A Short Biography of the Man with a Long-Term Dream

Article excerpt

It is perhaps one of the more unusual turns in American social history that Martin Luther King Jr. has a national holiday named in his honor and that he has become, in some quarters, a rather peculiar saint. As Marshall Frady points out in this new biography of King, part of the Penguin Lives series, "King has passed into the cloudy shimmers of a pop beatification, commemorated with parades, memorial concerts, schools and streets and parks named for him."

For many in the United States, and certainly for most schoolchildren, King symbolizes the civil rights movement, and this is both good and bad as an interpretive device. It admits of a certain kind of civic and political mythology that is dramatic and uplifting, but it tends to boil down to the life of one man a mass movement that involved many people and several different conflicting ideas and aims.

King's peculiarity as an American saint does not lie in the fact that, in this modern world of temptation and distraction, he lived a saintly life in any conventional understanding of the term. He was a compulsive philanderer, embarrassingly and dangerously so, and an egregious plagiarist. (While the theft of the words of others may have been excusable in the pulpit as, apparently, preachers do that sort of thing, it was clearly reprehensible in King's academic work.)

This thick thread of dishonesty in King's character is hardly held against him (except by rabid conservatives). For many, it makes him more human, as his battles with the demons of sensuality and intellectual misappropriation produced its share of guilt in a man who was enormously guilt-ridden. He was probably the first black man to achieve major status as an American political figure for whom the drama of his personal guilt - middle-class black sinner that he was - was so essential to his public and to his mission. He tried to commit suicide twice as a youth, a sign of holy neurosis, transcendent derangement, if ever there was one.

No, what makes King a peculiar saint is that he represented a leftist, nearly anarchic sense of reform that America, being at heart a conservative country that feels uncomfortable with its periods of moral and political excess, uneasily accepts as part of its centrist liberal doctrine of democratic renewal. So powerful is King's presence in shaping our understanding of our democratic liberalism that conservatives have even tried to adopt some version of him, usually by contorting his words instead of simply dismissing them, as they are apt to do with someone like, say, Paul Robeson or W. …