Martin Luther King, Jr.

( 6 )

Overview

Marshall Frady, the reporter who became the unofficial chronicler of the civil rights movement, here re-creates the life and turbulent times of its inspirational leader. Deftly interweaving the story of King’s quest with a history of the African American struggle for equality, Frady offers fascinating insights into his subject’s magnetic character, with its mixture of piety and ambition. He explores the complexities of King’s relationships with other civil rights leaders, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, ...

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Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life

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Overview

Marshall Frady, the reporter who became the unofficial chronicler of the civil rights movement, here re-creates the life and turbulent times of its inspirational leader. Deftly interweaving the story of King’s quest with a history of the African American struggle for equality, Frady offers fascinating insights into his subject’s magnetic character, with its mixture of piety and ambition. He explores the complexities of King’s relationships with other civil rights leaders, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who conducted a relentless vendetta against him. The result is a biography that conveys not just the facts of King’s life but the power of his legacy.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Penguin Lives aren't just short biographies; they are profiles with a purpose. In this case, civil rights observer Marshall Frady explores the life and character of minister-activist Martin Luther King Jr. with candor and insight. While presenting the central landmarks and pitfalls of King's life, Frady tackles questions of strategy and ethics, including recent accusations of plagiarism. He writes compellingly about the development of King's anti–Vietnam War stance and his changing views of other black leaders. Frady presents King as a politician with a spiritual mission; a gifted yet flawed man; and a major figure in our shared history.
Publishers Weekly
When Dr. King made the cover as Time's Man of the Year in 1963, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover "snorted in a remark passed around the Bureau, 'They had to dig deep in the garbage for this one.'" It is details such as this that make this short biography of a much-written about subject both potent and illuminating. For the latest entry in the Penguin Lives series, Frady (Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson) has produced a sharp, politically insightful, emotionally astute and psychologically complex portrait of a man whose complicated life and work is often reduced to simplistic hagiography. While this biography uses a standard chronological narrative as its spine, Frady constantly reframes facts and their accepted meanings with new information that gives readers fresh, often startling interpretations, or reminds us of facts that have slipped to the periphery (Rosa Parks was not simply a woman who refused to change her seat on the bus, but an active member of the NAACP who knew the political implications of her act). Never shying away from controversial topics, such as King's deep rage against the U.S. war in Vietnam or the plagiarized portions of his writing, Frady also perceptively analyzes how King's political strategizing emerged from his often conflicted emotional needs many of his bold, decisive gains for the civil rights movement were predicated on a Clintonian need for contact and adulation, according to the author. Yet Frady's sensitive, succinct presentation never lets King's foibles obscure his tremendous contributions to American life. (Jan.) Forecast: With such titles as Edna O'Brien's James Joyce and Wayne Koestenbaum's recent Andy Warhol, the Penguin Lives series haspropagated a distinctive form of biography, drawing heavily on the magazine profile form. A few readers may be starting to follow the series as a whole and will pick this up; others will find reacquaintance with King's nonviolent tactics for liberation a refreshing read in difficult times. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A veteran political journalist and biographer of George Wallace, Billy Graham, and Jesse Jackson, Frady has created a lyrical, even poetic moral pageant to portray King from his rise to national notice in the Montgomery, AL, bus boycott of 1955-56 to his 1968 murder on a motel balcony in Memphis, TN. He takes King to his triumphant moment at the 1963 March on Washington and also to his dispirited Poor People's Campaign mired on the Washington Mall in 1967. Eschewing the figure that public attention and adulation hallowed, Frady instead pursues the harrowed man, the troubled soul, the unprepossessing, unheroic King whose moral vision cast him as a Promethean protagonist in the crucible of civil rights. With deft, quick-sketch character studies, Frady tells King's life not so much through events as through personalities, adding his own reminiscences as a young reporter covering the movement. While no replacement for the works of Taylor Branch, David Garrow, or David Levering Lewis, Frady's work is an engrossing read for its literary prose, as well as for its tableau of the times and freshened perception of King as a personality. Highly recommended for collections on biography, civil rights, or U.S. history. Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An exemplary, brief life of the African-American leader who effected epochal changes in his 39 years.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143036487
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Series: Penguin Lives Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 221,417
  • Product dimensions: 6.96 (w) x 5.04 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Marshall Frady (1940–2004) was a veteran journalist who wrote for Newsweek, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. He was also a correspondent for Nightline and ABC News. His books include Wallace, a biography ofGeorge Wallace, and Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Almost a geological age ago, it seems now-that great moral saga of belief and violence that unfolded in the musky deeps of the South during the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. It's hard to remember at this remove of years how profoundly the South then was like another country within the United States. Locked into its own massive apartheid system, implacably enforced by legal and political authorities across the whole spectrum of its social life, it really had more in common with the South Africa of that day than the rest of the nation. At the same time, the South seemed a region that belonged to some older, more primal and guttural script about the human situation, tribal, stark, fatal, that was wholly outside the general American sensibility of rationality and optimism. Even so, it had fallen the lot of the South, formed by slavery and its camouflaged sequel of segregation, to serve as the crucible for the whole nation's periodic struggles of conscience over its own endemic and pervasive racial malaise. As early as Jefferson, the recognition was already gathering that the only fundamental and intractable crisis this Republic finally faced was that of racial schism-that the American political adventure, conceived in such brave hope and largeness of idea, may have also held from its very inception, when the first black man in chains set his foot on the continent's shores, the seeds of its undoing. Indeed, that aboriginal crime has been with us, one way or another, ever since. And it was the South, living more directly and intimately in that crime than anywhere else, that seemed appointed the violent ceremonial ground for America'sintermittent travails to purge itself of that primeval shame and guilt.

