I’ve found myself in a similar boat as Ryan Florence who tweeted:
It's crazy how all I was taught [about the civil rights history] was “Rosa Parks decided to not change seats one day and then everybody was equal”.
As a starting point, I wanted to learn more about MLK. After a brief bit of research, I found this book was recommended as “King for Beginners”. It’s part of the Penguin Lives series, a collection of biographies on well-known figures in history. I’d read the Joseph Smith entry in the Penguin Lives series and found it to be a fair, unbiased (albeit shallow) work for such a controversial figure. I figured this entry for King would be a good place for me to start.
When I read books, I like to mark up the pages, then come back through my notes and write them down. This helps me remember points that struck me. With this book, I ended up borrowing a copy from my local library and I didn’t have the chance to mark it up. That said, I do have a few passages I wanted to note for future reference.
Right from the start, the author broaches the subject of King’s individual weaknesses and contrasts them with what he was able to do for society as an individual:
King would frequently deplore “the evils of sensuality,”...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 silly at variance, just did not rhyme, with his unrelenting public demeanor of gravitas. But as the reports continued to accumulate...they finally became too plentiful from too many responsible sources to be reasonably doubted...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...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...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, but 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 Vervantes knew—that while evil can wear the most civil and sensible and respectably recitudious demeanor, good can seem blunerous and uncertain, shockingly wayward, woefully flawed...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 tortuously complicated forms, our moral heroes—our prophets—actually come to us. (10)
One aspect of King’s mission I was less familiar with was his pivot from blacks’ civil rights in the south, to a much more broad venture on universal rights (attacking such things as poverty and the war in Vietnam). Specifically, after his enterprises in the south he turned to “the poor people's campaign” which was meant to address the country’s marginalized and outcast including poor whites, hispanics, and native americans:
[The Poor People’s Campaign planned to] mobilize into one wide popular front not only blacks but all the country’s disregarded and outcast—poor whites, Hispanics, Native Americans—in a great Ganhian crusade that would challenge the nation’s entire custodial complex, not just its corporate citadels but its central institutions of government, to free the destitute of America from their generational ghettos of hopelessness. And to “place the problem of the poor at the seat of government of wealthiest nation in the history of mankind,” King declared. (194)
And what happened to King’s venture into this universal civil rights? The author’s view remains relevant to all that’s happening in the world today:
From the start of the Chicago enterprise, there were uncertainties about just how successfully that movement could survive the shift from [the South] into the different climbs of the urban North. Bevel argued, “The real estate dealers in Chicago are the equivalent to Wallace and Jim Clark in the South,” and that “you don't even have to philosophize about housing in Chicago, you can show that on television.” Even so, King seemed to anticipate that matters would not be quite so plain in this effort: instead of any particular antagonist or egregious episodes of abuse, they would be “fighting the system” that had produced an interior Third World society of slums in America as “little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically.”
But in all this ambitious language about addressing “the system” lurked precisely the problem. In places like Birmingham and Selma, it was possible to present “a simplification of the issue,” the SCLC working paper conceded, “to the point where every citizen of good will, black and white, could respond and identify.” But the pattern of racism that permeated life in Chicago and the rest of the country, in jobs and housing and education, persisted apart from any overtly racist laws as in the South, no less profound for being more a disembodied system of custom and attitudes, but that making it far more elusive to engage—it was instead like some vague, malign smog.
King acknowledged that “deep prejudices and discrimination exist in hidden and subtle and covert disguises” in the North, and the “eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”
Strikingly relevant to today.
In summary, I really enjoyed this book and the author’s ability to illustrate how King was able to “quicken the nerves of society’s sense of life and possibilities, [he] opened up a nation’s collective experience to such an unaccustomed excitement and portent” (213). I don’t think King has been rivaled or matched as a figure in American history since his passing.