The last thing Martin Luther King did in this lifetime was ask for a song. Leaning on the railing of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he called out to his friend, saxophonist Ben Branch, who was in the parking lot, waiting with other friends for King to come downstairs. Branch was to play that night at an event in support of a janitors’ strike. In his sonorous preacher’s voice, King asked him to play his favorite negro spiritual, Take my Hand, Precious Lord. Mahalia Jackson had sung it many times for him. King was wearing his usual dark formal suit. Someone told him to put on a coat. As King turned to enter the room, a single shot rang out. Suddenly King was on the balcony floor, hunched over, on his side, bleeding profusely from the wound that tore into his jaw and neck. When his friend Ralph Abernathy knelt over him, his eyes were wide, but he had already passed out.
I have read these details once more in a new biography of King, by Jonathan Eig, which in the account of King’s final hours becomes more laconic, a bare statement of the facts. It was April 4, 1968. King had turned 39 on January 15. He was much younger than in the photos and documentaries. He was also quite a bit shorter than he appeared in them. A few years earlier, he had had a conversation with a screenwriter interested in writing a film about his life. The writer asked him, when they were discussing possible plot lines, “And how does the story end?” And King replied matter-of-factly: “With my death.”
There are a few novels that I continue to read over and over again throughout my life. With the same insistence I return to certain biographies, to readings about periods of the past, almost always the same ones, those that comprise that “brief 20th century” that according to Eric Hobsbawn began in 1914. In the civil rights movement in the United States there were many figures, men and women, known and unknown, apart from King, who reached an admirable stature. But King’s very short life, the 12 years of his incessant activism, from the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery in 1956 to that workers’ strike in Memphis, sums up a tragic experience that brings together heroism and the incurable anguish of a human being as fragile inside as any other, subjected to internal and external tensions that often dragged him above his will and expectations, due to the overwhelming role of leadership that had fallen upon him by chance. In King’s biographies, historians’ rigor has sometimes stopped at the limit of reverence for his figure. But his streaks of promiscuity had always been known, exploited to the point of slander and blackmail by the FBI, which for years had been spying on his every step and recording his telephone conversations.
Now those infamous tapes, now declassified — a few remain to be made public in 2027 — are a prime source for historians, though in some cases they also confront them with the sobering evidence that Martin Luther King was not a pious, heavenward-eyed saint, but a man with a taste for life’s earthly pleasures, including food and sex. He was also an old-fashioned Baptist minister, with stale ideas about the different roles of men and women in the family and in public life.
The lives of the past change with each reading, as times change. Jonathan Eig is more sensitive than other biographers to the subservient role King assigned to his wife, Coretta, despite his love and intellectual respect for her, and to the collective reluctance of the movement’s male leaders to recognize the value of the women in it. Rosa Parks, who had ignited the first spark of the rebellion by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, never got the credit she deserved. Jonathan Eig recounts that at the final act of the March on Washington in August 1963, at which all the speakers were men, Parks was allowed little more than the time to say “good afternoon, welcome to all.”
In our narcissistic age there is very little interest in studying history, although much effort goes into erecting courts of accusation over the characters of the past. Originating in Southern Baptist churches, the civil rights movement left little room for women and was hostile to homosexuals, which is why James Baldwin was not allowed to speak at the final act of the march on Washington. Coretta Scott King largely gave up her singing career to raise her children and offer unconditional love to a husband who loved and admired her and needed her encouragement. He was also repeatedly unfaithful, FBI spies attested with sordid satisfaction. Those spies never bothered to investigate the daily death threats he received, nor were they able to protect him from his killer. It is instructive to observe the prejudices and mistakes of admirable people from the past, especially if it helps us not to feel superior, but to accept the possibility that we too suffer from prejudices that seem invisible to us. We must be very careful not to feel superior to people who suffered much more than us and whose effort, heroism and sacrifice made there be a little less injustice and cruelty in this world.
The cause of justice and equality is expansive. When Martin Luther King joined the Montgomery bus boycott, the protesters’ demands were modest: that Black travelers be allowed to sit anywhere on the bus, that the company hire some Black drivers. The authorities’ refusal and the brutality of the police ignited the protest’s spirit. Martin Luther King began by aspiring to the legal equality that the end of segregation would bring: little by little he realized that poverty and social injustice were even more powerful forms of segregation and demanded profound social changes beyond just legal measures. His growing radicalism was fueled by the prophetic enthusiasm of his faith, and by a kind of personal fatalism that disillusionment and exhaustion aggravated in his later years. He felt that the injustice and the violence, the sheer racial hatred, were more powerful than he had imagined, and that the fight would never end. He had no strength left. In the last sermon of his life, the night before he died, he said that he was not afraid of anything or anyone and that he had seen the promised land from afar. I don’t know how many times I have seen his serious and sweaty face that penultimate night. His words shake like the voice of Mahalia Jackson singing Take my Hand, Precious Lord.
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