The civil rights movement became the nation's latest attempt to perform in the South an exorcising of its original sin, and it turned out our most epic moral drama since the Civil War itself. What was taking place for those few passionate years was a kind of high lyricism of the human spirit, played out in the unlikely stage set of bleak little cities and musty towns marooned out in the sun-shimmering backlands of the South. And for its duration, the South itself seemed to pass into a theater of the surreal. Over its countrysides could be found an exotic visitation of gentle young earnest evangels from the far winters of the North and the mild Eden of California, having brought down with them radical humanist fervors from Harvard seminars and all-night discussions in back of Berkeley bookstores, and now damp and tallow-pale in the brutal glare of Mississippi and south Georgia, they had about them a bespectacled, vegetarian, somehow sweetly lost and fugitive quality. With them were the brimstone-eyed young black circuit riders of the movement, Caribbean plantation hats rakishly tilted low over their faces and red bandannas tucked in the top of deerskin boots, dusting from town to town in ramshackle station wagons and muddy coupes, always furiously, manically, inexhaustibly talking....They were days delirious with belief.

It was while I was working one summer in the mid-sixties as an apprentice correspondent in the Atlanta bureau of Newsweek-still a raw young provincial just emerged out of a Southern small-town upbringing-that I was lobbed abruptly into the heats and tumults of that immense folk morality play. One smoldering night in a little Alabama town, I found myself standing in the back of a shoebox tabernacle crammed with a congregation of black maids, janitors, beauticians, schoolteachers-all the windows open to the hot ripe night outside and cardboard fans advertising Peoples Funeral Association fluttering over the packed ranks of glistening faces-as a local preacher, a heavy, sweat-washed man just released from jail that afternoon, led them through one of those mightily swooping hymns of the movement: O freedom! O freedom! O freedom over me, over me....I stepped outside to stand for a moment in the dark under a chinaberry tree, suddenly a bit woozy, and lighted a cigarette with trembling fingers. And with those voices in the church surging on in the night-And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free-I still distinctly remember the prickling that shivered over my hide, and blurting aloud, "Good God." Such moments were a kind of Damascus Road experience in the lives of more reporters than me.

