Thursday, August 12, 2010

MLK the human being

A review of Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life (2002)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those Americans like Ben Franklin, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and FDR, who, to me, were far too perfect to be interesting. When we learn about these people in grade school, we are taught about how awesome and nice they were to the point they become rather dull. When I got older and I started to read more about these people, I discovered their true greatness. King was probably the greatest American never to hold public office, yet, had had an effect on this country similar to that of Franklin Roosevelt or John Marshall. Unfortunately, like many great leaders of our past, King’s legacy now clouds the image of who the man was. When I read King's Autobiography, I felt I had come to a greater understanding of him as a person and his perspective on himself. Reading Marshall Frady's Martin Luther King: A Life has given me more of a clear image of who the man was and times that he lived. Frady's King is a man who, like all men, is flawed human being. Here he is presented as Oliver Cromwell once said 'with warts in all'. But even the 'sins' of Martin Luther King are very minor when compared to other American icons, and King clearly paid for them more then he should have in his war with J. Eager Hoover. The United States of America today is a very different place then it has been because King was a major player in his era.

In my very last post I had gone over some of the details of King's life and not wanting to be extremely redundant, I thought I would just go over what were, for myself, the highlights of this book. One of things America has learned since the sixties and seventies have become more history then memory for an entire generation of people, was the war between the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and Director of the FBI.

(A wife greets her husband)

J. Edger Hoover was a legend in the United States in the area of crime fighting. In 1924, Hoover was appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation, which was the predecessor of the FBI, and he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935. He would still be the Director when he died in 1972. Hoover is credited with building the FBI into a large and efficient crime-fighting agency and with instituting a number of modern innovations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories. Hoover’s efforts had put a huge dent into organized crime operations during his tenure. If he had stuck to actual criminals, his legacy would be untouchable as some of his legendary G-Men were. However, convinced through very little evidence-and much more racism and paranoia-that Civil Rights organizations were communist plots against the government and he would have to stop them. He would go out of his way to wage an irrational campaign against them.

(J. Edger Hoover in his early days)

“While King still had no inkling of it, there had in fact commenced what was to become a prolonged shadow war between him and Hoover. Though it would take place mostly out of the public eye, the two of them were to be looked into an elemental conflict as figures reflecting—more, virtually embodying—two poles of the American character: that ethic lasting Plymouth's starch-collared society of probity, discipline, righteousness as a matter of a ruthless cleanliness of behavior, this rectitudinousness in schizophrenic tension with an unrulier urge lasting from the frontier, a restlessness with authority and convention, a readiness for adventure in exploring the farther, windy moral opens of life. Since assuming power as director of the FBI in 1924, Hoover had not appreciably changed his notion of what should be the character of the nation—sedate, sober, orderly, and properly segregated, like his FBI—and he had ever since applied all the energies of the institution he had created to keeping it that way, to preserve the plainer America of his nostalgias against alien contamination and the subversions of more diverse cultural weathers. By the fifties, he had become for much of the country—this stubby, pluggish, stern little pug-bull of a man with a cauliflower pallor and flat, blunt face—a kind of totem figure of law and uprightness. In the process, he had consolidated the FBI into perhaps Washington's greatest private preserve of official power ever, his intelligence files holding even many in the halls of government in fear.” p.81-2

(J. Edger Hoover at the height of his power)

The book also discuss the famous March on Washington in 1963. It discusses the event, the organizers, its purpose, and even some of the people who did not want it to proceed, including President Kennedy. Kennedy sometimes gets criticized for this but that is with hindsight being twenty/twenty. It is a great testament to those marched that day that not one act of violence occurred. Had there been a riot, it might have been a huge set-back for the movement. Fortunately the march was completely peaceful.

(King rallying the crowd)

“The mass pilgrimage into Washington had been entrepreneured by movement patriarch A. Philip Randolph, in concert with other leaders like King, and despite his crankiness about the SCLC's ascendancy after Birmingham, Roy Wilkins, to demonstrate the expanse and spirit of the movement with a colossal rally to appeal to Congress for passage of the public accommodations bill presented by Kennedy. The president himself, however, was more than a little edgy about it all, trying to dissuade the march's organizers with warnings, in a conversation with them beforehand, that thousands of demonstrators converging into the capital could be seen by Congress as an attempt at mob intimidation, resulting in their all losing the legislation he'd introduced, many on the Hill already looking for a pretext anyway to avoid supporting it. King offered the observation he had put to Birmingham's ministers: 'Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct-action movement which did not seem ill-timed. Some people thought Birmingham ill-timed.' To which the president rejoined, with a small smile, 'Including the Attorney General.'” p.121-2

There is a focus on King and his main competitor of ideas in the African-American community, Malcolm X. Frady discusses how King and Malcolm came from two very different walks of life.

“They were, King and Malcolm, really projections of two entirely different cultures. King's was a ministry congenial to his mostly churchly, respectably middle-class black constituency, eager to join in a coalition of purpose with the nation's white liberal establishment. But Malcolm was a prophet of another America, having arisen out of a childhood of cold miser that could not have been more unlike King's snugly privileged upbringing, and the vicious and gaudy hustler society of the black underclass in those mammoth ghettos of the North's 'great cities of destruction,' in E. Franklin Frazer's phrase. Such inner exiles lived without any sense of connection to the rest of the country, bereft of that sense of their individual worth without which 'they cannot live,' as James Baldwin wrote during the time, and 'they will do anything whatever to regain it. That is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.'” p.129

(This famous picture shows the two famous leaders meeting, they were together only for a brief moment)

As time went on a new battles emerged, King would go on and face new challenges as younger and more militant generation were rejecting his message of love for a Black Nationalist ideology that he was completely repulsed by.

“Yet King was to cast himself against all this anyway. He may have arrived with Birmingham and Selma at his apotheosis as the Mosaic figure leading his people out of the old Egypt of their bondage in the South, but with this grander aspiration 'to confront the power structure massively' on a national scale, he was entering full into his tragic arch.”p.169

There is also discussion of his last uncompleted mission in which he was going to challenge the great economic forces of our nation, a mission that he would be slain before he could truly begin.

“Thus, in the summer of 1967, King announced what would be the most expansively radical adventure of his life: a national movement called the Poor People's Campaign. It would mobilize into one wide popular front not only blacks but all the country's disregarded and outcast—poor whites, Hispanics, Native Americans—in a great Gandhian crusade that would challenge the nation's entire custodial complex, not just its corporate citadels but its central institutions of government, to free the destitute of America from their generational ghettos of hopelessness.” p.194

I highly recommend this work it is a great and fascinating look into one of the greatest leaders of any age. This book captures the highs, lows, battles one and battles lost in a career that challenged and changed a nation, the American Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.

{Video is from YouTube}

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