An ordinary and average man: Why we must demythologize MLK

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It is almost inconceivable to us today — more than six decades after he hesitatingly accepted the leadership of the group organizing the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott — that Martin Luther King, Jr., could ever have been an “ordinary and average man.”

And yet, as David J. Garrow’s landmark 1986 book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reminds us, the future icon of the civil rights movement was just one of thousands of everyday black Alabamians who, one day, decided they would tolerate the state’s oppressive white regime no longer.

Prior to the arrest of Rosa Parks, King had no social or political ambitions of any kind. He was a young, Boston-educated minister with a new family and lots of mundane church business to tend to. He did not even take leadership of the boycott until after it was already underway and he was called, rather forcefully, to step in.

Only then did King begin his slow transformation into an American idol.

The importance we attach to celebrities is one of the most insidious forces in our culture today. And it’s so hard to stop because everyone finds it irresistible. As I write this, a former talk show host is being semi-seriously touted as a candidate for president on the logic, I guess, that if we can elect one inexperienced billionaire celebrity to run this country, why not two?

But as we approach another observation of the birthday of Dr. King, Garrow’s 600-page account reminds us why we must continually resist the desire to celebritize and mythologize him.

Bearing the Cross offers exhaustive proof that nothing King accomplished in his lifetime was possible without the efforts of thousands of others. Indeed, millions of ordinary people marched and registered to vote and gave time and money they barely had, and arguably faced greater danger than King did on a daily basis. As Garrow writes,

Ella Baker aptly articulates the most crucial point, the central fact of his life which Martin King realized from December 5 in Montgomery until April 4 in Memphis: “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.” David J. Garrow in Bearing the Cross

Of course, King had a matchless talent at using rhetoric to advance the goals of the movement. But it seems that the endless repetition of his famous words has slowly reduced our memory of him to only his words. Instead of his deep, complicated humanity, all we’re left with is a 30-foot piece of marble in Washington, D.C., surrounded by his most immortal sayings.

A reluctant leader

The year Bearing the Cross was published, 1986, was a key point in the timeline of King’s ascent from martyred leader to American saint.

That was the first year the federal government recognized King’s birthday as a paid holiday. Since 1968 King’s colleagues had advocated for a holiday, not to pay homage to King’s memory so much as to reflect on the movement he led.

The next year, 1987, Arizona’s new governor repealed his predecessor’s order declaring the King birthday a state holiday. The ensuing protests became a cause celebre, with U2’s song “Pride (In the Name of Love)” its national anthem. Boycotts and the NFL’s decision to strip Arizona of Super Bowl hosting rights led to the restoration of MLK Day.

Also that year, David Garrow won the Pulitzer Prize for Bearing the Cross.

He had interviewed hundreds of people for his book. Many were unknown outside of the movement or their communities. But they had shouldered a load as heavy as anyone to bring about civil rights for blacks in the South. Garrow’s exhaustive research paid off in detailed accounts of every significant day in the movement’s history from the boycott’s origin on December 5, 1955, to King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

As Garrow writes in the book’s opening chapter, the most outspoken black activist in Montgomery in 1955 was E.D. Nixon, a former sleeping car porter and labor organizer. The bus boycott was initiated by Nixon and the Women’s Political Council, which had been calling for just such an action for years and quickly distributed thousands of leaflets overnight following Mrs. Parks’ conviction.

King does not enter the picture until page 17, and even then, only reluctantly:

“Although the women had been the driving force behind all of the black community efforts of the last few years, a mass protest would succeed only if they could obtain the enthusiastic support of Montgomery’s black ministers. With that in mind, Nixon made his first call to one of the youngest and most outspoken of the city’s pastors, Ralph D. Abernathy.

“Abernathy, the secretary of the Baptist Ministers’ Alliance, told Nixon he would support the effort … [T]hey agreed that a meeting that evening at a central, downtown location would be good. Abernathy recommended that they call the meeting in the name of the Baptist Ministers’ Alliance, and that Nixon call the elderly president of the group, the Reverend H.H. Hubbard, to secure his blessing. Abernathy also advised Nixon to phone one of Abernathy’s best friends, the Reverend M.L. King, Jr., pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and ask if the meeting could be held there.”

But when Nixon called Abernathy’s friend, writes Garrow,

“King hesitated. He had a newborn daughter, less than one month old, and heavy responsibilities at his church. Only a few weeks earlier he had declined to be considered for president of the local NAACP chapter because of these other demands on his time.”

Garrow then offers this revealing quote from the phone call:

“Brother Nixon,” King said, “let me think about it awhile, and call me back.”

This straightforward, undramatic account, rich with detail, and notable for Garrow’s refusal to put a shine on anything the future icon said or did, is typical of his absorbing book.

Bearing the Cross was immediately hailed as the standard by which civil rights books would be judged. C. Eric Lincoln, the esteemed scholar of African-American church history, predicted in a dust-jacket blurb on the first edition that Bearing the Cross “will come to mind whenever King’s name is invoked.”

That fall I attended a talk by Garrow in New York, where he was teaching at City College. I don’t think more than a dozen people showed up. Remember, he’d just won the Pulitzer. And though he was a pleasant and decent enough speaker, Garrow came off every bit as shy and nerdy as you would expect a 34-year-old author of two book-length works of scholarship to be.

Yes, two books.

In 1981, barely out of graduate school, Garrow published The FBI And Martin Luther King. This book brought to public attention the sensational details of the government’s surveillance of King. In 1963 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had gotten permission from attorney general Bobby Kennedy to wiretap King’s phones. The bureau knew that King worked closely with a white activist named Stanley Levison, who was an important figure within the Communist Party USA.

