The Prophet Reconsidered

By Christopher Phelps, Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 54 no. 19, Page B728, January 2008

40 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., new studies emphasize his economic and social philosophy.

We forget so much. We forget that he was hanging by a thread in 1968 at the time of his death, whose 40th anniversary we will mark in April. We forget that his moral authority had frayed, leaving his fund raising in free fall. We forget that in his final years, he faced not only a rising “white backlash”—the media term for white obduracy in the suburbs and working-class neighborhoods, North as well as South—but resentment from establishment liberals who thought he had executed too radical a turn by opposing a Democratic president and the Vietnam War. We forget that although blacks still looked to him more than any other leader, he was increasingly viewed with cynicism by young militants who derided him as “De Lawd” and thought his nonviolence too tepid for the times. We forget that police agencies from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to military intelligence viewed him as a dangerous subversive, listened in on his conversations, and spread both true and false rumors about him in a concerted campaign to discredit him. We forget that between major addresses he was prone to depression, afflicted by insomnia so severe that he slept only a few hours each night, even when popping sleeping pills. We forget that his close associates were concerned by his anxiety and fatigue, and taken aback by his fixation on his own mortality. We forget the critics who accused him of harboring a “Messiah complex.”

By all rights, though, we ought to remember. We are surrounded by constant reminders of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Statues, monuments, and postage stamps bear his likeness, highways and boulevards his name. He has become a national icon. Television ads sample his voice. Presidential candidates invoke the “fierce urgency of now.” Ubiquity has come, however, at a price. The nonviolent revolutionary who upended conventional society and sought to induce tension has become an anodyne symbol of progress. The disappointed prophet who spoke toward the end of his life of America as a nightmare is remembered only for his 1963 dream. Once widely reviled, King has become an almost obligatory object of reverence. Even conservatives genuflect before his memory. While dismantling affirmative action, a policy King advocated, they cite King's aspiration that Americans be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. King is a totem: safe, universal, unobjectionable. He is as remote and mythical to schoolchildren as any other figure in the national pantheon stretching back to the founding fathers. His inner turmoil, his public failures, his vocal critics, left and right, have all faded from view, replaced by a fable in which a nation awakens gently to his self-evident dream. This pattern is not wholly lamentable. It may even be necessary. Had the long campaign waged by Coretta Scott King after his murder not succeeded, had she and her husband's closest associates not surmounted strong resistance and achieved a national day named for him, there might be no annual federal commemoration of the life of any African-American. There might be no occasion for the nation to reflect upon the merit of the dismantling of overt racism in law, public accommodations, and education, as well as the securing of voting rights for all citizens, regardless of race. These accomplishments—understood by King himself as gigantic steps forward—merit our commemoration.

But the ceremonial gloss now overlaid upon Martin Luther King Jr. causes problems. By rendering him immaculate and incontrovertible, sanctification has, paradoxically, left him vulnerable. Cynicism is too easily the reaction when revelations occur about, say, King's sexual escapades or collegiate plagiarism. But King's heroism and place in history never depended on a halo of saintly purity. Brilliant, flawed, controversial, talented, King—as he was first to observe—was always a sinner. To view Martin Luther King Jr. as the Man Who Brought About Civil Rights is to conflate movement with man, and biography is no substitute for history. King's stature ought not obscure the vast and variegated activity from below, in countless cities and rural districts, that made up the civil-rights revolution. Too often King's story is framed within a self-contented story of national progress that idealizes the extent to which the country has transcended race and minimizes the disruptive tactics necessary to bring about an end to Jim Crow. Commemoration further confines King's life to the box of “civil-rights leader,” making it seem that his sole aim was to eliminate de jure discrimination—the explicit racist barriers to opportunity. In actuality, King, like the black freedom movement as a whole, pursued an expansive moral mission dedicated to ending inequality, racism, war, and poverty.

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day,” King told the congregation of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, two months before his assassination, “I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.”

