Books

Reflections on Reading a Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.


Several years ago, prior to Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, I decided to preach on racial reconciliation. I knew I needed to enter into the issue emotionally. I grew up in the South as middle-class Anglo-American. I had not had very many friendships with people of other races. And I felt sure that my background had placed severe limitations on my ability to really empathize with minority races who have lived much of their lives in a context of discrimination or hostility. And so, I spent much of the week reading a biography on Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted to walk in the shoes of an African American.

I wanted to understand and re-live the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement. I wanted to challenge my own assumptions about what happened in that decade preceding my birth – a decade that many of my friends and family members remember, perhaps with still bitter memories. And so I read. And was helped.

Growing Up Black in White America

I was helped by asking with young “M. L.” (as his parents called him) “why do they (the whites) have things and we don’t?” I was helped in understanding this man by standing there with him as his papa got cheated at the plantation commissary, and as he saw white people beat black people, and even hang one, and he as boy was struck by a white man for refusing to bring him a pail of water.[1] I was helped by trying to understand what this young boy must have felt when he was told that he could no longer play with his white friend across the street because he was colored, and how he received a painful education about what it mean to be black in white America – not being able to order a Coke or hamburger from the downtown stores, having to drink from a “colored” water fountain, and sit in the balcony of the downtown theater.[2] Or when in the eleventh grade, he was sitting in a crowded bus that was boarded by whites. When no seats were to be had, the white bus driver ordered him to surrender his seat.[3]

Hostility and Inequity

I was shocked to read of the inequitable treatment of blacks and whites in the deep South, where fourteen-year old Emmett Till, a young African-American from Chicago who was spending the summer with his relatives in Greenwood, Mississippi, was flung into the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire – all because it was rumored that he had whistled at a white girl. While in contrast, in numerous episodes of white men raping or abusing black women, and one even murdering a black woman, the perpetrators were never even arrested and brought to trial.[4]

I hurt with King, when as a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, he was receiving 30-40 hate letters a week, and as many as 25 obscene phone-calls a day, and often threats on his life.[5] And I hurt with him as with stammering speech he tried to explain to his six-year-old daughter, Yoki, that the public invitation to the amusement park, Funtown, was not for her, because she was a colored girl.[6]

Non-Violent Activism

I was impressed with King’s generosity, as he gave away most of the $230,000 he received a year in royalties for his speaking engagements.[7] I was touched by the example of his peaceful and non-violent activism, where time and again, despite being deeply provoked by the injustices he and his people suffered, he exhorted his followers to love their enemies and pursue peace rather than retaliation.[8]

Consider, for example, these words, spoken in the wake of the fire-hoses and police dogs being leashed on black children marching in Birmingham: “We must say to our white brothers all over the South who try to keep us down: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you . . . Do to us what you will. Threaten our children and we will still love you . . . . Say that we’re too low, that we’re too degraded, yet we will still love you. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. In winning the victory, we will not only win our freedom. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process.”[9]

And I admired his courage in leading peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations in the quest for desegregation and equal rights, even though it often meant that he would spend time in jail (he was jailed over thirty times), and even put his life at risk.

The Birmingham Letter

I felt compassion when I read his famous open letter to fellow clergymen written from a jail in Birmingham in April of 1963, as he explained African Americans could wait no longer for the end of segregation and discrimination: 
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”[10]

And I felt some of the triumph and joy that King felt when he stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 and gave his famous “I have a dream today” speech.[11]

“Bloody Sunday” and the Assassination

I also felt just a taste of the grief he must have felt as I read about “bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama on March 7,1965, where a nonviolent demonstration protesting the denial of voting rights ended when state troopers, with a rebel yell, charged the blacks with bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire, attacking men and women alike.[12]

And I was saddened in reading the tragic and violent end of his life when at 6:00 PM on April 4, 1968, he stood outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee and James Earl Ray shot him in the head with a .30-06 caliber rifle, blowing away the right side of his face. He died an hour and five minutes later. He was 39 years old. An FBI agent in Atlanta, after hearing the news, joyfully said, “They finally got the s.o.b!” Students at the University of Texas in Arlington cheered, and riots flared in 110 cities.[13]

Reading about these events was one of the most moving reading experiences I've had. The impact on me was tremendous. No, Martin Luther King wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws and less than admirable traits. His theology was quite different than mine. But he was a great man, nonetheless. And his impact on our country has been great. A lot has changed, for which we should thank the Lord. But we still have a long ways to go.

[This post was originally written and published in 2010.] 

Notes

[1] See Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1994) 5. I have found this to be an engaging and well-documented biography which sympathetically, yet honestly, seeks to understand the character and contributions of King.

[2] Oates, 10.

[3] Oates, 16.

[4] Oates, 62-63.

[5] Oates, 87.

[6] Oates, 182.

[7] Oates, 189.

[8] Oates, 71.

[9] Quoted in Oates, 236. Consider also his summons to “serve in our nonviolent army,” “a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no arsenal except its faith, no currency but its conscience. It was an army that would sing but not slay. It was an army to storm bastions of hatred, to lay siege to the fortress of segregation, to surround symbols of discrimination” (218).

[10] See Oates, 223-230. Also available online at: http://www.epm.org/articles/mlkletter.html

[11] See Oates, 256-264

[12] Oates, 348.

[13] Oates, 490-494.

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