The Book Club

Out of the Olympian Realm

Dear Debra,

I don’t know about you, but I was approaching this assignment with some trepidation. I assumed, before reading Marshall Frady’s new Penguin Life of Martin Luther King Jr., that we’d be dealing with a few problems. First, I’m uncomfortable with the hasty compression of large and challenging topics into Chicken McNuggets of knowledge for readers on the go. The pairings often seem weird, and I’m always half-expecting to go into a bookstore and find St. Francis of Assisi by Stephen Ambrose, or Werner Heisenberg by Kitty Kelley, or Geraldo Rivera by Geraldo Rivera.

Second, I think this format is especially wobbly with major political figures, particularly near-contemporaries—it works better with people that you haven’t thought about for a while (I just read Peter Gay’s Mozart in the same series and loved it). Third, I doubted Frady’s ability to rise to anywhere near the level of what is already the definitive biography, even though we only have two of the projected three volumes—Taylor Branch’s monumental work. And finally, I thought it would oversimplify King—now stereotyped as a saint rather than the complex figure he was.

All of these doubts were enlarged by the slipperiness of King’s image at the moment. Almost no one doubts his significance (though we should remember how long the Republicans stonewalled before putting their stamp on the holiday, and how many GOP states simply refused). But every few years, another distressing report of his family’s mismanagement of his legacy flickers across the evening news—nearly turning the King Center into a Disney-fied amusement park, slowing down plans for a King memorial in Washington, selling out to TV ads for cell phones and Internet companies. (The recent Alcatel ad removing King’s audience from the “I Have a Dream” speech was especially chilling—but it was only one of several licenses the family has granted.) What’s next—the MLK-2 Thighmaster?

So, for all these reasons, I crept up to this work with small enthusiasm. And I have to say, those doubts did not vanish right away. The author’s photo—always a critical index to a book’s worth—showed a middle-aged Caucasian gentleman wearing a white tie and suspenders. The first few pages indicated this was yet another entry in the “purge my sinful land” school of white liberals writing about the accursed South, using highly dramatic, Bible-flavored language. Didn’t I swear never to fall for this trick again when I passed (barely) my high-school Faulkner class?

But then a strange thing happened. Frady won me over. I don’t know if it was his semiapocalyptic language—which settled down into a nice rhythm—or the majesty of King’s oratory, which colors the book and I think Frady’s prose as well. Or just the stunning drama of the civil rights struggle from Montgomery to Memphis—a story that is mind-boggling for how much it achieved, and at what cost, and how recently this revolution happened. Somehow, something clicked, and by the end I could hardly put the book down.

One key to Frady’s success, I think, is his personal connection with the story. He was an apprentice Newsweek reporter from the Atlanta bureau when he got the assignment to cover King in 1964. Some of the most riveting passages in the book come when Frady steps out of the role of historian and re-enters the world in which he first encountered King—seeing him standing alone and unnoticed on a porch in St. Augustine, stricken with horror as the marchers he inspired recoiled from a brutal police assault. Or finding him later that night, drinking a glass of water with a napkin stuck to the bottom. These human touches bring the story out of the Olympian realm and put it back on earth where it belongs.

True to this assignment, Frady renders the basic biographical details economically and efficiently. He wastes little time telling the story of “Little Mike” ‘s birth and arrival, his transition into “Tweed” (the name his friends called him at Morehouse), and his full-blown emergence into Martin Luther King Jr. The Montgomery story is vivid, and to his credit, Frady also articulates quite well the drift that set in after that great victory. I think that’s one of the great strengths of this book—it gives us a good sense of how precarious each of these breakthroughs was, and how separate the stations of his life. Montgomery was followed by the stalemate at Albany, Ga.; Birmingham was followed by St. Augustine; and it seemed that King’s doubters and self-doubts were nearly exactly as powerful as his immense inner strength. That calibrated tension is what lends the story such weight.

To judge what he was up against, you only have to check out Page 186, which lists the denunciations that flowed freely from newspapers that disapproved of him—not just people in pointy white hats, but the New York Times and the Washington Post. Admittedly, this was after King took the great leap of criticizing the Vietnam War and turning his righteous crusade from segregation to poverty. The boldness of this thinking at this late juncture has not diminished with the passage of three and a half decades, and the words fairly jump off the page.  

And even when we know the general contours of the FBI’s persecution of King, it is sobering to read the details. Needless to say, the details of his philandering are distressing to relearn in the midst of this stirring narrative, and there is no one to blame but King himself. But the knowledge that J. Edgar Hoover was devoting so much of his time and demoniac energy to this campaign of hatred is horrifying. It forces any responsible citizen to wonder: How could our elaborate government of checks and balances create an all-powerful organization with no clear supervision for most of its existence?

Still, with enemies dogging his every step, King managed to achieve exactly what he set out to do, and he achieved almost all of it within 10 years of beginning his first ministry. Not only did he smash segregation, he also effected a permanent political revolution in this country. In 1956, the black vote went 3-2 Republican; in 1960 (after JFK placed a phone call to Coretta King), the vote switched to 7-3 Democratic. Republicans noticed, and they adopted a “Southern strategy” that is still working for them (and that echoed throughout the contest over the 2000 election, with African-American voter access in Florida a crucial unresolved issue for the few people still paying attention to that debate).

Frady’s book is not flawless, of course. I would have enjoyed a bit more on King’s adversity to the Vietnam War or his relationship with LBJ and RFK. But, hey, it is what it is. If you want rich detail and the full story of the passage from Egypt to Canaan, then you’ve still got Taylor Branch—whom Frady acknowledges nicely. But for a compact version of that story—probably the greatest story most living Americans are ever likely to experience—then this book is a good place to start.