Leader in a Time of Change

Malik Miah

A Life
By Jonathan Eig
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 669 pages, $35 cloth.

“A SINGLE SHOT rang out.

“The bullet struck King in the face, ripped through his neck, and knocked him backward onto the balcony floor….He died there [St. Joseph’s Hospital] at 7:05 p.m. on April 4, 1968.” (Chapter 45: “Please Come to Memphis”)

The alleged killer, James Earl Ray, was across the street from the Lorraine Motel. He later claimed he acted alone. But no serious person believed that.

Ray was a lifetime petty criminal who had escaped from a Missouri prison in 1967. The gun used was bought in Alabama. The owner of a nearby restaurant later said there was a conspiracy to kill King, and Ray didn’t do it.

Ray eventually recanted his confession and said he was framed. Ray flew out of the country and later was arrested in the United Kingdom.

Biographer Johnathan Eig does not seek an answer to why Ray assassinated King. He does say that Coretta Scott King never believed that Ray acted alone.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, considered King “the most dangerous Negro” in the country. He had his agents spy on King, had secret tapes of him at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) offices, his home, and hotels when he traveled. This surveillance surely included the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Cities and towns around the country erupted after King’s assassination. Black people blamed the police, the city, and federal officials for their leader’s death.

A few days later Coretta Scott King led a march in Memphis in support of the Black community and the sanitation workers whose strike King had come to support.

New Research

For his new biography of Martin Luther King, fomer Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Eig conducted more than 200 interviews, including with scores of people old enough to have known or observed King.

He pieced together numerous accounts gathered by other journalists and scholars, some of them never published before. It includes FBI secret tape recordings, although full FBI surveillance documents will not be available until 2027.

While much can be said of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, it is worth noting that he lived and acted for the movement first and last. He never believed the struggle was about himself.

The money King earned from giving speeches or from prizes all went back to the movement. By choice, he never owned a house. His family rented a modest home.

African Americans had little political or economic power — and not only in the Deep South, where whites denied Black people even basic dignity, but in the entire country. King understood that only mass struggle could convince the white powers to accept fundamental change.

Historic Laws and King Holiday

Among the many transformational firsts in King’s lifetime, the legal changes that mattered happened in a span of four years.

Two days after King’s funeral, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act enacted by Congress. It capped the historic laws — the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act — that marked the legal end of Jim Crow segregation.

In November 1983 the right-wing president, Ronald Reagan, signed the Martin Luther King holiday into federal law, after 15 years of organizing efforts.

King became the first and only African American to receive that honor. The bill was first introduced in Congress, four days after King’s death, by Black Detroit Congressman John Conyers.

Asked by a reporter about King’s alleged connections to ‘Communist influence,” the staunch anti-communist Reagan replied that we’d see in 35 years when all the FBI files are released.

So why then did Reagan sign? By then, in fact, Republicans and Democrats had sanitized King’s views to make them more palatable to mainstream white Americans.

They presented King’s goal of a nonracial society as what the country has always stood for. The truth about U.S. history was dismissed (or as Nikki Haley just reaffirmed, the United States “was never a racist country” and the Civil War maybe wasn’t, or maybe was, about slavery).

The conventional narrative made King a “moderate” in contrast to militant figures like “un-American” Malcolm X. Yet King always tied the issue of ending Jim Crow legal racism to jobs and economic equality.

The famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was about more than ending segregation. It was part of a plan of action, aiming to pressure the government to pass new legislation and to fight poverty.

King supported reparations and affirmative action programs to make up for unpaid wages never paid to enslaved people.

As Eig and other biographers and journalists have written, King always anticipated dying young in the struggle to end racism and oppression. He counted on being protected by his people and friends. He foretold his own death in his speech “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” the night before he was murdered.

King was arrested 29 times for his civil rights activities; his home was bombed in January 1956 in Montgomery.

Changing the Country

King was a central leader of the civil rights revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. He didn’t choose to be that leader. Once put there, however he did so in a disciplined manner.