And it would all converge repeatedly into the same, almost ritualistic scene: demonstrators brimming out of a town's black neighborhood and swelling down the plain little main street with a vast clapping and low cavernous choiring-Ain't gon' let nobody turn me 'round, turn me 'round-the marchers moving on toward a courthouse square bristling with white deputies and state troopers waiting with shotguns and billy clubs, their faces blank and flat as nickel coins, chewing small wads of gum with only a faint stirring of their jaws. And when the two met, it seemed with the ceremonious deliberation of a dream, coming together in a strangely slow-motion collision of floundering bodies, howls and shouts, thumping clubs, a few screams....

In time, of course, that passion play transpiring in the South was assimilated, without pause or intermission, by the more expansive and complex national anguish of Vietnam-while the South's racial duress also spanned out over the rest of the country, where it became more diffused and abstract, the saints and villains losing their old palpable simplicity, as the South itself meanwhile receded into the more sedate preoccupation of mutating into some regional version of the San Fernando Valley. Now, all the angers and urgencies of those years of the civil rights movement seem curiously remote, dwindled, archaic, quaint. But the partisans and journalists who passed through that distant time still tend to look back on it something like Lincoln Brigade veterans wistful for the bright days of Spain in '38. Goodness and courage and evil and tragedy all had, for that brief season, a marvelously simple and immediate clarity. The very air seemed vivid then with some fever of superreality. That once, at least, breath truly hit the bottom of the lungs. It was a time of an ultra-aliveness that few were ever to know again.

That moral pageantry playing over the South was all an amplification of what had begun at first obscurely, almost by happenstance, with a bus segregation protest back in 1955 in the winter glooms of Montgomery, Alabama. But the solemn young black minister reluctantly impressed into its leadership, Martin Luther King, Jr., who had remained at the center of its expanding ramifications afterward, was, when I first encountered him in St. Augustine in 1964, a startlingly unprepossessing figure-a short, chunky man, with a manner of unremitting and ponderous gravity in his deacon-sober suits. His round face, black as asphalt, wore a bland gaze of almost Oriental impassiveness, an improbable bourgeois placidness-yet with, I still remember, almost meltingly sweet eyes. But on the whole, he could have been a comfortably prosperous funeral home director, or merely what among other things he indeed was, the Baptist preacher of a big-city church. However surprisingly unheroic his appearance, though, the transfiguration of the South effected in the course of his apostleship-the momentous Black Awakening of a long subject and debased people, their eventual political ascendancy, the widely common public culture now of whites and blacks there-was by almost any measure epochal. And the legacy of racial amity that, perhaps even more astonishingly, followed that transformation would quite likely have been impossible without King's stubbornly persevering, nonviolent gospel metaphysic of redemptive understanding and forgiveness and even sorrow for one's very brutalizers. As he once bayed out, mouth thrown wide in a roar of power from the back of his thick-packed neck, when marchers were facing the dogs and clubs and fire hoses of Birmingham: "We will meet the forces of hate with the power of love....We must say to our white brothers all over the South, We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering....Bomb our homes and we will still love you....We will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."

But before long, King's moral vision had impelled him beyond the South into a mission, even more formidable and in the end tragic, as prophet to the whole national community at America's Augustan noon of pride and power. His evangelism against the primal Cain act of racism-its denial of a natural connection to other human beings, reducing them to objects, which then allows any manner of violence against them-inexorably evolved into an evangelism against what he saw as the moral coma of the country's whole corporate, technological order: its loud and vicious void of materialism, its isolation of individuals from each other, its technician's detachment from the human effects of its interests and policies, and the measureless vandalism this new kind of high-tech barbarism was visiting not only on the life of America, but elsewhere in the world, most luridly at that time in Vietnam. In effect, he came to pit himself against his entire age. Toward the end, he committed himself to a grand social offensive of not only blacks but Hispanics, Native Americans, poor whites, all the dispossessed and discarded and forgotten of American society, to radically reorder the values and power system of the whole nation: he had wound up, as J. Edgar Hoover was not far wrong in fuming, the most subversive man in America. But that was the final, huge, Gandhian ambition that came to consume him: through the same nonviolent mass confrontations that had remade the South, to do nothing less than re-create and redeem America itself. In that sense, he was really just beginning when, only some twelve years after Montgomery, he wandered out to his motel room balcony in Memphis that mild April dusk in 1968.

