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The Other Side of the Mountaintop

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Matthew Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize winner and 25-year veteran of The Washington Post, looks back at covering the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King six weeks before his death, and the riots that engulfed parts of Washington, D.C., after King's assassination.Video by Lucian Perkins/washingtonpost.com

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King was the son, grandson and great-grandson of preachers, and he grew up studying and practicing what messages might work best on people. In 1958, Branch said, he traveled 250,000 miles delivering sermons and speeches. As Branch put it, King thought he could preach America out of segregation.

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Lawrence E. Carter, dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, King's alma mater, said that he "recognized the humanity even in people who oppressed him," adding: "He saw in them something that could be redeemed."

But King was not meek, nor were his words always soothing. He called for boycotting discriminatory businesses, sometimes demanding that they advertise in black newspapers and deposit some of their money in black savings and loan associations. He spoke of "cultural homicide" committed against blacks, how their worth and achievements were diminished in schools while white superiority was promoted. In one speech, he even noted that there were 60 "offensive" synonyms for blackness in Roget's Thesaurus, and 134 "favorable" synonyms for whiteness.

But King reserved some of his toughest assessments for the U.S. government, which he called "the greatest purveyor of violence" in the world.

"His admonishments to us of how we ought to live seem to be reflected in his social consciousness, and that is rooted in his understanding of Jesus and the social gospels," said Carter, who met King on four occasions. "When he chastised us for being the greatest perpetrator of violence in the history of the world, think about Jeremiah Wright" -- Obama's former longtime Chicago pastor, who came under fire recently for controversial statements in his sermons.

In a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before his death, King explained his opposition to the Vietnam War and tied it to his advocacy on behalf of the poor. The war buildup had "continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube," King said. "So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

"Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."

Clayborne Carson, a King historian at Stanford University, said he was "politically isolated" in the final years of his life.

"The white liberals had kind of abandoned him because of his Vietnam speech and his decision to take on the war on poverty," said Carson, who was selected by the late Coretta Scott King to edit her husband's papers. "They were attacking him. [President Lyndon B.] Johnson thought he had gone off the deep end. And most black people in the civil rights movement thought he had gone off the deep end. I think it took a toll on him."

Not many Americans, Carson noted, seem aware of the tremendous pressures King faced on so many fronts.

"King sometimes gets suspended in time at the March on Washington in '63," Carson added. "It's kind of a way of Americans patting themselves on their backs."

But Carson sees in King a real paradox. "He was very discouraged. On the other hand, I think he was exhilarated. He was finally doing what he felt he was on this Earth to do -- preach the social gospel, help the poor."


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