certainly be no national holiday in his honor. But God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called “the America dilemma,” racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.
Richard John Neuhaus was the founding editor of First Things .