Over the years since then, ironically, King has passed into the cloudy shimmers of a pop beatification, commemorated with parades, memorial concerts, schools and streets and parks named for him, his birthday a national holiday, his image on postage stamps. But in the process, a benignly nebulous amnesia has settled over how in fact tenuous, fitful, and uncertain was his progress through those years from Montgomery to Memphis, and the final, truly revolutionary implications of his message. More, the man himself has been abstracted out of his swelteringly convoluted actuality into a kind of weightless and reverently laminated effigy of who he was. To hallow a figure is almost always to hollow him. And the truth is, King was always a far more excruciatingly complex soul than the subsequent flattenings effected by his mass sanctification. As one of his biographers, David L. Lewis, put it, in "the nation's canonization of Martin King...we have sought to remember him by forgetting him."

Four years before Memphis, there was one glowering summer night in Florida's little moss-hung antique of a city, St. Augustine, where King had mounted a series of demonstrations that I was sent down by Newsweek to cover-night marches that proceeded with a hymning of freedom songs from the black quarter of town to the town square, once a slave market, where they would be met with an engulfing violence from the whites who had been steadily sifting in from the surrounding palmetto flatlands. After those nightly melees on the square, the reporters there-many of them veterans by now of racial uproars all the way back to the Autherine Lucy riots at the University of Alabama of 1956-would quickly retreat to their motel rooms to get swiftly, slammingly drunk. But then came one particular Walpurgis Night of mayhem on the square-a storm of swinging baseball bats and trace chains and shrieked rebel yells, through which the black marchers made their way with a mute, unbelieving terror and stumbling frantic urgency, in a long leaning line battered back and forth like a canebrake in a wild wind, and at last breaking apart altogether, marchers scattering back for the refuge of the black section. Following them there, through several passing scuffles of my own, I happened to glimpse, in the shadows of a front porch, all by himself and apparently unnoticed by anyone else, King standing in his shirtsleeves, his hands on his hips, absolutely motionless as he watched the marchers straggling past him in the dark, bleeding, clothes torn, sobs and wails now welling up everywhere around him-and on his face a look of stricken astonishment.

Later that night, I found him sitting behind drawn blinds in the low-lit front parlor of another house, holding a glass of ice water with a paper napkin wrapped around the bottom. He said in a thick murmur, "You question-yes, when things happen like this tonight, you question sometimes-What are we doing to these people?..." Even so, when earlier that evening he had been watching that retreat from the square staggering past him, I had seen on his face not only shock at what had befallen these people acting on his exhortations, but also it seemed a kind of wonder and fascination at this collision precipitated by his moral vision's dramaturgy of good and evil-and at the same time, some deeper horror at that very captivation in himself.

"I am a troubled soul," King admitted more than once. Indeed, long before Memphis, he had come to dwell in a private Gethsemane of guilt over not only the cost of his mission on his people, but what he felt were his own personal betrayals of his high public meaning. Always haunted by a reverence for the austere and ascetic, he attempted to maintain a modesty in his own circumstances, confining himself to a meager salary, a small rented frame house in a humble neighborhood, an old car, plain dark suits. Yet those suits were often silk, as were the pajamas he would have brought to him whenever he could for his stays in jail. He remained discreetly but resistlessly infatuated with the glamours of importance: limousine transport to imperial hotel suites, the company of the wealthy and eminent. Neither was he innocent of a certain fretful pride in his appearance, in his intellectual heft, his historical import, which prompted journalist David Halberstam once to note that "the average reporter...suspects King's vanity." In truth, King was surrounded during his days by accusations, not just from antagonists, but from many journalists and occasionally close associates, of a breathtaking pompousness, a brazen and sometimes craven opportunism, as well as a forlorn ineptness in administering his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even a troubling casualness in its financial accountings.

