Monday, August 9, 2010


A review of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1998)

Edited by Clayborne Carson

(Rating 5 of 5)

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. is an incredible work; however one needs to remember that it is not a real autobiography. Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, it was written after he died. It was assembled by the editor, Clayborne Carson, who went over King's papers both public and personnel and edited his work into a biographical format. The book received the endorsement of Coretta Scott King in 1998. The book is a brilliant piece of literature. Carson is careful to let the reader know what the material is and is not edited. When he takes Dr. King’s words directly and unaltered he puts them in italics, so the reader knows for certain that he is getting pure primary material.

(Martin Luther King Jr.)

King is a combination of many influences though out his life, he begins by talking about his boyhood growing up in the segregated south, where his father was a preacher in the local church. Martin Luther King, Sr. was a take-no-crap-from-anyone type of guy, which was hard for a black man in the segregated south. His mother, Alberta Williams, he describes as being more of a gentle soul whom a lot of his patience would come from. As the Pastor's son he had a type of special status within the local community. He describes his first experience with racism at the age of six when his white friend told him that his (the white boy’s) father would not let them be friends anymore because he was black. As the book goes on King discusses his education and how the works of different scholars and philosophers had upon his world view, whether Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Marx or Mahatma Gandhi.

(King's parents Martin Sr. and Alberta.  Like her son Alberta also became a martyr.)

King discussed meeting his future wife, getting married, and the hard decision to go back to the segregated South. King would take the ministry at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and from there he would build an activist base. He encouraged his membership to register to vote and to join the NAACP. When the now internationally famous Rosa Parks refused to get from her seat, she started a movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott did not even start out as a movement to end segregated bussing, just as a movement for more fair treatment. It was not until the outrageous response by those in power backed by the majority of the white community that caused the movement to push further. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a form of nonviolent protest that was inspired by the Mahatma Gandhi and Christian doctrine.

(Coretta Scott King)

“As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating thought the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom. About a week after the protest started, a white woman who understood and sympathized with the Negroes' efforts wrote a letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser comparing the buss protest with the Gandhian movement in India. Miss Juliette Morgan, sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community, but long before she died in the summer of 1957 the name of Mahatma Gandhi was well known in Montgomery. People who had never heard of the little brown saint of India were now saying his name with an air of familiarity. Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.” p.67

(Mahatma Gandhi)

After victory was achieved in Montgomery, King became internationally famous. This was both a blessing a curse at the same time. A blessing in the way he was now able to carry his message to a much larger audience, but a curse in the way that it set some impossible standards for him to meet in future struggles. King would travel the world eventually going to India, the home of his idol. He was very pleased by what he saw when he got there.

“That night we had dinner with Prime Minister Nehru; with us as a guest was Lady Mountbatten, the wife of Lord Mountbatten, who was viceroy of India when it received its independence. They were lasting friends only because Gandhi followed the way of love and nonviolence. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.” p.125

At home things were heating up, as the fifties, which had seen some very positive developments such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Brown v. the Board of Education, rolled into the sixties things were going to began to move at a much faster pace. Also, 1960 was a presidential election year, with two candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were trying for the nation's top job.

“With Mr. Kennedy, after I looked over his voting record, I felt at points he was so concerned about being president of the United States that he would compromise basic principles to become president. But I had to look at something else beyond the man—the people who surrounded him—and I felt that Kennedy was surrounded by better people. It was on that basis that I felt that Kennedy would make the best president.

I never came out with an endorsement. My father did, but I never made one. I took this position in order to maintain a nonpartisan posture, which I have followed all along in order to be able to look objectively at both parties at all times. As I said to him all along, I couldn't, and I never changed that even after he made the call during my arrest. I made a statement of thanks, and I expressed my gratitude for the call, but in the statement I made it clear that I did not endorse any candidate and that this was not to be interpreted as an endorsement.

I had to conclude that the then known facts about Kennedy were not adequate to make an unqualified judgment in his favor. I do feel that, as any man, he grew a great deal. After he became president I thought we saw to Kennedys—a Kennedy of the first two years and another Kennedy emerging in 1963. He was getting ready to throw off political considerations and see the real moral issues. Had President Kennedy lived, I would probably have endorsed him in 1964. But, back at that time, I concluded that there was something to be desired in both candidates.” p.150

(Kennedy and Nixon who both sought King's support in 1960)

As the battles raged on they moved to a new and more dangerous front, Birmingham, it was here that a great amount of the famous images of dogs and people attacked with high pressure water hoses were captured. In this fight King would be imprisoned and while in jail, he had been criticized by a letter written by a group of white clergy. King responded with his famous 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.'

“First I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed in the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers the a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive which is the presence of justice, who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal that you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” p.195

(King in Washington)

“You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of 'somebodiness' that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist movement groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammed’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible 'devil.'” p.196-7

As his work continued things started to change. King’s main rival as the primary leader in the struggle for civil rights, Malcolm X, was becoming more popular. The primary difference between the two men was that Malcolm X was an advocate for violent resistance. In some ways he was a help to King, because he represented what the alternative to King's message was. However, as a proponent of violence, he attracted it in kind and otherwise alienated members of the white community who might have otherwise been sympathetic.

“Malcolm X came to the fore as a public figure partially as a result of a TV documentary entitled 'The Hate That Hate Produced.' That title points clearly to the nature of Malcolm's life and death. He was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro's blighted existence in this nation. He, like so many of our number was a victim of the despair that inevitably derives from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf that masses of our race. But in his youth, there was no hope no preaching, teaching, or movements of nonviolence. He was too young for the Garvey Movement, too poor to be a Communist—for the Communists geared their work to Negro intellectuals and labor without realizing that the masses of Negroes were unrelated to either—and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression. He turned first to the underworld, but this did not fulfill the quest for meaning which grips young minds. It was a testimony to Malcolm's personnel depth and integrity that he did not become an underworld czar, but turned again and again to religion for meaning and destiny. Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his meaningless assassination.” p.267

(Malcolm X)

As time went on the rise of Black Nationalism, which was abhorrent to King, was growing stronger. Even though the Civil Rights Movement had achieved incredible success, the Civil Rights Act in 1964 had been passed and was breaking down the wall of legalized segregation, some felt unsatisfied. The 'black power' movement, King felt was trying to undo what he had achieved. King began to envision a 'poor people's campaign' that would use the strategy of Civil Rights Movement to achieve economic justice for all citizens of all races. How successful he would have been is unknown because that is where his story untimely ends.

{Video was posted by MrCarlosBarrera on YouTube}

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