A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO on the Oberlin College
campus, I was horrified when a black student told me: "Martin Luther King Jr. is just an historical figure to me." If King were alive today, he would be 53, just about the median age of my closest male friends. In my view, King, along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the two greatest Americans of this century. To think that this black youngster viewed King, a man whom I knew and with whom I worked, as "an historical figure" depressed and saddened me. It didn't help much to realize that the student had been about 7 when King was killed. Because he had been such a force in shaping the world in which this student's generation lives, I had thought King ought to be much more to them than the name on their elementary schools or on a street they used to get to their homes.
Thus, it was with great anticipation that I opened Let the Trumpet Sound, Stephen B. Oates' biography of King. I hoped that Oates, a professional biographer whose subjects have included Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner and John Brown, would provide a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and his times that did justice to the rich tapestry from which he emerged and which he came to dominate. I hoped Oates would also give us a feeling for the humanity, flesh, blood, bone, intellect and courage behind the extraordinary oratory that we hear replayed at such ceremonies as King's birthday and the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Although some of my hopes have been realized brilliantly in this book, some of them have not, and I regret to report that the failures make this a seriously flawed work.
The book succeeds very well in describing King's intellect. One of my colleagues at the Joint Center for Political Studies recently remarked, "The thing about King was that he was so smart." That fact tends to get lost as we recall the oratory, the bravery, the flair for dramatizing the plight of the Southern black and the FBI's scandalous attacks on the man whom members of his staff called "The Doctor." Oates shows him as an enormously bright child and a sensitive one, so devoted to his maternal grandmother that he once flung himself out of a second floor window when he thought she was dead.
It is not at all surprising that an intelligent child of the formidable "Daddy" King would do well at school. But Oates tells us that good grades came effortlessly for young M.L., as his family called him. Nor is it surprising that, until the age of 15, young King was whipped by his father when he misbehaved. But for those of us who can remember how his own emotional preaching could stir a crowd into a frenzy, it is surprising that he was a little embarrassed, as a child, by his father's emotional preaching. Nevertheless, M.L. did decide that he was "going to get me some big words when I grow up."
Oates presents a thrilling picture of the young man's mind being inflamed by the brilliant black professors he encountered at Morehouse College; of King the serious scholar at Crozer Seminary, where he earned a B.A. in Divinity and was valedictorian of his class; and then of his profound intellectual pursuits at Boston University, where he earned his doctorate.
Though he found time to court and marry Coretta Scott, King managed to study everything from Thoreau to Hegel and from Marx to Nietzsche, with a large dollop of Gandhi thrown in. When he left Boston for his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, his mentor, Harold DeWolf, called him "a scholar's scholar" of great intellectual potential. King had intended, after a short stint as a working preacher, to return to academia to spend his life as a teacher and an intellectual.
Well, it didn't quite work out that way for Martin Luther King Jr., but the intellectual underpinning is important because he spent the rest of his life reshaping and refining against hard experience the moral and intellectual view of the world he had developed in his days as a student. The story of King's journey from Montgomery to Memphis is so well-known, I will not rehash it here. It is sufficient to say that in Oates' book much of the life from Montgomery to Selma is a blur of King's whirlwind journeys on airplanes, although the telling of the Montgomery and the Birmingham crusades is compelling reading.
Some of the most wonderful quotes in the book are from white people. A white cab driver in Montgomery said: "That young colored preacher has got more brains in his little finger than the City Commissioners and all the politicians in this town put together." And, on a night when King's home had been bombed and King had soothed an angry crowd of Montgomery blacks who had gone there, a white policeman said to a reporter: "I'll be honest with you. I was terrified. I owe my life to that nigger preacher, and so do all the other white people who were there." And, finally, there is Bull Connor hollering: "Long as I'm po-leece commissioner in Birmingham, the niggers and white folks ain't gon' segregate together in this man's town."
But it was left for a black janitor in Montgomery to say exactly what King's nonviolent crusades did for blacks all over the country. "We got our heads up now," the man said, ''and we won't ever bow down again--no, sir--except before God!"
From Selma on, Oates' narrative picks up drive and the story is not only full of drama, but reeks of the real King, his bravery, his triumph, his pain and his doubts. The description of his decision to oppose the Vietnam war and the anguish that the criticism of that position caused him are particularly riveting.
But ultimately,,the book is unsatisfying. There are some mystifying errors. For example, the 1966 White House Conference on Civil Rights is placed in New York rather than in Washington, where it occurred, and Clarence Mitchell, the long-time bulwark of the NAACP in Washington is described as an employe of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Some things are insufficiently explained, such as the break between King and Ella Baker, one of the saints of the movement, and the reasons why some of King's advisers were "appalled" when he designated Ralph Abernathy as his successor as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Coretta Scott King and most of King's associates in the SCLC emerge in this book as one-dimensional figures.
Worse, and particularly difficult for this writer to deal with in a review and not be misunderstood, is the treatment of other major figures in the movement. They are all shadows in King's play. Bob Moses, the hero of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is not even mentioned. Stokely Carmichael is presented as a wild man, not as the often-thoughtful and brilliant, but sometimes erratic, man I knew. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee itself is presented as a bunch of brave but ungrateful kids rather than as a group that did much to stir the conscience of a nation and to enrich black thought. Whitney Young of the National Urban League is a conservative figure lurking in the background, with his accomplishments in mobilizing the white business community for civil rights completely ignored.
But the hardest lumps of all are reserved for my late uncle, Roy Wilkins, then the executive director of the NAACP. In this account, he is a stuffy, conservative figure who spent the entire period of King's prominence being jealous of the younger man. King and Wilkins did not love each other, there is no question about that. But Wilkins' political skills and his close relationships with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were essential to the task of turning the heat of civil rights demonstrations into the greatest legislative victories blacks have ever achieved.
It does not diminish King's greatness to acknowledge the enormous contributions others were making, which served as the context for his own massive achievements. Rather, it diminishes him and his story to belittle the others and to shrink the rich and productive interplay among all of them. And the serious distortion of the context of King's life is a grave disservice to those who did not live in his times and had no opportunity to know the man.
Despite this major flaw, Oates' book is a good place to begin for the facts of King's own life. The author chose wisely to let King speak for himself as much as possible. One of the most moving parts of the book is King's eulogy to himself, preached when he was despairing, just two months before he was murdered:
"I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. That I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say. . . ."
Well, Doctor, you certainly did that. Yes, you did.