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Uneasy Holiday

How should we honor a man we still don't know?


There was always a special patriotism to the speeches of Martin Luther King. No other American orator could bring audiences to their feet by reciting three full stanzas of “My Country, Tis of Thee.” From there he often soared across the American landscape in perorations calling on freedom to ring “from the granite peaks of New Hampshire . . . from the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania . . . from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado . . . from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee! Let it ring . . . from Stone Mountain in Georgia!” On through Southern states in whose capitol buildings black people dared not seek a drink of water. King rang freedom bells, touching his audiences with ecstatic boldness. “And when that happens,” he said finally, “all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants— will be able to go ahead and sing with new meaning, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty I’m free at last!”

On January 20, King’s own name will be tolled from those hilltops. Children will let fly balloons in Maryland and Arizona. World leaders will pay their respects at his tomb in Atlanta, and pilgrims will retrace the steps of his marches. By act of Congress, duly signed by the president, his birthday will be celebrated as our tenth federal holiday on the third Monday of this and every succeeding January. Officially, Kings Birthday joins New Year’s Day, Christmas, Labor Day, Independence Day, and the other five working days on which the government closes its doors.

The enshrinement is a remarkable phenomenon. It is accomplished less than 18 years after King’s murder, in the month when he would have turned but 57 years of age. By contrast, George Washington’s birthday was not made a federal holiday until 1879, 80 years after his death. The gestation period for Columbus Day was 176 years, from its origins in 1792 as a private festivity at Tammany Hall to its official adoption by Congress in 1968. Lincoln, whose birthday is celebrated in 32 states, came closest to federal recognition in 1920, but Southerners killed the House bill in the Senate.

Ironically, the creation of the holiday owes something to a negative trend in contemporary race relations. In 1983 the Reagan administration was proposing tax exemptions for segregated schools, delaying an extension of the Voting Rights Act, and mounting an attack on all affirmative action programs as “”quotas,”” which exacerbated antagonisms between blacks and Jews. Some Republican leaders, fearing that their entire party was headed toward extinction among black voters, resolved to make amends for these injuries with a holiday. The leaders of the King Holiday Commission are aware of such limitations to their support. They know they are not riding an unmixed tide of national sentiment, and that some of King’s admirers and detractors alike regard his new day as a political gesture, a throwaway holiday for blacks. In death as in life, King’s followers struggle for recognition while King himself reaches for something deeper and almost unfathomable. All this makes for an uneasy new holiday, mysterious in origin and meaning.

Even in the context of previous holiday politics, the enactment of the King holiday legislation in 1983 stands out as a paradox. It was both routine and explosively controversial. With scarcely a flicker of outside notice, the bill reached the House floor under a suspension of the rules and passed 338 to 90. Howard Baker, then the Senate’s Republican leader, decided to bypass the Senate committee process and place the House bill directly on the voting calendar, in a procedure normally reserved for minor business. The bill passed 78 to 22. Every Southern Democrat except John Stennis of Mississippi voted for it. So did Strom Thurmond, Jeremiah Denton, and Paul Laxalt--three of the four conservative Republicans who had issued a report opposing the holiday as premature and too costly. The minority opposition was concentrated in the arid Western states, where black voters are rare. President Reagan signed the measure less than three months after it came to the House.

Contempt for King still exists. It flashed during the Senate’s consideration of the holiday legislation in 1983, giving evidence that the quiet dispatch of that business was anything but routine. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina attacked King as a communist sympathizer or worse, and in seeking to open sealed FBI files on King he relished the point that it was a liberal attorney general, Robert Kennedy, who had authorized the original wiretaps.This provoked an emotional response from Senator Edward Kennedy. “If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would be the first person to say that it was wrong ever to wiretap Martin Luther King,” he declared. When Helms doggedly challenged the Senate to debate the secret history of those wiretaps. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan flung Helms’s packet of FBI material to the Senate floor with an angry shout that it was “filth.” There were gasps from the gallery when Senator Bill Bradley said that it was impossible for him to give Helms “the due respect of a colleague.” Speakers on both sides acknowledged an “atmosphere of tension” on the Senate floor. It was due, one Senator said edgily, to “a number of circumstances that we are all aware of.” Race, scandal, war, communism, money, religion--all the most volatile subjects of political discourse converged to shake the Senate briefly from its famous languid decorum.