Our scholarship on the civil-rights movement—truly stunning in its quality—is not to blame for our oversimplified iconography of Martin Luther King Jr. King is the subject of many fine biographies, among them David Levering Lewis's King (Penguin, 1970), Stephen B. Oates's Let the Trumpet Sound (Harper & Row, 1982), David J. Garrow's Bearing the Cross (William Morrow, 1986), and Taylor Branch's magisterial trilogy, beginning with Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (Simon and Schuster, 1988). Excellent biographies now exist of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Rosa Parks, King's colleagues. Testimonies of the black freedom struggle are collected in oral histories and memoirs. Narratives have appeared of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and Freedom Summer, as well as struggles in local communities, from Birmingham to Greensboro. Writers have shed new light on Brown v. Board of Education (1954), organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the press's “race beat,” and segregationists' “massive resistance.” The freedom movement has even occasioned the best historical documentary ever produced on any subject, Eyes on the Prize.

These investigations have transformed historical understanding in ways the nation's culture has yet to fully register, let alone absorb. Scholars now emphasize the global context of cold war (as a lever) and decolonization (as inspiration) for the American civil-rights movement. Many of them speak of a “long civil-rights movement” stretching back at least to the 1940s, when A. Philip Randolph led fights to desegregate industry and the military—if not even further back, to Ida B. Wells's antilynching crusade of the 1890s or the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by W.E.B. Du Bois and others in 1909. Recent scholarship heralds women's networks, rooted primarily in the black church, as critical to movement success in the 1950s and 1960s, giving Septima Clark, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others their due. Historians have shown conclusively that armed self-defense was a significant factor in a cause once taken to have been purely nonviolent. They have depicted numerous mobilizations against Jim Crow in the North, as well as the South. They have begun to explore with sophistication the complex relationship between black radicalism and militant liberalism in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those insights, which mark off civil-rights scholarship as one of the most imaginative fields of modern American historiography, pose profound challenges to those who would consecrate King as the personification of the movement. In I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 1995), a brilliant local study, Charles M. Payne blasts “top down” civil-rights histories for obscuring the “collective, multi-faceted nature” of the movement's leadership. “King-centric” studies, he writes, promote a “normative history” by assuming that “national institutions work more or less as advertised.” They tend to overestimate the national consensus about the movement's goals and frame radicalism as irrational. In “popular discourse about the movement,” Payne finds, King fits the normative bill as “the apostle of nonviolence, advocate of interracial brotherhood and Christian patience.”

As if in conscious response, a new scholarly synthesis seems emergent four decades after the death of King, one that draws upon decidedly bottom-up conceptions of the civil-rights movement to reconsider King's life and thought. Far from a comforting, “normative” figure, King emerges in these studies, as Thomas F. Jackson puts it in his very fine intellectual portrait From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, as “much more radical, earlier and more consistently, than he is credited for being.” One hallmark of these recent works—which concentrate above all on King's economic and social philosophy—is their attentiveness, again in Jackson's words, to the way in which King's voice echoed “the values and languages of specific audiences” while “challenging them with antithetical truths, stretching their terms of understanding and prodding them to think and act in new directions.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., the ongoing work of the King Papers Project headed by Clayborne Carson at Stanford University. A labor of love, the King Papers Project is a money-losing venture both for its host institution, which quarters it in a temporary modular building, and its publisher, the University of California Press. Subject to the ebb and flow of whatever financial support it manages to cobble together, the King Papers Project has somehow succeeded in assembling an extraordinary, state-of-the-art digital database and issuing six handsomely bound volumes of King's papers to date.

An hour spent with a volume in this series is virtually equivalent to a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. Each volume is a trove of letters, memoranda, transcriptions, photographs, speeches, minutes, and fragmentary notes, some in facsimile of the handwritten original. All are reproduced verbatim, complete with King's wretched spelling (”diciple,” “fudal”). The staff editors—as historians trained in social history and, in several cases, veterans of social movements—are ambivalent about Great Man theories of King. Aided by squadrons of Stanford students they oversee, they acquire King documents from the world over, make selections from mountains of potential items, and write the contextualizing footnotes and introductions.

The most recent volume comprises King's sermons from 1948 to 1963, which remind us of King's immersion in the black Baptist church and of the wide range of theological sources and social criticism he drew upon. For King, Christianity was the social gospel. His outlook was astonishingly radical, especially for the McCarthy era. In a college paper entitled “Will Capitalism Survive?” King held that “capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world.” He concluded a 1953 sermon by asking his congregation to decide “whom ye shall serve, the god of money or the eternal God of the universe.” He opposed communism as materialistic, but argued that only an end to colonialism, imperialism, and racism, an egalitarian program of social equality, fellowship, and love, could serve as its alternative. In a 1952 letter responding to Coretta's gift to him of a copy of Edward Bellamy's utopian socialist novel Looking Backward (”There is still hope for the future … ,” she inscribed on its flyleaf), King wrote, “I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry.”

