I have long been a fan of the Penguin Lives series. I love history, and enjoy reading about fascinating and impactful people, but simply dont’t have the kind of time I used to have available. Short interesting biographies allow me to dip into this genre without struggling through large tomes in short bursts over long periods of time.
I have a number of the volumes in this series and I have often wanted to use the volumes I have as topical blog content for holidays, anniversaries, historical dates, etc. But for the most part I have failed to get the timing right.
This year I once again determined to change that. So with the approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and February being Black History Month I decided to read the Penguin Lives volume Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life by Michael Frady.
It turned out different than I might have imagined – fascinating and surprisingly balanced but with a writing style that made it slow going at times.
Overall, I found it to be a nice introduction to the life of this towering figure and one that eschews hagiography and acknowledges both the strength and moral courage and the moral weaknesses of Dr. King.
In many ways the book is a study in contrasts: King’s rather ambivalent entry into the ministry and the fundamentally spiritual nature of his vision of racial progress; the power of such a moral calling toward the redemption of America’s ideal and the weakness of King in shouldering such a burden; the appeal of King to moderate whites and middle class blacks and the constant – and often understandable – temptation towards violence and reprisal; the symbol King became to the larger world and the eventual splintering of the civil rights movement.
Frady isn’t writing a hit piece on MLK, far from it, but he does a good job of highlighting the messy nature of history – great men are rarely simple. To capture some of the complexity and messiness of this history in a couple hundred pages is quite an accomplishment.
From the beginning there was a fragileness to King and the movement he ended up leading at least symbolically. Born the middle child in a middle class family in Atlanta, King was a precocious child. His father clearly wanted him to continue in the family business but King had doubts both intellectual and spiritual. King seemed to have a hunger for knowledge from an early age and finished his education with both a divinity degree but also a PhD from Boston University. King had a way with words and imagery but struggled with accusations of plagiarism his entire life.
King also seemed to have had a penchant for sexual escapades his entire life. While in Boston Farady argues that he had a long term relationship with a white woman whom he seemingly loved dearly. He refused to break off the relationship for some time but eventually did so and married Correta Scott. His marriage did not put an end to the sexual adventures, however, and it is rather shocking – to me at least – to read about King engaging in this sort of behavior the very night he died. The heoric martyr jumping from bed to bed in a sort of mania only to be shot down on a hotel balcony.
King was pulled into the civil rights movement while a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. And it seems that during that famous bus boycott King came to grips with his calling and the nature of the fight ahead. At some point he decided that God had called him towards something larger than himself and that his doubts did not negate this deep spiritual connection.This calling would end up a very heavy burden and the weight of it all was never far from King but he felt he simply had to persevere. A melancholy and sometimes fatalistic pallor may have fallen over King on a regular basis but he pushed on as best he could.
Alongside this melancholy, however, shone the pure moral idealism of the message. Unique to King was the belief that success came not from simple power or violence but from a holy calling to non-violence and love. King sought to call America to its ideals; to call it to a higher vision of human relations where power and greed were not the only currency. In a sense, King wanted to both shame whites into change but also to cushion the blow with understanding and even love.
This sort of revolution was fragile because while it had a universal appeal due to its moral purity it also had a otherworldly nature – the temptation was constantly there to abandon a spiritual calling and simply fight fire with fire; power with power; violence with violence. It is ironic that the civil rights movement achieved what it did in many ways because of this unique world view but that it also splintered when this view no longer seemed to work.
And King’s own power began to wane when he took this spiritual calling to its logical extreme with the war in Vietnam and a sort of Christian socialism. The anger and pathos of the northern urban core for example did not fit as well with King’s vision. And the youth began to reject his world view and his leadership in important respects. He was always under pressure from whites refusing to give an inch and willing to fight every compromise on one side and blacks, fed up with the slow progress and a lack of action, who wanted to radicalize the movement.
I don’t really know enough about the events involved or the Civil Rights movement to assess the accuracy of the book.
For some perspective on Frady’s take and themes it might be helpful to quote from Scott Malcomson in his New York Times Review. Malcomson wonders about the need for another volume on King but believe there will be some appeal for a volume like this one. But then expresses some doubt about Frady’s contribution:
There is some danger in this appeal, because although Frady’s book reads like a rather detached biography, it is really (like most of the volumes in the Penguin Lives series of which it is a part) an essay. Frady has a thesis: that King ”somehow felt, in his oldest moral workings, that he must continually experience sin to continuously know the soul-regenerating wonder of forgiveness and redemption.” ”It may not be too fanciful to suggest,” Frady continues, that King ”was driven to crucify himself over and over again on a cross of guilt with his secret licentiousness in order to renew his soul with the experience of yet another resurrection into grace and restoration to his high calling.”
Frady does not so much argue this guilt thesis as place its markers here and there through the narrative. Oddly, quietly, they support another theme of Frady’s story: that King was essentially a creature of circumstance, pressed into shape by events, often timid though also brave in a self-dramatizing way.
To that I would respond: fair enough, but that doesn’t prevent this from being an engaging and interesting read. And I think it is useful in that it is likely to prod readers to dig deeper and explore the larger opus surrounding King. I think most readers approach a series like Penguin Lives in this fashion.
So whether you are knowledgeable about the subject, or want to learn more, I recommend both this series and this book.
History is indeed messy, and prophets and heroes are rarely simple, but in the hands of skilled writers and thinkers this only makes the past more interesting. Or at least to me.