President Reagan performed no better at his press conference that same day. When a reporter asked whether he thought King had been a communist sympathizer, the president replied, “Well, we’ll know in about 35 years won’t we?” He meant that the answer had to await the court-ordered date for the unsealing of the FBI bugging material. This fatuous remark so stunned the assembled reporters that there followed only one feeble question about “’where the logic is here.” President Reagan, while announcing that he would sign legislation honoring King above nearly all the Founding Fathers, reserved judgment about King’s basic loyalty to the country.

The press conference backed swiftly away from a moment that was not only searingly awkward but fundamentally misinformed. The sealed records from King’s FBI file do not address the question of King’s political allegiance. Those records, by the tens of thousands of pages, are available for public inspection in the FBI Reading Room. The sealed ones are about King’s personal life, especially his extramarital sex life, as intercepted by FBI bugs and wiretaps. Out of ignorance, or perhaps extreme reluctance to touch the delicate issue of the sex lives of political leaders, none of the major news media mentioned this glaring discrepancy between the public description of the records and their actual content. By passing along this error, which was common to President Reagan’s remark and to Senator Helms’s campaign to unseal the records, those who framed the public debate over the King holiday fostered the slanderous misimpression that King’s entire public career might have been a spy’s ruse.

It is also possible that the politicians were speaking more manipulatively in code, knowing that to harp on secrets buried in FBI files might quicken by suggestion the vague but widespread rumors about King’s private life. Even Senator Helms did not dare to address this subject directly, however, and this was perhaps his only area of agreement with King’s most ardent supporters. Skittishness about speaking personally of King is almost universal. His enemies seem to fear that to do so would backfire, or expose their utter lack of knowledge about him as a human being, while his admirers seem to fear that anything less than perfect will slide or be twisted into degradation.

Questions of identity dissolve in the insecurities of race. It is well to remember that King lived nearly his entire life calling himself a Negro instead of a black man. The very name of his race was in flux, and for most of his years the personal attributes of Negroes were virtually invisible within the white culture. He forced himself upon the world as a political issue. During his lifetime there was little appetite or conditioning to absorb more about him.

Relatively few blacks and practically no whites ever knew, for instance, that King was anything but a champion among his fellow black Baptist preachers in the huge six million-member National Baptist Convention. This was the center of King’s church heritage, where both his father and grandfather had achieved national reputations. The convention’s annual meetings were advertised as the largest gatherings of black people under one roof anywhere in the world--up to 20,000 preachers, deacons, choristers, and laymen from the richest and most powerful institution of the black culture, meeting in an atmosphere crossed between that of a giant synod and a national political convention.

When King and his civil rights forces moved to take over the convention at Kansas City in 1961, they were repulsed in an ugly riot during which one preacher was killed. The victorious conservative president blamed King publicly for the riot, threw the power of the organized church against most of King’s civil rights initiatives, and remained in power another 20 years, long enough to support Ronald Reagan for president. King, effectively accused of murder and excommunicated from his own national church, withdrew from the convention for the remainder of his life. This bitter experience blocked his career ambitions as a churchman and drove him toward the unpleasant conclusion that a majority of his peers never would embrace his nonviolent resistance. Within a new months he went to Albany, Georgia--alone, without the legion of Convention Baptists he had hoped to marshal--and was swept up in his first sustained campaign of civil disobedience to the segregation laws.

None of this registered in public. One might have expected the segregation press to trumpet the news that King was implicated in the violent and shameful debacle, and that his fellow black preachers rejected his plans for integration. The chasm between the races was so wide, however, that the shattering conflict at Kansas City was a silent event to the white world, which made a habit of noticing King only when he could not be avoided. Unfamiliarity and discomfort blotted out the texture of King’s life amid black preachers, among many other central aspects of his personality.

Yet when a Justice Department official simply offered him an automobile ride in the autumn of 1963, a front-page scandal erupted over charges of government favoritism for black leaders. The sensitivities of race exposed King to bizarre disparities of perception. His political genius lay in his strength to maintain balanced judgment under constant bombardment from a wide range of forces--J. Edgar Hoover, the conservative Baptist incumbent, King’s contentious aides, his conscience, his bitter rivals within the civil rights movement. Southern governors, condemned prisoners appealing for his help—always knowing that his every deed and statement might be magnified or reduced a thousand times by the trick mirrors of race. Similarly, his gift as an orator lay in his ability to deliver the same speech in a way that would move both urban sophisticates who wanted to hear about Camus and unlettered church folk who wanted to hear about the furniture in heaven.

