Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a journalist for Newsweek, and while still in his twenties, Marshall Frady witnessed history. He was sent into the American South in the 1960s to cover the Civil Rights Movement, and in that capacity he had the privilege to meet some of its mightiest advocates, not to mention its staunchest opponents. He could not boast of an intimate friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., the man whose name and visage are now synonymous with that movement, but Frady had met him on several occasions, interviewed him, and could justifiably say that he knew the man himself. And perhaps this distance is to Frady’s benefit, for part of his project in Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life is restoring to us “the man himself,” who has been “abstracted out of his swelteringly convoluted actuality into a kind of weightless and reverentially laminated effigy of who he was.” In Frady’s beautiful phrasing, “to hallow a figure is almost always to hollow him,” and few 20th century figures are more worth remembering, in their entirety, than Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Frady, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born to a Baptist minister in the American south, granting both men relatively privileged upbringings, but it is here that the similarities end, for Frady and King were born on opposite sides of “the color line,” that invisible and yet potent barrier that confined black men and women to a life of subjugation and petty humiliations. King himself was not initially aware of his status as a second-class citizen; among his black peers in Atlanta, his family enjoyed a measure of economic comfort and prestige (owing to his father’s role in the church) that placed them in the upper echelons of black Southern society. But when he was six years old, he and his white friends were sent to separate schools, and every visit to the white sections of the town came with painful reminders of the potency of white racism. According to Frady, he was something of a middling student as a child, “with an indifference to spelling and grammar that was to persist for the rest of his life,” but possessive of a “restless intelligence” and so enamoured of the spoken language, as transmitted to him through his father’s sermons, as well as those delivered by visiting preachers, that he expressed, very early on, a desire to follow in their path. “Someday I’m going to have me some big words like that,” he told his mother. An indication of his progress, and of how hard he worked on cultivating his speech, came in middle school, when a teacher asked the young Martin how he was doing. He replied: “Cogitating with the cosmic universe, I surmise that my physical equilibrium is organically quiescent.” It is no common thing to accuse a middle school student of prolixity!

Frady also notes a curious psychological tendency in the young Martin, one that would perhaps shape his destiny.

He early showed an inordinate compulsion to take on himself great cargoes of guilt – which impelled him, twice before he was thirteen, to bizarre gestures of suicide, both times leaping out of a window over an unbearable grief about his grandmother, whose most cherished grandchild he always knew he was.

Much later on, while bracing against violent backlashes in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and witnessing the incredible physical suffering of the brave men and women marching alongside him, he would again succumb to overwhelming guilt: what right did he have to make them suffer the fire hose, the cattle prod, the night stick, on his behalf? What would he tell them if nothing came of their suffering but prolonged and greater suffering? It is to this sense of guilt, the quintessentially Christian sense of his own imperfection, that Frady attributes King’s chronic infidelity. Towards the end of his life, when the demands of his movement take him all across the country, King seems to have found paramours in every city in the country. (So notorious was his reputation as a womanizer that J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI and a notorious blackmailer, was able to capture some of his bedroom sessions on tape, and would ultimately send a recording of some of these, together with a letter ostensibly urging him to commit suicide, to King and his wife.) Perhaps, Frady argues, these affairs acted as a kind of psychic relief from the weight of his burden. Perhaps.

What I did not fully grasp, from my high school history lessons, was the extent to which King’s campaign floundered, both before and after his famous March on Washington. Nor did I fully comprehend the violent resistance of white Southerners to integration. I knew, for example, that fire hoses were turned on marchers, and many were beaten with clubs; I did not know about the numerous civil rights activists who were murdered, or about the use of cattle prods by police officers on peaceful demonstrators. As King would make explicit in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” it was not white racism alone, or even chiefly, that presented the problem, but the apathy of the general public. And as would be the case with Vietnam, broadcast television played an instrumental role in awakening America to its own brutality. King, Frady shows, was acutely aware of the importance these images played, and was calculating in his decisions about when and where to protest: the Bull Connors of the South, ironically, played right into King’s hands, providing him with the expected publicity he needed to win wider support for his cause.

Not all local forces were so gullible, however. In St. Augustine, Florida, one of the oldest cities in North America, the local powers, wary of the damage a civil rights standoff might do to their tourism industry, made a great show of their tolerance and desire for integration and agreed to meet with civil rights leaders to discuss reforms, “but when the black deputation entered the commission chamber at the desired time, they found only a tape recorder resting on an empty table, a city functionary instructing them to speak their grievances into the machine for later consideration by the commissioners.” Such disrespect was also typical of the Chicago mayor’s office, who were deeply resistant to any challenges to the status quo there, which was a less overt but no less damaging discrimination in housing, banking, and private and public hiring practices.

And with the FBI actively working for his resignation, and an almost daily deluge of death threats from inveterate white racists, King also had to contend with a younger generation of black Americans both less patient and less committed to non-violence, who were skeptical of his methods and often outright antagonistic to his leadership. No one better embodied their cause than Malcolm X, and the contrast between the two men – the mild-mannered, Bible-quoting King, and Malcom the firebrand Muslim convert with the hair-trigger temper – could not have been greater. Malcom was a mirror image of the racial hatred and intolerance that was America’s original sin, and Martin – for a brief period – was America’s conscience, its noblest and most articulate exponent of the country’s founding ideals. Frady’s brief biography does nothing to undermine this image of King, even as it fills in a great many details about the man himself.