Would Be King
By Vern E. Smith and Jon Meacham
The sun was about to set.
The Passion was complete. As he lay dying, the popular beatification was already underway: Martin Luther King Jr., general and martyr to the greatest moral crusade on the nation's racial battlefield. For most Americans the story seems so straightforward. He was a prophet, our own Gandhi, who led the nation out of the darkness of Jim Crow. His Promised Land was the one he conjured on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, a place where his "four little children... will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Now, 30 years after his assassination, that legend is under fresh assault--from King's own family and many of his aging lieutenants. His widow, Coretta, and his heirs are on the front lines of a quiet but pitched battle over the manner of his death and the meaning of his life. They believe James Earl Ray, King's convicted assassin, is innocent and that history has forgotten the real Martin Luther King.
To his family, King was murdered because he was no longer the King of the March on Washington, simply asking for the whites only signs to come down. He had grown radical: the King of 1968 was trying to build an interracial coalition to end the war in Vietnam and force major economic reforms--starting with guaranteed annual incomes for all. They charge that the government, probably with Lyndon Johnson's knowledge, feared King might topple the "power structure" and had him assassinated. "The economic movement was why he was killed, frankly," Martin Luther King III told NEWSWEEK. "That was frightening to the powers that be." They allege there were political reasons, too. "RFK was considering him as a vice presidential candidate," says Dexter, King's third child. "It's not widely known or discussed, [but] obviously those watching him knew of it. They [Kennedy and King] were both considered powerful and influential in terms of bringing together a multiracial coalition."
So who was the real Martin Luther King Jr.--the integrationist preacher of the summer of 1963 or the leftist activist of the spring of 1968? The question is not just academic.
The Kings, a family still struggling to find its footing personally and politically, are understandably attracted to the grander theories about King's life and death. A government conspiracy to kill a revolutionary on the rise is more commensurate with the greatness of the target than a hater hitting a leader who may have been on the cool side of the mountain. The truth, as always, is more complicated than legend. People who were around Robert Kennedy say it is highly unlikely that there was serious consideration of an RFK-King ticket. "I never heard Kennedy talk about any vice presidential possibilities," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedy aide. And though there was almost certainly some kind of small-time plot to kill King, 30 years of speculation and investigation has produced no convincing proof that James Earl Ray was part of a government-led conspiracy.
The real King was in fact both radical and pragmatist, prophet and pol. He understood that the clarity of Birmingham and Selma was gone forever, and sensed the tricky racial and political terrain ahead. He knew the country was embarking on a long twilight struggle against poverty and violence--necessarily more diffuse, and more arduous, than the fight against Jim Crow. Jealousies among reformers, always high, would grow even worse; once the target shifted to poverty, it would be tough to replicate the drama that had led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and '65. "We've got some difficult days ahead," he preached the night before he died.
King was an unlikely martyr to begin with. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. King was not quite 27; Coretta had just given birth to their first child, Yolanda. E. D. Nixon, another Montgomery pastor, wanted to host a boycott meeting at King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--not because of King but because the church was closest to downtown. When the session ran long, a frustrated minister got up to leave, whispering to King, "This is going to fizzle out. I'm going." King replied, "I would like to go, too, but it's in my church."
He took up the burden, however, and his greatness emerged. He led waves of courageous ordinary people on the streets of the South, from the bus boycott to the Freedom Rides. Behind his public dignity, King was roiled by contradictions and self-doubts. He wasn't interested in money, yet favored silk suits; he summoned a nation to moral reckoning, yet had a weakness for women. He made powerful enemies: J. Edgar Hoover obsessed over King. The FBI, worried that he was under communist influence, wiretapped and harassed the preacher from 1962 until his death.
(continued on Page 2)
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company