Eig notes that Martin Luther was not his original name. It was “Michael” like his father’s first name. Then his father went to Germany in 1934, saw where the original Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation, and came back to Atlanta and legally changed his and his young son’s name to “Martin Luther.”

King Jr. attended Morehouse College at age 15, planning to be an academic and a Baptist minister like his father. He completed graduate studies at Boston University and received his doctorate in systemic theology in 1955.

Events changed his life. He joined the fight by accident In Alabama, in 1955, just having received his first posting as head preacher in Montgomery. He joined his friend and fellow preacher there, Ralph Abernathy.

Although King grew up in a Black middle-class family in Atlanta and had always said he would lead a life to end Jim Crow segregation (today it would be called an apartheid system), he didn’t know leadership would happen so soon.

Montgomery’s local leaders — E.D. Nixon, union organizer and president of the local NAACP; Rosa Parks, seamstress and NAACP local secretary, and Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council and professor of English at the Alabama State College — had planned actions to protest segregation on city buses. That’s the background story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the front of the bus to a white man.

The leaders and community selected the well-educated and articulate King to be the public face of the movement. They set up a new group, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King took charge from that day on, spearheading the historic bus boycott that changed history.

A Christian Fight for Justice

The SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council) was subsequently organized to help local organizations fighting segregation.

King’s vision, as Eig writes, was based on the Black Christian church ideology (later described by some as liberation theology) of “love your enemy” but fight racial injustice.

The white Baptist Christian view, in contrast, said segregation was not a religious issue but a reflection of the “Southern way of life.”

In the segregated community where King grew up and his father was head minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the middle class was primarily of those educated people in the Black churches, colleges, and other all-Black institutions. The majority of Black people worked subservient jobs in white-owned businesses or white family homes.

Although King interacted with northern whites in integrated settings in his graduate studies in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, he knew his life was in the South even though he briefly dated a white woman and had job opportunities in the North.

New Material

For a better understanding of King’s role and centrality, this new biography is an important resource.

Eig references previous authors’ works and, more importantly, unpublished FBI secret tapes and documents, as well as unpublished memoirs from his father “Daddy” King and others.

The tapes made by J. Edgar Hoover’s agents were aimed to prove King was a tool of “communists” and bring to light King’s sexual affairs. For the FBI Director, these files proved King was a “notorious liar” and immoral.

After the successful 1963 march, the FBI declared King as “The Most Dangerous Negro” in the future for the nation. (Chapter 28: “The Most Dangerous Negro”)

Of course, the FBI targeted other Black leaders as the COINTELPRO files showed in the 1970s. African Americans have been seen as dangerous, or less than human, or both, since the country was founded.

Even though a 68-page internal report by Hoover’s own FBI task force said King was not under the influence of the Communist Party or socialists, he rejected it.

He pointed to Stanly Levison, a Jewish New York City attorney and businessman and active supporter of Black rights, who became a close adviser to King, as proof of this connection. (Levinson had been labeled a secret communist, which he denied.)

King also had a close adviser in Bayard Rustin, a well-known Black organizer and openly Gay man at a time when it was not safe to do so. (See Joel Geier’s review of the “Rustin” in our previous issue, ATC 228 —ed.)

Racist Violence and Nonviolent Struggle

Racial terror was pervasive in the South, where community leaders were targeted by white supremacists. Rarely were white terrorists arrested and if they were, all-white juries acquitted them.
Many FBI agents themselves were supporters of the KKK and White Citizen Councils. King did not trust them. He said the FBI agents were collaborators of those who attacked and killed Black people.

The book covers the FBI’s activities as well as the historic marches and protests of that period. It describes the Montgomery campaign in 1955-56 and how King advanced his philosophy of nonviolent mass direct action and civil disobedience.

Protesters were told not to resist police violence, but to get arrested and “fill the jail.” King himself did not see this philosophy just as a strategy or tactic because Black people were a minority. Others in the movement, however, saw it as tactical, and some believed in armed self-defense. (Chapter 17: “Alabama’s Moses”)

He had studied India’s Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign to end British colonial rule where the oppressed were a majority. King and Coretta went to India in February 1959 with other Montgomery Improvement Association leaders.