The volume's assiduous editorial annotation permits us to locate King in lived dialogue. We discover, for example, that his 1952 sermon on “Communism's Challenge to Christianity,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, prompted a letter of retort from Melvin H. Watson, a Morehouse College professor and Ebenezer congregant, who attempted to set King straight on the virtues of Stalin. Watson, a holdover from the Communist-led Popular Front, helps us place King's democratic radicalism in bold relief while providing a concrete illustration of how black communities retained a strong left-wing presence even after the 1940s.

Reviews of the first volume of King Papers in 1992 were mixed, but read today those initial objections look stingy. Regrettably, no volume issued since has received much attention, even though the third, on the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, is nonpareil as a sourcebook on that critical struggle. With six volumes now in print, it is time we hail the King Papers Project as a triumph of national scholarship, one that would have been impossible without grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and other federal agencies.

It may be too much to hope that the steady accumulation of scholarship drawing attention to King's radicalism and situating him within a complex movement will alter popular conceptions of King, but if a breakthrough does come, it would seem most likely to take place in a year, like this 40th anniversary, that draws our attention to his activity in 1968.

Never was King's full agenda more visible than after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In his last years, King struggled to devise tactics suitable to challenging economic injustice, a target more amorphous than Jim Crow. In 1966 he launched an ill-fated challenge to Chicago's slums and residential segregation. In 1967, in a speech against “racism, materialism, and militarism,” he described the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” placed America “on the wrong side of a world revolution,” and blamed the “need to maintain social stability for our investments.”

In 1968, King visited a bare-bones elementary school in rural Mississippi. As he watched, the teacher provided each child with a few crackers and a quarter of an apple for lunch. “That's all they get,” his friend Ralph Abernathy whispered. King nodded, his eyes filled with tears, which he wiped away with the back of his hand. That night, King conceived the notion of a Poor People's Campaign. To open the eyes of the nation to poverty, he would lead a Washington encampment of poor people whose civil disobedience would compel a shift of funds from war to social priorities such as full employment and a guaranteed annual income.

Opposition instantly greeted the Poor People's Campaign. King's advisers privately doubted its wisdom. Former allies criticized it publicly. As King soldiered on undaunted, he was called to Memphis, where garbage workers requested his presence. Their strike, sparked by the deaths of two workers crushed in a faulty trash compactor, had unified the black community in opposition to Memphis's intransigent segregationist mayor, Henry Loeb.

Never before has there been so complete a rendering of that episode as in Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign. Situating the Memphis strike within the sweep of history, Michael K. Honey shows that the poverty wages of sanitation workers were emblematic of the black working poor. One might take issue with some aspects of Honey's retelling, such as his rendering of King as opposed to obsessive anticommunism but never to communism. Honey also misses that King, by invoking the Jericho parable, did not merely mean to call us to service like the Good Samaritan; he actually proposed, through social transformation, to alter the road itself to eliminate the need for charity. (”We're going to change the whole Jericho road!” he shouted in Chicago.) Honey's intricately researched reconstruction, however, leaves far more to commend than fault. His portraits of key players, from union leaders to Black Power youth, are highly informative. He effectively recreates King's powerful oratory—including his startling call for a Memphis general strike. Going Down Jericho Road is a majestic work of black history as labor history, and social history as American history.

When King died after being shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at age 39, he was beleaguered. Some people say he was a dreamer, but—to quote another martyr—he was not the only one. Malcolm and Medgar, Allende and Lumumba: The casualties dotted that age. King's mellifluent baritone voice and charismatic leadership in 1968 were directed beyond attitudinal racism and legal segregation, toward overturning the tables of the money-changers. He meant to bring an end to war, slums, underfunded schools, destitution, and unemployment. Down riot-torn streets, he continued his quest for audacious social transformation by means of creative tension, compassion, love, inclusion, and humility. His death reminds us of American violence. The aspirations he left unfulfilled—especially for social equality and economic justice—may yet supply the legacy for a renewed American hope.


From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, by Thomas F. Jackson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, by Michael K. Honey (Norton, 2007)

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948–March 1963, edited by Clayborne Carson, Susan Carson, Susan Englander, Troy Jackson, and Gerald L. Smith (University of California Press, 2007)