Now we are beginning to fashion a holiday mythology based on images that covered the cocoon of King’s life. Almost inevitably, he is being celebrated for his achievements as they registered in the majority culture--for his great marches and civil rights laws, and for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is seen as the epitome of black success, rising from utter obscurity to the heights of international acclaim: just as Lincoln overcame his log cabin origins, so King conquered the limitations of racism. Like all myths, these contain truth, but in King’s case they threaten to distort the inner progression of his life and to rob the new holiday of its true meaning. To celebrate King as the paramount black political symbol makes him a brittle icon--a counterpart to Britain’s Prince Charles. From the core of King’s religious belief to the edge of his political triumphs, his life was about status and human pride, but by his own lights the story ran counter to most of the King mythology.

The young King is generally portrayed as a well-educated but conventional Southern Baptist minister, whose transformation into a man of stature began suddenly when the Montgomery bus boycott made him a celebrity in national race politics. In fact, by inheritance and oratorical gifts. King was a prince within his national church long before the 1955 boycott. While still a student, he established a reputation that brought him invitations to preach in the largest black churches--New York congregations claiming up to 10,000 members. When he left college to attend a Pennsylvania seminary in 1948, he was the only member of his integrated class wealthy enough to support himself without at least part-time work.

Until midway through his career. King remained something of a dandy. He wore expensive clothes, savored the opera, and dabbled at golf. He never gave up dramatic late entrances and other showmanship techniques of a master preacher, and he was accomplished in the formal etiquette--reminiscent of Renaissance court diplomacy--by which his preacher’s fraternity managed and divided clerical prerogatives. Congregations ceremoniously presented him and his colleagues with wooden gift boxes stuffed with cash; special tributes to the ministers lasted hours. The preacher was a monarch, cut to the figure of Moses.

King embodied this role at the same time he rebelled against it. From the beginning he warned against the special temptations of success among a status-hungry people, denouncing the predilection of his fellow preachers for long Cadillacs. As glory fountained up beneath him, these harsh warnings from his own personal theology loomed ever larger in his life. He preached that privileged people require special discipline to be at peace with justice. His wife recalled that “”his conscience fairly devoured him”

By family training he was extremely sensitive to shadings of his public image, which he labored adeptly to manage. In the 1950s he maneuvered to become the first black civil rights leader to meet with Eisenhower, and his 1964 trip to visit the pope was at least partly a promotional tour, conceived in awareness that the Norwegian Parliament was considering him for the Nobel Prize. He had given up his fanciest clothes, however, and nearly all his money. He never bought a Cadillac. Within minutes of hearing he would receive the prize, he announced that he would give the $250,000 purse to the movement. By then jealousy was poisoning some of his dearest friendships, and he knew that FBI officials were working diligently to blackmail or disgrace him with intercepted evidence of his extramarital affairs. King pledged to give them up--but failed. These personal ordeals, though central to the furnace of his character, did not change the direction of his public record. He returned from Oslo almost directly to the jails of Selma, Alabama, to begin the campaign for the Voting Rights Act, which transformed American politics by enfranchising black citizens in the rural South.

There followed the three years that foreshadowed the surly mood of American politics after his death. The most influential civil rights leaders repudiated his protest against the war in Vietnam. The editors of Life called his first major Vietnam speech “a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” Meanwhile, the spirit of his movement disintegrated amid riots, repression, and the surge of black pride. Black opinion leaders began to speak of nonviolence, and of King, with condescension. White intellectuals ignored him as a tediously religious Uncle Tom. His literary agent sent word that New York publishers expressed no interest in a new book by King on any subject. King kept moving away from the “mountaintop” of Oslo. While other aspiring leaders of both races kept clamoring for their moments in the White House, King stopped going at all. “He’s canceled two engagements with me, and I don’t understand it,” President Johnson complained in a private memo. At the end, King was not in the company of white presidents or black elites, but marching with the garbagemen of Memphis.

He had the driven energy to help lift a people to a new identity and position of respect, and in the process he acquired what is commonly regarded as the highest honor in the Western world. This is the storybook side of King, which has its place. But the more revealing side lies in his determination to reclaim the common level of humanity. He resisted not just the expectation but the insistent demands of his peers that he allow himself to be feted and toasted as a symbol of hard-earned prestige. Instead, he pushed his way back down to jail, to now battles that left him nearly a pariah, and finally to the garbage strike in Memphis. The proud young doctor forged a prophet’s humility out of his determination to leave behind what he called “a committed life.” This downward thrust makes him a transcendent figure rather than merely a romantic one. In this respect, it is a disquieting sign that the official literature for the new King holiday seldom mentions the crucible years after he won the Nobel Prize.