Also, King would frequently deplore "the evils of sensuality," declaring in one sermon, "Each of us is two selves. And the great burden of life is always to keep that higher self in command. Don't let the lower self take over." But not long after his death began the ripple of reports about his extramarital amatory disportings. They were almost impossible to believe at first, simply because they seemed so wildly at variance, just did not rhyme, with his unrelenting public demeanor of gravitas. But as the reports continued to accumulate of lickerish rompings in hotel rooms, multiple humid affairs, they finally became too plentiful from too many responsible sources to be reasonably doubted. Some apologists at first suggested that it was simply of a piece with the ardent nature of a man unable to apply economies to his passions. But more than that, in King's lapses into that "lower self" he so often decried, one sensed an extraordinarily harrowed man-caught in the almost insupportable strain of having to sustain the high spirituality of his mass moral struggle, while living increasingly in a daily expectation of death-intermittently resorting to releases into sweetly obliterating riots of the flesh. He seemed thus to move through some endlessly recycling alternation between the transcendently spiritual and the convulsively carnal. And with King's exorbitant propensity for guilt, it was as if all such lapses into a lesser self violating the high nobility of his public mission could be expiated only by surrendering himself to a readiness to die for it-a fatal expectation with him, in fact, from his beginnings in Montgomery. In a sense, then, the outer turbulence attending King's movement was all along matched by an unseen, equally turbulent struggle within King himself.

But such baser aspects in the Promethean moral protagonists in history-Gandhi himself, by the later testimony of associates, could be exquisitely vindictive, curtly cold to family and others close to him personally, with "an insatiable love of power and implacability in its pursuit"-hardly diminish the splendor of such figures. Rather, they lend them a far grander human meaning than their eventual, depthless pop exaltations. But we have not yet learned to accommodate in our understanding of such figures what the ancient seers, Sophocles and the King David chronicler and Shakespeare and Cervantes, knew-that while evil can wear the most civil and sensible and respectably rectitudinous demeanor, good can seem blunderous and uncertain, shockingly wayward, woefully flawed, like one of Graham Greene's dissolute, shabby, God-haunted saints. And what the full-bodied reality of King should finally tell us, beyond all the awe and celebration of him, is how mysteriously mixed, in what torturously complicated forms, our moral heroes-our prophets-actually come to us.

Out of Egypt

I

King's father always presented a more imposing figure, in a way, than his eldest son ever would. A strapping, boomingly assertive man, commandingly erect and chesty, Martin Luther King, Sr.-later to be known as "Daddy King"-was the bluffly autocratic preacher at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, who liked to advertise how, at one congregational meeting, he had quelled an obstreperous member by threatening to collapse a chair over his head. Raised a sharecropper's son in south Georgia, called then Mike, he was burly enough at fourteen to grapple his drunken father away from beating his mother. After the ferocious fight that ensued, his mother, fearing that Mike or his father would sooner or later kill the other, made her son flee to Atlanta. Mike King arrived in the alien clamors of that city, as he later allowed, "smelling like a mule," but full of a barging industriousness: belatedly plowing his way through high school classes, he was preaching at two country churches by the time he was twenty.

He had also begun to pay court to the daughter of the minister then at Ebenezer, A. D. Williams, himself a slave preacher's son who had diligently made his way up to become one of the presiding worthies of Atlanta's black community. Alberta was the Williamses' only child, a plain, thick, shy girl, almost twenty, who played the organ at her father's services, and Mike King was the first suitor ever to seriously approach her. After a six-year courtship of the most filigreed formality, they were finally married on Thanksgiving Day of 1926 and lived in the Williamses' commodious Victorian house. In due time, Mike King would also assume Williams's pulpit at Ebenezer.

