King for All Seasons – book review

ROBERT A. GEORGE

He would have been 70 this year, but as a man for all seasons, Martin Luther King Jr. still speaks to new generations. It is unclear what King would think about many of the issues that face African Americans today.

King was shaped by an explicitly Western culture that gave him the key to unlock segregation. King set free not just blacks, but whites as well — freeing a nation that had for too long not fully lived up to the creed of its most sacred documents. King stands as the master of classical liberalism. A complicated giant, he still confounds the conservative, the liberal, and the nationalist alike.

The question always haunts the histories of great individuals: Do the times make the man or does the man make the times? This ultimately is the question at the heart of the recently published The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, who has been commissioned by the King estate to comb through his papers. Carson has amassed all of King's written material and put it together in a comprehensive, chronological format. It is an impressive work, the only fault of which is that the chronology could have had further explication beyond the loose listing of dates at the beginning of each chapter. While creating minor ambiguity, Carson still rewards us with an absorbing trip through the mind of the 20th century's most significant articulator of civil rights.

King emerges as an individual of humility and humanity, aware of who he is and where he is. Most importantly, though, he recognizes the unique moment in which he operates. He places the “American Negro” struggle for justice in a context with the late-'50s/early-'60s contemporaneous end of colonialism across the world and subsequent liberation struggles emerging on both the Asian and African continents. Even given the zeitgeist theory with which King agrees, the fact remains that there was no inevitability that the nonviolent aspects of the civil rights movement would have evolved “naturally.” There would have been a civil rights movement without him, but that which evolved came about because of the vision of one man: Martin Luther King Jr.

The Man, the Philosophy

The man his family called “M.L.” was, from his youngest days, truly an American original. One has to search to find an academic and a preacher quite so well-read, yet who also exhibited the qualities of a natural-born strategist and leader. Many of our other American heroes were either academicians, politicians, or military strategists — singly. King managed to transcend all three. He deftly organized the Montgomery bus boycott (he is quick to give credit to the many other ministers in the community) and managed to keep his “troops” disciplined and committed to the principle that would be his most powerful weapon.

Ironically, King was considered by his enemies (including many in the federal government) to be a “communist sympathizer,” an “interfering outsider,” and even a “traitor” (even before he announced his opposition to the Vietnam War). The irony was that it was actually his tactical approach that portrayed what could be considered an unconventional “un-Americanness.” One does not have to be a liberal critic of America to recognize that, in a nation that reveres the Second Amendment as deeply as the First, the right to resort to force — especially in self-defense — is woven into the American fabric. A commitment to nonviolent action is intuitively “un-American.” From the time of the Revolutionary War, through the Haymarket Rebellions and the Civil War, dramatic change in the United States has often been marked by bloodshed.

But King saw a need to do something different. It could be argued that this was somewhat pragmatic — a minority group fighting for its rights is still a minority in numbers and faces a more heavily armed opponent. However, what comes through in this autobiography is King's persistent commitment to the approach as a religious and philosophical imperative, not simply a political stratagem. On a trip to India to learn to more about Gandhi's philosophy, King makes the case for nonviolence: “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.” Despite the various race-related controversies since the civil rights movement, almost all would admit that the nonviolent aspect allowed marchers to take the moral high ground against the violence of segregationists.

However, King could only go as far as this spiritual Christian social ethos could take him; ambivalence on the issue of capitalism ultimately drained the energy out of his movement in the last few years of his life. King had an unwavering faith that the combination of Christian love and the strength of the constitutional American system would see him through to victory. However, it is painfully clear that he had far less faith in capitalism, as demonstrated by his marches for economic justice in Chicago and the stewardship of the ill-fated “Poor People's Campaign” just prior to his death.

The Man, the Politician

Regardless, King exhibited rather profound insight into the electoral process, in both local and national fora. His understanding of the various Southern politicians generally proved accurate. King candidly admits his failures, such as the desegregation effort in Albany, Georgia. That effort did not immediately result in the anticipated concessions from the city managers, but did inspire enough black citizens to register to vote for a moderate candidate over a rabid segregationist.

