Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle

By Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman

Pantheon/United States Capitol Historical Society. 294 pp. $22.95

The late Ralph David Abernathy, in defending his decision to include allegations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s extramarital affairs in his memoir, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," indicated that he had done so to show young people that King was no saint and, by extension, that saintliness is no prerequisite for civil rights activism.

Abernathy's motivation, not to mention his method, was dubious, but his defense went to the heart of a significant question: Why have those who would carry on the work started by King and others in the 1950s and '60s been unable to generate the kind of mass support needed to protect past achievements and win further victories?

"We Shall Overcome," a collection of essays and commentaries from an October 1986 symposium on King's life and work held in the U.S. Capitol, suggests that the posthumous lionization of King has played a central role in stunting the movement for which he gave his life.

In their introduction, editors Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman assert that, in a historical context, King is "as vulnerable as any other dead hero to the processes of co-option, canonization and commercialization that conspire to replace with a more comfortable legend the stark truth of a courageous life cut short by an act of cowardice and bigotry." They argue that in addition to distorting history, these processes tend to render it unrepeatable by elevating the achievements of human beings to mythic status.

There is a small irony in the symposium's stated aim of placing King as but one major figure in a much larger freedom movement, in that the main contributors -- a who's who of King experts including David J. Garrow, Clayborne Carson and John Hope Franklin -- may be seen, perhaps unfairly, as perpetuators of the myth they were called upon to debunk.

Carson acknowledges that "contemporary writers may benefit from and stimulate the popular interest in King spurred by the national holiday {officially observed for the first time earlier in the year the symposium was held}, but their probing research and critical analyses serve as a necessary corrective to the mythmaking." In "We Shall Overcome," this end is further served by commentaries on the essays from Coretta Scott King, Mary Frances Berry, Bob Moses and others.

Moses is particularly compelling, arguing that scholars and others who focus on King, including those participating in the symposium, miss the point that the civil rights movement was really a series of grass-roots efforts with many leaders, of whom King was merely the most famous.

It is noted in a couple of the essays that this is essentially the same argument that Moses and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made when they challenged King's leadership during the early 1960s, and Carson suggests it is one that King himself would likely make if he were alive today.

That tension aside, "We Shall Overcome" is actually more stimulating where it focuses on the private King and the forces that drove him to prominence. Theologian Cornel West suggests that efforts to analyze King's life and work tend to falter in attempts to rationalize them. He makes the point in his essay that it is impossible to understand, and therefore impossible to intelligently discuss, King's thoughts and actions outside the context of his religious convictions. Garrow's contribution endorses that view, placing King's work as that of a man who heard destiny's call, a man who felt thrust by God into the role that brought him world renown.

While emphasizing King's understanding of his role as divinely inspired, the participants generally reject the Great Man theory of historical causation with respect to King. Their view is summed up by sociologist Aldon D. Morris, who asserts that King simply had the good fortune to come along at precisely the moment in American history that called for someone like him.

A large portion of "We Shall Overcome" is devoted to discussion of King's influence on freedom struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the influence those struggles had on him. Morris and Louis R. Harlan both note that King effectively used the Cold War struggle for the hearts and minds of the emerging nations of the Third World to generate official support for the civil rights movement at home.

The fact that these essays and commentaries were delivered in 1986 dates them somewhat, but little here could be said to have been rendered invalid. For example, Shun P. Govender's analysis of the state of affairs in South Africa predates, but is essentially undisturbed by, the release of Nelson Mandela.

Harlan suggests that history's major figures "go through a cycle: first, they are eulogized as demigods, then some historical iconoclast ridicules their importance and exposes their human failings, and finally a more balanced historical view raises them up again to their true stature."

"We Shall Overcome," focusing as it does on King's ideas and the forces that shaped them, clearly aims to help initiate this third phase in the earthly afterlife of Martin Luther King Jr. But its best instruction may be that those who want to carry on King's work shouldn't pay too much attention.

The reviewer is a copy editor on the Metropolitan desk of The Washington Post.