Sixteen months after the birth of a daughter, their first son was delivered, in their bedroom, on January 15, 1929, and named Michael after his father. Only when "Little Mike" was five would the elder King change both their names to Martin Luther, thereby depositing one of the first heavy loads of expectation, both his own and history's, on the slight shoulders of his eldest boy. Sixteen months after Little Mike's birth, another son was born, named A.D. after Alberta's father and also to become a preacher, but who was to prove for most of his life a flounderingly troubled spirit.

Martin was a small, somewhat tubby child, with a plump face and watchful, darkly glistening "almond-shaped eyes," by one description. Reared under his father's fierce protectiveness in a comfortably middle-class family, amid the extravagant attentions of his father's congregation, he early came by a sense of being at the privileged center of the world around him. Enclosed by a city not unfamiliar with the sulfurs of racist acrimony and violence common to the South at that time, Atlanta's black community yet had, with its complex of universities and flourishing black enterprises, its own order of bourgeois gentility. One of its main thoroughfares, Auburn Avenue, up a rise from which both Ebenezer and the King house were located, was a lively gallery of cafés, lawyers' offices, small businesses, nightspots, that had come to be known as "Sweet Auburn." Within the benign insulations of this world, Martin grew up a singularly favored boy, evidencing an early oversize appetite for both soul food and opera, for strenuous bouts of wrestling and playing "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano. Though his schoolwork tended to be somewhat haphazard, with an indifference to spelling and grammar that was to persist for the rest of his life, he had a precociously restless intelligence-and was not unaware of it himself. He notified his mother, after hearing the splendiferous rhetoric of a visiting preacher one Sunday, "Someday I'm going to have me some big words like that." Before too long, he would be startling his teachers by producing such locutions as, to a casual query about how he was doing, "Cogitating with the cosmic universe, I surmise that my physical equilibrium is organically quiescent." He also took to employing this volubility to extricate himself from fights. On the whole, he seemed to revel in the widening discovery of his gifts, his possibilities.

His father, however, was not so impressed with those nimble facilities of his son that he did not regularly administer, for his rowdier impulses, rigorous whippings. A neighbor would later report hearing the senior King, in the middle of one such walloping, whooping to Martin that "he would make something of him even if he had to beat him to death." To be sure, the elder King's wrath fell on both his sons impartially, and Martin's younger brother, A.D., never seemed able, even when a man, to free himself from their father's baleful intimidation. Martin himself would later gamely profess that "whippings must not be so bad, for I received them until I was fifteen." Even when not applied by hand or strap, his father's disciplines could still be fearsome. After catching Martin, in his teens, cavorting with girls at a YMCA dance, the senior King compelled him to perform the mortifying exercise of apologizing personally before Ebenezer's congregation. Yet even as a small boy, Martin seemed to receive all these scourgings with some strange, willed remove of resignation. "He was the most peculiar child whenever you whipped him," Daddy King would later allow himself to marvel. "He'd stand there, and the tears would run down, and he'd never cry."

Indeed, his teachers and others soon noted he was frequently given to a withdrawn moodiness. No doubt part of it was that, from his first memories, he had felt himself carrying the oppressive weight of his father's unappealable assumption that he would eventually join him in the pastorship of Ebenezer. But beyond that, if Martin had grown up sensing himself at the blessed center of the world around him, at the same time he seemed to feel at the center of responsibility for what happened in it. He early showed an inordinate compulsion to take on himself great cargoes of guilt-which impelled him, twice before he was thirteen, to bizarre gestures of suicide, both times leaping out of a window over an unbearable grief about his grandmother, whose most cherished grandchild he always knew he was. The second time, having slipped away one Sunday to watch a downtown parade, he instantly supposed that this little delinquency accounted for his grandmother's death by heart attack that afternoon, and he flung himself with sobbing abandon out of the second-floor window of the house.