His political acumen was on display in 1960 as well. Despite his gut reaction that Kennedy was marginally better on civil rights (Kennedy had even called Coretta while King languished in an Atlanta jail), King felt it better for the cause to stay neutral. His father endorsed Kennedy, but M.L. refrained. This was to change dramatically in 1964. Eschewing his previous neutral position, King declared that though Barry Goldwater was not racist, his positions gave aid and comfort to racists:

I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

It is tempting to assail King for his unfair reading of Goldwater's ideology, but the candidate largely had himself to blame. He is the greatest proof of how one sound bite can undermine a career and the better angels of a political party's philosophy. Goldwater, as a conservative, was on the right side of history in many ways — many of his positions were vindicated by Ronald Reagan's election a dozen years later. However, his own 1962 statement, that, electorally, Republicans should “go hunting where the ducks are,” a de facto rejection of the idea that Republicans should support the Civil Rights Act or even compete for the black vote, helped create an earthquake whose aftershocks resounded for three decades. It matters little that Republicans provided the winning votes for passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Goldwater's misstep helped create an implacable foe in King, sundered the century-long relationship of blacks to the “Party of Lincoln,” and left a legacy that haunts Republicans and minorities to this day.

The Present, the Future

The progress of African Americans in the 31 years since his death would likely mystify as well as horrify King. He would be gratified that many popular celebrities are black, such as Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan; he would be impressed at the dominance of African-American themes within the popular culture; he would cheer that Colin Powell would be seriously considered by many Americans as being worthy of the presidency.

On the other hand, how could he be content when one of his greatest weapons — the determination of his friends, supporters, and himself to be carted off to jail rather than suffer the existence of unjust laws — would have no moral weight today, in an era where more young black men are in jail than in college? Some put the percentage of all black men entangled in some part of the judicial system as high as one-third. Those who have been convicted of felonies are in many places permanently barred from the electoral process. Too many black children receive an inadequate education. Too many grow up in one-parent homes. Too many young girls are giving birth to babies. How would King respond?

Painful as this period has been, the last three decades may have been a necessary transition period. The post-civil rights movement had to happen. America had to say to all its people that they were due the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Likewise, black America had to learn what true freedom is about: It means a world and a country of no guarantees. Obviously inequities still exist and racism has not been vanquished. That said, black America today is far from the days of Jim Crow and inhabits a place where countless immigrant European communities have been. Those communities had a driving desire to succeed at their core. Honest pursuits existed alongside shady activity and social pathology. Such is the case with the black community today.

And “affirmative action?” Well, that existed in some form before, as well. In the Northeastern cities, the police tended to be Irish, the fire department Polish, with various ethnics of all flavors ensconced in other city services. Oh, and yes, nearly all these communities tended to vote Democratic. Sound familiar? The foundation those guaranteed jobs often provided is no longer necessary. This suggests that while affirmative action may have been a necessary evil, its time has rightly drawn to a close.

Contemporary Republican politicians would be foolish to assume that the black vote will always be in the pocket of the Democrat Party: Remember, the descendants of the old European immigrants, if not regularly supporting Republicans, at least now tend to be swing voters. The post-Clinton era is at hand. There is no guarantee that the devotion African Americans now place upon Clinton is transferable, any more than all of Reagan's supporters remained tied to George Bush or the GOP in the '90s. African Americans as a community are becoming more economically self-sufficient, opening their own businesses, running companies, and participating in the stock market. In 1998, for the first time ever, African Americans felt more positive about their economic circumstances than did whites.

He would have been 70 this year, but as a man for all seasons, King still speaks to new generations. It is unclear what King would think about many of the issues that face African Americans today, including school choice. However, what is clear is that M.L. became a unique leader of African Americans by combining a mastery of the great minds of Western civilization with Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. King was shaped by an explicitly Western culture that gave him the key to unlock segregation. King set free not just blacks, but whites as well — freeing a nation that had for too long not fully lived up to the creed of its most sacred documents.

To those academic deconstructionists who today insist upon filling young African-American minds with such disciplines as “black studies,” King stands as the master of classical liberalism. A complicated giant, he still confounds the conservative, the liberal, and the nationalist alike. An original and an eternal, Martin Luther King Jr. remains with us today, tomorrow, and forever, informing the debate in ways seen and unseen. He is arguably the most important 20th-century voice in the unfolding narrative that is the American nation.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

George, Robert A. “King for All Seasons.” Crisis (February, 1999)

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. published by Clayborne Carson, ed., Warner Books, 400 pages.

THE AUTHOR

Robert A. George is director of coalitions for the Republican National Committee.

Copyright © 1999 Crisis


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