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A Stunning Reappraisal of King and His Increased Relevance
Might Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatest accomplishments have been ahead of him? His murder in April 1968 did far more than cut tragically short the life of one of America’s most remarkable civil rights leaders. In this concise biography, Harvard Sitkoff presents a stunningly relevant King. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King’s 1963 soul-stirring address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the 1965 history-altering Selma march are all recounted. But these are not treated as predetermined high points in a life celebrated for its role in a civil rights struggle too many Americans have quickly relegated to the past. Carefully presented alongside King’s successes are his failures—as an organizer in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida; as a leader of ever more strident activists; as a husband. Together, high and low points are interwoven to capture King’s lifelong struggle, through disappointment and epiphany, with his own injunction: “Let us be Christian in all our actions.” By telling King’s life as one on the verge of reaching its fullest fulfillment, Sitkoff powerfully shows where King’s faith and activism were leading him—to a direct confrontation with a president over an immoral war and with an America blind to its complicity in economic injustice.
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Harvard Sitkoff is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the author or editor of more than eight books, including A New Deal for Blacks; The Struggle for Black Equality, 1945–1992 (H&W, 1993); and A History of Our Time.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Martin Luther King, Jr., is as relevant today as in the 1960s, perhaps more so. That is the reason for King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. It brings to life the King who, in the face of great odds, altered American habits of thought and action more than any other figure of his century, and made the United States far more just, democratic, and egalitarian. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop reminds us of why he moved the conscience of a generation, of how he changed hearts. Moreover, in a world of war, poverty, and murderous racial and religious hatreds, it emphasizes King’s unfulfilled radical agenda. This portrayal of Martin Luther King is not the King generally celebrated today.
His radicalism, not just in the last year of his life but throughout much of his career, has been airbrushed out of the historical picture. As C. Vann Woodward famously wrote: “The twilight zone that lies between memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology.” Nowhere is this truer than in contemporary celebrations of King’s birthday that portray him as a moderate, respectable ally of presidents and a facile spokesperson for the American Dream. The same government that once reviled him, viewing him as “dangerous” and a “pariah” for his alleged ties to Communists and his preaching radical liberation theology, now holds him up as a model of peaceful, incremental change. Because of his goodness, so the story goes, whites recognized the errors of their ways and made all the necessary changes in race relations to rectify the nation’s shameful past. As such, King is the nice man who helped solve the problems of the past, rather than someone who challenges us to solve the problems of our present injustices and inequities. His canonization has turned him into a historical relic no longer relevant. Ignored is his lifelong commitment to social justice, his abhorrence of war and militarism, his insistence on ending every vestige of colonialism and imperialism, and his crusade to end poverty and privation. Ignored is his claim that the American civil rights movement was but one aspect of an international human rights revolution against “political domination and economic exploitation.”
The endless replaying of his “I Have a Dream” speech has drowned out King’s dream of a just society based on “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” It has drowned out what he reiterated in 1965: “I still have a dream that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits.” And it disregards the King who, as early as the 1950s, called for world disarmament, an end to apartheid in South Africa, a global war on poverty, and “special treatment” to assist African-Americans to overcome historic racism. Although politicians holding forth on King Day fail to recall this, or his strident condemnations of America’s war in Vietnam and his unequivocal demands for “basic structural changes in the architecture of American society,” King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop emphasizes them and sees them rooted in his long-held belief in religiously inspired democratic socialism and the Christian Social Gospel tradition.
Like Woodward, I hope to illuminate why, in sharp contrast to the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006, attended by the president of the United States and three ex-presidents, neither President Lyndon Johnson nor the two ex-presidents then alive bothered with the funeral rites for Martin Luther King, Jr. As many Americans hated King as loved him, and by 1968 most had turned their backs on him. They disapproved of his aims and tactics. A vast majority condemned his forceful criticism of America’s role in the Vietnam War and of how that conflict caused domestic needs to be downplayed or dismissed. Even more decried his involvement in an unruly strike by garbage workers, and considered unnecessarily provocative and reckless his plan to bring an army of the dispossessed to Washington to wage a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience against all those institutions that denied dignity and opportunity and hope to the downtrodden.
