We have too much embellished MLK’s short, troubled life

Salem, Va., 1/19/2015—Serving here at Roanoke College as visiting lecturer for the MLK Holiday, it occurs to me that there is a discomfiting gap between our impression of King and the actuality of the man.

Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 86 years old the other day, January 15.   As a pastor’s son growing up in the “Sweet Auburn” section of central Atlanta, pranking his friends and mimicking preachers with wicked accuracy, he’d had never dreamed that the day of his birth would be designated a federal holiday.

The best birthday present we could give to him is the truth:  Martin King was a factual human being, not tall, painfully vulnerable in appearance, given to a strange shyness and quiet demeanor in small public settings.

The grandiloquent trumpet within him that emerged, that made him larger than life, that sounded like an archangel of justice and mercy, that cast a spell over hard men and little children, and that brought down the walls of the Old Confederacy, was not heard while he enjoyed catfish and iced tea and gossip and ramblings with his close friends.

He was not the hagiographic image that is routinely co-opted by white apologists and black imitators.  King was certainly oratorically gifted and he relished a large church crowd.  But he was insecure about his own safety and he fretted about his sensitive, light-colored skin, which tended to rash late in the day.

Now we have the beatification of Martin Luther King Jr.—a real individual who had only some relationship with the champion we imagine.  The one person that would have stated that was the preacher himself.  Because now he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a grandfather.

In his 20’s, King discovered something within himself to elevate his hard, quick journey (some say it was his deep love of ideas) and his uncommon vision. In truth, King lived a short, brutal life, filled with prison stays, bouts of depression, fear, and threats. Yet he sat with presidents and helped rewrite the Constitution of the United States—in particular, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the groundbreaking 1965 Voting Rights Act.

He had very little time with his wife and children, never accumulated any personal wealth, fought his weight, cigarettes, and an unrelenting physical exhaustion. He was harassed by common criminals and by the FBI—an agency that once advised him to simply commit suicide.

He was afraid of the dark jail enclosures into which he was cast so often. He positively knew that, in the end, somebody would shoot him. He was plagued by guilt and anguish, believing he had caused too many people danger and hurt by pushing them into the cause.

He was ultimately reviled by many of his allies in the federal government, including President Lyndon B. Johnson—when he unilaterally stood up and took a strong moral position against the Vietnam War. M.L. King, child of a domineering father, spent his adulthood as a prisoner of his own passions and skills. He was often as unhappy as he was lofty.

Over the hasty thirteen years of revolutionary King’s Civil Rights Movement, 1955 to 1968, the somewhat stout, almond-eyed American visionary lived such a passage. The preacher would replicate Moses opposite many Pharaohs—from Birmingham police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor to Alabama Governor George C. Wallace to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Sr.

These were all Pharaonic stand-ins who assaulted King and so many brave Americans, from honchos to housewives, who withstood their succession of fire hoses, state segregation laws, and polite agreements to ban black people from housing and schools and a share in the national journey.

King’s birthday is history.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who’d have rather been here to teach it rather than to be it.