For a child so excruciatingly serious, while so bountifully gifted and filled with an ambitious eagerness for life, the chill discovery that, despite growing up an auspicious young prince in the black community, he actually belonged to a lesser caste in the larger white order around him-the immemorial trauma for African Americans in the South then-was particularly devastating. When he was six, a white friend of his childhood suddenly vanished into his own school, forbidden to play with him any longer. Once, in a downtown department store, he was slapped by a white matron who shrilled, "The little nigger stepped on my foot." The flashes of proud and unafraid protest he happened to witness in his father at such racial affronts were not lost on him: once, when the senior King was stopped by a traffic policeman who addressed him as "boy," he pointed to Martin on the seat beside him and snapped, "That's a boy. I'm a man." Another time, he stalked out of a store with Martin when a shoe clerk insisted they move to the rear to be served, rumbling, "We'll either buy shoes sitting here or won't buy any shoes at all." In summer jobs at a mattress company and the Railway Express, Martin was depressed by the debasement of black employees, and quit at the Railway Express when a white superintendent kept calling him "nigger." In time, he was to venture with several other students out of Atlanta for a summer of working in the zestily interracial company of a tobacco farm in Connecticut. But that bracing experience only made more insufferable such incidents as, when returning by bus with his teacher from a high school oratorical contest in a south Georgia town, where Martin had delivered to much acclaim a speech titled "The Negro and the Constitution," the bus driver demanded they give up their seats when more white passengers boarded, and the two of them had to stand the ninety miles back to Atlanta-a memory surely lingering in what was to happen some fourteen years later in Montgomery.

From those initial humiliations, King later recounted, "I was determined to hate every white person." It was a blank animus not really dispelled until his involvement with several integrated campus groups during his college years. But it all left in him that stilted reserve he would always maintain in public, and especially in the presence of whites-as if careful to present, against the white Southerner's coarse image of blacks that had visited those early outrages on him, an unfaltering comportment of what Matthew Arnold termed "high seriousness."

Partly for the same reason, he developed by his teens a fastidious aversion to the lusty religious style in his father's church-the whoops, the clapping, the sweats, the transports. Soon, though still inescapably weighted with his father's dynastic pastoral expectations-or precisely because of that-he entered into proud adolescent apostasies about the intellectual respectability of his father's fundamentalist religion, scandalizing his Sunday school class once by denying the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus. Eventually, of course, his power to move multitudes would come largely from having grown up in the scriptural dramaturgies and oratorical raptures of those church services at Ebenezer. But at the time, "it embarrassed me," King later admitted. In that distaste lurked perhaps a certain developing preciousness of self-regard. But more, it intimated a revulsion, a wariness about belonging in any way to white Southerners' minstrel caricature of blacks as loud, slovenly, childishly emotional, witless of discipline and dignity. His horror of being captured in that fundamentally annihilating image, effacing all he actually was, accounted not a little for the relentlessly staid public manner, the neat dark suits, the almost lugubrious decorums of deportment he was to assume for the rest of his life.

Still, by the testimony of one friend from those beginning years, "he loved to party, he loved to enjoy life." By the time he entered Atlanta's Morehouse College-having skipped grades to graduate from high school at fifteen-he had become something of a swell, disposed to snazzy sports jackets, flaring-brimmed hats, snappy two-toned shoes, coming by the nickname of "Tweed" for the donnish tweed suits he particularly liked to affect. Just as fancy-despite his short and relatively homely person-was his emerging flair as a romantic cavalier, dazzling young ladies with histrionic flourishes of language about amatory Troys and crossed Rubicons. He and several friends began happily noising themselves about as "the Wreckers," King explaining once with a grin, "We wreck girls." King would usually do the scouting for comely prospects for the rest of them, picking the comeliest for himself.

But in little else did there seem anything particularly remarkable about him during his years at Morehouse, a campus then serving as a kind of gentlemen's finishing academy for the sons of Atlanta's black elect. He proved only a middling student, quiet, self-enclosed, usually lodging himself at the very rear of the classroom. He held vague notions of perhaps escaping his father's ministerial predestination by studying medicine, but with his difficulty with the exactitudes of science, he decided to major in sociology to prepare for a career in law. Beyond that, the only academic intensity he evinced was listening with a transfixed raptness to the weekly addresses of Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin Mays, a nationally prestigious theological scholar. But at the same time, Martin discovered on the Morehouse campus a heady intellectual release from his father's constricting proprieties, with rompingly free discussions about any issue whatsoever, especially the matter of the depredations worked on the black psyche by the South's racist order. And in the course of his sojourn at Morehouse, he happened to encounter for the first time Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience.