King later moved back to Atlanta where the head office of the SCLC was set up. He traveled the country giving speeches and raising money for the struggle. He also joined marches and protests, not only in the South but in northern cities like Los Angeles and Chicago where de facto segregation prevailed.

1967: Vietnam War Must End

While King’s focus was on the South, he also spoke out on other political issues. He spoke against the Vietnam War, first in 1965, even though friends like Levinson and Rustin thought it was a bad idea.

Yet it was Coretta Scott who spoke out first against the Vietnam War. She spoke at a rally organized in Chicago by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was the only woman speaker.

Two years later, King gave a sharply worded speech at the Riverside Church in New York. He called on President Johnson to end the war and called the United States “my country, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

King did so at a time when most opinion polls said support for the U.S. war was still quite high. SCLC’s entire Board opposed him giving the 1967 speech, saying it would harm his relationships with Johnson and other white supporters of civil rights. (Chapter 37: “A Shining Moment”)

But there were other young leaders from the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Ride campaigns who faced the draft and saw the Vietnam War as wrong. They believed that resources being wasted on the war should be spent in impoverished Black communities.

Leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were impatient with slow change, At the 1963 March John Lewis, then chairman, gave a militant speech (even though partly censored) telling the world that Black people had lost patience with the government and society for not ending racism.

King’s influence on up-and-coming young leaders was important. He listened to them, even though he didn’t always agree, and never talked down to them.

It included leaders like John Lewis, and later the second chair of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure). Carmichael was the first to shout the slogan “Black Power” during a march (which King never criticized as others attacked the demand as “Black separatism”).

Women in Leadership

Women’s role as leaders in the movement was more complex. Women had always played powerful roles, but rarely given the main leadership position. With the influence of the women’s movement in the 1960s, Black women’s leading role in the civil rights movement became visible but not really understood or supported by most men.

King, as Eig explains, did not accept women as frontline leaders even if they were strong organizers. For example, Ella Baker was a co-founder of the SCLC and central to its development. But King never saw her as Executive Director, even as she did the work.

There were no scheduled women speakers at the 1963 March, even though a few would be acknowledged from the platform.

After King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King was able to step forward and become more of a public leader. She had always told family, friends and journalists that she regarded herself as co-partner in the movement alongside her husband.

1964 Nobel Peace Prize

In December 1963 King was the first Black person named as “Man of the Year” by Time magazine. The year began with the Birmingham campaign and its victory, followed by President Kennedy’s assassination and President Johnson’s decision to advance the Civil Rights Act that Kennedy had pushed.

A year later in 1964 King won the Nobel Peace Prize, the second African American to do so. He won it for his dynamic leadership of the civil rights movement. Jim Crow still had not been slain but was weakened. (Chap:ter 31: “The Prize”)

Eig doesn’t engage in speculation about what King might say or do if he were still alive today. But that question isn’t merely academic. Like the parables he preached on Sundays, King’s words and legacy don’t exist in a historical vacuum.

The ongoing battles against police violence, the prison industrial complex, war and structural racism makes a study of King’s life and role especially useful for today’s political activists and fighters for change.

Politicians like Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis spout white nationalist ideology while pretending to be followers of King’s view on a nonracial country. He says teaching the truth about racism is “wokeism.” Books are banned that mention the history of racial discrimination.

While I would urge activists and students of Black history to read this book to appreciate the true legacy of a 20th century revolutionary, its overall value is making clear that no matter how much change takes place, so long as the capitalist system exists, there will be counter attempts by the white establishment to roll back the gains.

To go beyond democratic reforms and move toward anti-capitalist revolution requires mass political struggle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the country forever. The new biography tells a story that others have told but does so in a way that today’s activists and those wanting to learn “woke” history need to read.

Dedicating his life to the movement for fundamental change sets an example to be followed. I expect that this book will be banned in Florida.

King presente!

(Also see the following article, “King’s Real View of Malcolm X.”)

March-April 2024, ATC 229

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