The King often shunned by those in power and despised by many in the population is the King I have depicted. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop is based on the latest scholarship, and makes great use of the publication of The Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers by the University of California Press, as well as writings by and about others involved with King. One cannot write a synthesis such as this without relying heavily on the extraordinary work of scholars, journalists, and movement participants. Such works as Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind by John J. Ansbro, Going Down Jericho Road by Michael J. Honey, and David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross have set the standard for scholarship on King. They remain unsurpassed in their depth of research and quality of analysis. But I have chosen to write neither another monograph by an academic for academics nor another biographical tome that too few have time enough to read. Instead, I have sought to craft a brief yet stirring narrative for a twenty-first-century readership that illustrates the historical forces that shaped King, and how he, in turn, changed American society. In addition to King’s radicalism, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop highlights both his awesome achievements and failures; it describes the American-style apartheid of the South that King was born into and would do so much to overturn; it explains his foibles, and why he sometimes acted more like a politician than a preacher; it examines the legendary black preaching tradition, the source of King’s oratorical power, and the importance of it to the successful drive to end racial segregation and disenfranchisement; it dramatizes the interplay between King and the movement for racial justice, and how that dynamic changed both King and the movement; it documents FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s effort to destroy King and the movement by harassment and persecution; and it depicts King both making history and being made by history.
Most of all, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop emphasizes the centrality of King’s faith to his political and social activism. At heart a clergyman and Baptist preacher, King experienced the movement as a sacred mission. His goals and strategies were rooted in the African-American Christian folk religion—the religion of his slave forebears. The black church sustained King’s Social Gospel dream, and gave him the courage, the oratorical skills, and the spiritual vision to change the course of American and world history. Coupling his religious ideas with the nation’s core civic values enabled him, at one and the same time, to inspire and energize black Americans to struggle for their rights, and to sway white Americans to understand and support that endeavor. However overwrought or sometimes paralyzed by fear he became, King’s bibical faith enabled him to keep his eyes on the prize, to put righteousness before expediency, despite the beatings, jailings, inner turmoil, and constant threats of assassination.
At the same time, I also stress King’s fallibility. This is not a sanitized biography. I have tried to acknowledge and to explain his flaws and weaknesses. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a saint. He was an imperfect man with many of the failings of other mere mortals. Certainly he should have been a better husband and father, should have been a more honest scholar. Hardly infallible, frequently indecisive and irresolute, he compromised too much and at times acted timidly. And he failed as often as he succeeded.
Many, I fear, will find my account of the murder of King to be too abrupt. That more surely needs to be explained, I wholeheartedly agree. But far too much still remains unclear and unknown about the assassination. Its aftermath, moreover, requires a book at least as long as this one.
Finally, I have tried to place King in the context of the movement for freedom and for justice and for equality that he helped make and that made him. As Vincent Harding reminds us, King simultaneously nurtured and drew sustenance from, shaped and was shaped by that movement. The interplay between them changed both, so King never stood still for long. He moved with history, going from merely asking for more courteous trreatment of blacks on the Montgomery buses to struggling for the complete abolition of the Jim Crow system, to transforming American society on behalf of its poorest, most neglected peoples of all races. I think it important to underline that King and the movement were not synonymous, that many civil rights campaigns were neither initiated nor led by King, and that success in the black freedom struggle often depended far more on the extraordinary efforts of the ordinary people who walked the streets of Montgomery and filled the jails of Birmingham than it did on the charisma of those at the top. At the same time, I acknowledge that King was the movement’s preeminent spokesperson, symbol, and leader. He was the right man, with the right talents, at the right time. The eloquent conscience of his generation, King, as stated in the citation for his posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, “made our nation stronger because he made it better.” Yet his dreams of true brotherhood, of a world without war, of “a world in which men no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes,” remain dreams. And the lessons of his life, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” that “freedom is a constant struggle,” remain to be learned.
Excerpted from King by Harvard Sitkoff. Copyright © 2008 by Harvard S...
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