Martin Luther King Jr.

Courting Disaster
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 22 2002 12:26 PM

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Dear Debra,

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I enjoyed your first line. I guess I am a racist and an ageist—I don't like old white people telling me what to think. Not that Frady's that old or I'm that young. Some people might find us dead ringers, except that I haven't worn suspenders since my brief, ill-advised stint as a Chippendale dancer. But let's not talk about that.

Unfortunately for our editor and readers, I agree with just about every point you made. I try not to have too many heroes, but if you've got to choose one, this guy is about as close as you can get.

To be honest, I'm getting more interested in King the more I learn about him. I grew up with a healthy respect, and one of my earlier childhood memories is April 5, 1968—the day a newspaper brought desolation into our house. My simplistic respect started to deepen and spread the more I investigated his speeches, which I did when suddenly I had to write speeches on my own, in the White House of all places. Like you, I became more and more transfixed the more I waded into his stuff, and I read a lot—sermons, obscure speeches in foreign lands, and various writings for publication.

Where did his genius come from? It's hard to pinpoint. It's a highly personal combination of old-school evangelical patterns (repetition, call and response) and modern philosophical thinking of the midcentury—existentialism, Niebuhr, Tillich, and so forth. It's like half of him is saying, "Let's go!" and the other half is saying, "Slow down, I want to talk about the futility of the human condition for a while." No wonder he got into Gandhi.

I would argue something well beyond what we take for granted nowadays—that he was a great political and spiritual leader. I think he's one of the supreme stylists of the 20th century—that his speeches and writings are on a plane that very few Americans have attained. They're not all great—as you point out, he was a little too quick to borrow and some of his efforts fall flat. But that Letter From Birmingham Jail kicks me in the rear end every time I see it. It's awesome, in both the Wayne's World and the biblical senses of the word.

I was reading Taylor Branch's work as a comparison for the last couple of days, and there's a blurb from Garry Wills that I liked: "already, in this chronicle, there is the material of Iliad after Iliad." Homer knew that it's boring to achieve importance simply because you score some easy victory. What's interesting, in life and literature, is overcoming extraordinary adversity, time and time again. It's the nearness to disaster that we find compelling—and King was sitting on top of it his entire life. There's his Oedipal relationship with his father (sorry, I'm going a little nuts with the Greek thing), his melancholia as a child (yes, I thought the early suicide attempts were very weird), his obsession with his own death, and his strong urge to destroy everything he had built with his reckless personal behavior, even after being warned that the feds were listening in. You mention the sex, so I might as well offer my one thought on the matter, though I'd much rather not deal with it at all. But I find it striking—even pathological—that he was not content with the occasional affair or two—but seemed to be shacking up all the time, often several times in one night—as if he wanted to get caught. What's with that?

I'm glad you liked Frady's work on Jesse, which I have not read. Love him or hate him, Jesse has said a lot of important things since 1968, and I've always been impressed by his desire to move beyond the '60s issues and get into new areas like promoting diversity within Wall Street and the Fortune 500. King would have obviously approved, despite his distrust of Jesse (while we're on the subject, how strange was that assassination scene when Jesse immersed his hands in King's blood?).

For all the improvements in our civic life since 1968, King's late-career excoriation of corporate America still stings, especially this past week. Then, he was talking about the business engine behind the Vietnam War, but many of his more pointed observations still reverberate across a landscape of downsized factories and bankrupt Enron stockholders. To him (and Niebuhr too), it was plain commonsense that large structures that remove individual responsibility (i.e., governments and corporations) will not act as honorably as individuals unless they are compelled to by the right pressures. Thoreau couldn't have put it better.

You make a good point about feminism and civil rights. I don't think there's any disputing it, except to say that they were fighting one revolution at a time, and the feminist movement would not have happened without the earlier breakthroughs.

And I empathize with your survivor's guilt, except that I have an even worse predicament—just imagine growing up helplessly honky. But as Dr. King taught us, we all have to make our way in a lonely world, and I'm doing the best I can.

Best,
Ted

Ted Widmer recently publishedArk of the Liberties: America and the World. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton.

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