Martin Luther King Jr.

Explaining King's Carnal Pathology
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 22 2002 7:44 PM

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Dear Helpless Honky,

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We're going to have to find something to fight about (assuming, of course, that my salutation didn't do the trick). You know Kinsley's rule: "If Jerry Springer won't film it, we won't print it." C'mon. It's Black History Month—doesn't that piss you off? What will we whining victimologists want next: mortgages and auto loans at the white rate? When I was in the service in the '80s, I lived for February so I could be assured of a steady supply of whites complaining pitifully about the lack of White History Month. One year, I got to say, "Honey, try every month!" 15 times. Yippee!

On King's pathological schtupping; it's certainly a distasteful subject but nonetheless hard to ignore. It might have derailed the movement after all. As long as men are in positions of power (i.e., forever), pathological and paradoxical sexual patterns will continue to flummox the rest of us. (I suppose we radical feminists will know that we, too, have overcome when women both achieve sustained power and use it to get laid like carpets also, regardless of taste, marital status, or common sense. It will be interesting to see if the much touted Third Wavers are more randy and less circumspect—in other words, more free—than we old crones who knew that the more sex we had, the less we would be allowed to achieve.) It took me far too long to accept that Bill Clinton had actually, really and truly had an affair with an intern, especially that intern. No way would such a smart man, with such an instinct for self-preservation and so many implacable enemies, no way was he doing "that woman," that one that any moron could see was nothing but trouble in a big ole beret. Same with King.

Once he was presented with the evidence of Hoover's jihad, how could he even, ahem, manage the deed, let alone consider it? Gandhi went to bizarre extremes trying to confront and control his own carnal nature, as I recall, sleeping nude with his nubile young acolytes but not allowing himself to touch them. King, it seems, tried the opposite route—drowning himself in his own sexuality as a way of extinguishing it, perhaps? I tend to believe, given his melancholia, his entirely rational death obsession, and the enormous pressures he faced as both role model and leader, that he was addicted to the release that could only come when he wasn't able to think rationally. Also, I think that when he was having sex, he knew he was alive, instead of the emotional mummy avec forehead bull's eye that he had to be at all other times. Finally, I think it was his way of thumbing his nose at his own nobility for a minute, and a desperate ploy, as you suggest, to "get fired" as the plaster saint of civil rights. Whatever the truth, it's pathetic, and I still feel for the man (with all due respect to Coretta; in no way do I mean to dismiss his humiliation of her). It's especially poignant to read his veiled public references, in his speeches, to men who lead double lives and his assurances to his friends that he was going to give up his hound dog ways and, of course, never could.

I looked up Jesse Jackson's self-baptism with King's blood in Frady's bio of him (The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson). I must have missed an author's note somewhere. Here, Frady makes it clear that Jackson daubed himself with MLK's blood about an hour after the shooting (and, after, Andrew Young recounts that Ralph Abernathy used a dry cleaner's board to scrape King's blood into a jar). There, he makes clear that Jackson only pretended to have. Sheesh. What's worse than finger painting with a fallen martyr's blood, making the whole, sick thing up?

In the Jackson bio, Frady wrote:

Jackson's own first reactions [to the assassination] were to become a subject of furious dispute that would harry him throughout the following years. Undisputed is that it was Jackson who first succeeded in getting through to King's wife. … Later, a solitary reporter, waiting in the wanly lit hush outside the hospital morgue where King's body lay, saw Jackson go in with [others] for a last, brief visit. But then, late that night, Jackson fled back to Chicago, stretches of which were already burning. The next morning, he appeared on the Today show, and later, before a special memorial convocation of Chicago's city council … Jesse … told [the mayor] he wanted to say something. ... But he delivered these remarks while still wearing, as he had during his Today interview, the olive turtleneck sweater from the night before, only it was now blotted with blood that he declared was King's: "I come here with a heavy heart because on my chest is the stain of blood from Dr. King's head. … He went literally through a crucifixion. I was there. And I'll be there for the resurrection." But he had also by now, in random brushes with the press, indicated that he was the last person King had spoken to, and once even, as if presenting his own kind of a pieta, that he had actually held King as he was dying. … If the rest of King's troupe of assistants had never been particularly charmed by Jackson to start with, most of those who'd been at the Lorraine Motel that evening were apoplectic when they learned of his claims.

I, like you, think the Reverend's mistakes unfairly overshadow his hefty contributions, but lordy, lordy, I hope he's spent his time on his knees asking forgiveness for that one if it's true that he made something so awful up. I don't know whether to hope it's true or hope it's false.

Since we can't seem to disagree on much, let me continue in your thoughtful vein to agree that MLK was a man of true vision. What speaks to me about him is how much he required of both blacks and whites. He was truly transracial, hence his embrace of the white poor and the hapless Vietnamese. He didn't think whites qua whites were the problem (à la pre-hajj Malcolm X), it was the privilege and the power that warps man's true nature. In that insight lies the obvious, heartstopping truth that, were blacks on top, we might well be equally racist and soul-destroying; that both history's villains and its victims, given the proper circumstances, might do-si-do and change places. I tend to think so. Greed leads to the quest for power. Power leads to corruption and self-aggrandizement. When I'm overwhelmed by my grievances against men and whites and the rich, I hear him nagging me, saying, "Never let anyone bring you so low as to make you hate them." If you can't hate someone who vexes you, then you have to do the work to understand what makes him behave the way he does. And if you understand someone, and how he's befouled himself, don't you then have to pity him? Help him back to his true nature? Martin did. Damn him. It's so much easier to hate, to think you're better than the folks who don't look like you.

That's why I revere Martin Luther King Jr. Because he calls out the best in me, no matter how hard I try to be small. He keeps me honest and my eyes on the prize of full humanity.

Thanks, Ted, for helping me keep him alive. See ya next February.

The Know-It-All Negro,
Debra

Debra Dickerson is the author of The End of Blackness andAn American Story.

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