The bureau found no links between King and Communism — but it did discover that King was having extramarital affairs. Over the course of the next five years it put together a thick dossier about his love life.

At one point, somebody high up in FBI sent King a tape of him having sex with someone other than Coretta (who was not with him at the time). Attached to the tape was this note: “You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

Though shaken, King ignored the threat and the tape remained a secret.

When people talk about King’s “humanity,” they’re often thinking about his marital indiscretions.

I’d like to talk about other aspects, though, that are more relevant today.

Years of frustration and failure

King experienced years of frustration and failure as he tried to manage the various groups that made up the civil rights movement. Even at its peak of influence, from 1963 to 1965, the movement experienced continuous setbacks. Its members feuded constantly. Campaigns ended badly or sputtered out.

This part of King’s story is a reminder of why we need to be continually rubbing off the varnish and gold leaf that we keep wanting to adorn historical figures with.

King was like any leader of a business or movement today. He was always having to put out fires. And too often, the fires got out of control.

One example Garrow describes at length is how King deals with the ascent of Stokely Carmichael in 1966. Carmichael succeeded John Lewis as the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, with his strident demands for “black power” and “defensive violence” to white power.

Carmichael frequently provoked tensions within the movement’s leadership, and clearly taxed King’s patience. It wasn’t just that he thought Carmichael failed to appreciate the benefits of nonviolence. Not since Malcolm X’s death had the media found such a powerful firebrand to cover. All the attention surrounding black power was giving King a huge headache. Reporters were continually asking him to comment on something Carmichael said. Meanwhile, inside the movement, other leaders were so angry with Carmichael’s rhetoric they wanted to break ties with SNCC.

To the press, King tried to give moderating comments that his white opponents could not use against him. Inside the movement, King sided with the more conservative leaders against Carmichael.

This pattern of mediation and moderation, combined with his gentle soaring rhetoric, has often given us a false impression of what King really believed.

As Garrow documents again and again, King’s philosophy was much more radical than what he could share with the press and the public.

Toward the end of his life, though, King did expand his agenda to include economic justice and the anti-Vietnam War movement. He was increasingly outspoken against capitalism. In 1966 he declared the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” prompting a standing ovation from those in attendance — including Stokely Carmichael.

“In truth, Martin Luther King was much more a radical threat than a reassuring reformer,” Garrow has noted.

Now, chances are that if you’ve read a large, book-length history of the civil rights movement, it wasn’t written by David Garrow. More likely it was written by Taylor Branch.

Two years after Bearing the Cross was published, Branch, a newspaper journalist by training, issued the first of his three-volume work on the movement. Titled Parting the Waters — and yes, that sounds a heckuva lot like “bearing the cross” — it wowed reviewers with its sweeping narrative. Branch hungrily swept up every good yarn he could pack into 922 pages (and that was just through 1963!).

Along with the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” Branch’s trilogy has dominated our historical understanding of that time ever since.

Branch and Garrow each conducted years of painstaking research and did hundreds of interviews with the surviving leaders and foot-soldiers in the movement. In at least one instance I caught, Branch corrected a detail in Garrow’s account. Both men won Pulitzers for their work. And clearly both men had thought long and hard about King’s role in advancing civil rights.

But there’s a big difference in style between the two authors. The journalist was much more eager than the bookish professor to draw grand, opinionated conclusions from the evidence he had so assiduously assembled.

For instance, Branch writes this about J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI starting to wiretap King’s phone calls with Stanley Levison:

“Race, like power, blinds before it corrupts, and Hoover saw not a shred of merit in either King or Levison. Most unforgivable was that a nation founded on Madisonian principles allowed secret police powers to accrue over forty years, until real and imagined heresies alike could be punished by methods less open to correction than the Salem witch trials. The hidden spectacle was the more grotesque because King and Levison both in fact were the rarest heroes of freedom, but the undercover state persecution would have violated democratic principles even if they had been common themes.” Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters

There’s a strong temptation when writing history to thunder from your pulpit, and I’m not saying it’s always uncalled for.

But in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., there’s also a temptation to reduce the civil rights narrative to a dramatic standoff between a good man and an evil man. And all that does is accelerate King’s journey from mere mortal to larger-than-life icon.

‘A rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero’

Garrow’s book ends, by contrast, rather humbly. And it is in the epilogue to Bearing the Cross that we find the lesson from MLK’s life that can be the most empowering to us today.

The epilogue begins with a quote from one of King’s college friends, the educator Charles Willie:

“By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity — his personal and public struggles — that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”

Next, Garrow quotes King’s daughter, sister, and a close associate:

“You have a tendency to romanticize,” Yolanda King notes, “when you’re looking back on it.” Andrew Young states that “I think it’s time to tell it all now,” and Christine Farris, King’s sister, says she wants to “help to demythologize one of our heroes.”

“My brother,” she emphasizes, “was no saint,” but “an average and ordinary man.”

Then, Garrow takes aim at our selective memory of King:

Indeed, many of King’s colleagues worry, as Vincent Harding puts it, that people today are turning King into a “rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero” whose comfortable, present-day image bears little resemblance to the human King or to the political King of 1965-1968. Hosea Williams says it bluntly: “There is a definite effort on the part of America to change Martin Luther King, Jr., from what he really was all about — to make him the Uncle Tom of the century. In my mind, he was the militant of the century.

Garrow’s final quote underscores why it is so important, year after year, to see King as he really was, and continually demythologize this ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary time:

As Diane Nash says, “If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they — young people — are more likely to say, ‘gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ … If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?’”

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