Then, the summer before his last year at Morehouse, in 1947, when he was still only eighteen, he surprisingly elected to enter the ministry after all. It was a curiously heatless decision, "not a miraculous or supernatural something," as he later related, but a conclusion that the church still offered the most promising way to answer "an inner urge to serve humanity" that had begun gathering in him by now. He was already feeling the first vague stirrings of that mysterious impulsion, found in all eventual moral-heroic figures, to give oneself over to some larger truth and purpose and meaning, "to something that transcends our immediate lives," so enlarging one's own life to the historic dimensions of that grander reality. And it was probably inevitable that the central importance of the church in the black community, and consequently the special preeminence of the preacher, would sooner or later invite that impatient ambition of his. He managed to contrive for himself an intellectually suitable peace with the Baptist Church by calculating that he would be a "rational" minister, whose sermons would be "a respectable force for ideas, even social protest."

However studiously qualified his son's decision, though, the senior King was elated. He immediately began arranging for Martin to join him as assistant pastor at Ebenezer, setting the Sunday for him to deliver the requisite "trial sermon" before the congregation. Rising behind the pulpit over which his father had familiarly loomed for years, the junior King, short and stumpy, seemed rather a dwindled edition of the formidable figure his father had always presented. But as he began moving into his sermon to the assembled membership, it was as if he were abruptly, uncannily transfigured from the careless boy who had grown up among them, assuming an almost preternatural magnitude of resonant and assured authority with his polysyllabic unfurlings of language and the passion of his message....As it happened, that message had been lifted from a printed sermon by the notable New York liberal clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick-an inclination to casual textual appropriation that was to become an unhappy habit of King's-but no one in the congregation could have known that, and when the young King finished, they all swarmed to their feet in a jubilating ovation.

So did King begin his personal exodus out of his past and the old grim Egypt of the black condition in the South-which was ultimately to carry the rest of his people with him, including even his father.

--from Penguin Lives: Martin Luther King, Jr. by Marshall Frady, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 8 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2012

    Favoite

    He was a good man who wanted to fight for his rights to freedom

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2008

    An in-depth view into Dr. King's Life

    I read the book Martin Luther King Jr. by Marshall Frady and it was the most in-depth book about Dr. King¿s Life. This book traveled through the time in history when there was an outrage of racial segregation. The book takes you way back to his childhood years in Atlanta, his college years at Morehouse College to his assassination in Memphis. Frady talks about his experiences with Dr. King and all the troubles he went through in his life. He seemed like a dedicated man who cared about equal rights, but inside he was full of hurt and anger. He put his family and life on hold to fight for his rights. Dr. King had stumps in his way like Jim Crow Laws and Ku Klux Klan. He also threatened his family lives by getting threatening phone calls to kill them and bombs setting off in his house. He did various marches he didn¿t stop marching until the police got the dogs and hoses out. He was thrown in jail many times. One of his worst jail experiences was in Birmingham, where he wrote the Letter in Birmingham Jail. This book also talks about his famous I have a Dream Speech, which made an impact on society. Through it all he made it through the struggle and he became known as the Greatest Civil Rights Activist of all times.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2002

    From the Cotton Fields of Alabama to The Lorraine Motel, Memphis

    This treatise presents insights into the humanity of a martyr. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s human traits . . . stubborness, dedication, belief in the Almighty . . . that led inexorably to his death in Memphis in April 1968. 'I may not get there with you,' is perhaps the most prophetic announcement of a spiritual leader's discerned destiny since Jesus pointed to Judas the night before His betrayal

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 7, 2012

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