Inescapably, the meaning of King’s life springs from religion as much as politics. Born into a culture in which the pulpit was the key to riches as well as salvation, he struggled with religion as preachers’ kids often do, having grown up privy to both the trade secrets of the business and its claim to ultimate reality. His religious beliefs never were orthodox. Ho studied at a seminary teeming with freethinking professors who doubted, for instance, the existence of the historical Moses--on the ground that no Moses character had been located in Egyptian or Persian texts covering that era. King adapted to such skepticism more readily than most of his classmates, because he was searching for an honest way to recover from a prolonged spell of blanket disbelief. In particular, ho was troubled by liberal theology’s answer to the age-old problem of reconciling the idea of God with the presence of evil in the world. Ho rejected the progressive notion that intellectual and scientific progress could steadily reduce evil, and thereby the need to explain it. Although such an outlook was ascribed almost automatically to King and Social Gospel crusaders, be stubbornly refused to believe that education or comfort made people loss sinful. On the contrary, he thought these attainments fed the central moral sin of pride.

Not until late in his studies did King find a way to join his yearning for justice in the world to an idea of God in the universe. He fixed upon the theory that from human self-centeredness comes an ingrained capacity for “enemy thinking,” or self-justifying moral codes. These accommodate the removal or blotting out of people, as in racial segregation. In extreme form they can invert morality altogether, as when the most heinous sins of ordinary life become the sacred duty of soldiers, Klansmen, or terrorists. King merely resolved that it was possible, by supreme acts of faith and human will, to combat enemy thinking without falling prey to it, to affirm that “the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” By such efforts, he sought to uphold the existence of God. Far from being a comfortable or conventional theology, this was nearly a desperate one, linking King’s personal religious doubts not only to the plight of his race but also to the fate of the bomb-threatened globe.

For years before and after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, King identified the American dream with Jefferson’s familiar credo from the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal ... endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” He praised the passage for its universalism, and then he praised it also for “something else” at its center “something ultimately distinguishes democracy from systems of government which make the state an end within itself.” The dream, he said, “affirms that there are certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state.” This idea was dear to him. He interpreted it to mean that religion and democratic politics are united in their purest essences and yearnings, beneath all the imperfections of doctrine. The politician should acknowledge a mission derived from the spirit, not from worldliness. The preacher should be out in the world defending the endowments of the creator. And the individualism inherent in the rights--”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”--embraced both the personalism of King’s own religious belief and the freedom-dream of his politics.

King’s version of the dream had nothing to do with the rise of prestige or windfall riches. Indeed, he sought to reclaim the sacredness of free human character in a country he saw as glutted with wealth and power. His deity was a personal God whose benevolence could be believed, communicated--even demonstrated--as when his crowds responded to the cry of his favorite prophet, Amos, to “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream!” This was the spirit of the civil rights movement, which lived in the bottomless passion of his speeches.

Time can narcotize even national holidays, turning cherished historical moments into sale-a-thons, binges, highway casualty statistics. Still, holidays are among a nation’s fundamental traditions. Like hidden blood vessels, they carry life sources so vital to a culture that we can be oblivious to their meaning until crisis or inspiration flushes it scarlet to the surface. Arbitrarily, to mark and measure the passage of time, we have fixed the new year upon a certain day in early winter, in a celebration dating from Roman sacrifices to the two-faced God Janus. Almost as arbitrarily, a church council in what call the fourth century selected December 25 as the birth date for Jesus of Nazareth, and for 16 centuries since then the Christmas birthday celebration has stood handsomely among the winter festivals of the world’s major religions.

King’s holiday is yet a blink against these swaths of time, but already it stands out among the nation’s permanent landmarks. With the holiday calendar and the monument grounds of the capital city filling toward capacity, it appears that during its formative two centuries the government of the United States constructed three major political monuments--to Washington, to Jefferson, and to Lincoln. Most of Washington’s parks and traffic circles are named for military leaders of the Civil War era. The six House and Senate office buildings are named for 20th century legislators of modest historical resonance--Cannon, Longworth, Raybum, Russell, Dirksen, and Hart. And among the eight purely American holidays, beyond the two imported from the ancient Mediterranean, King’s birthday alone stands in honor of a preacher, a Ph.D., a black man, and a martyr who was wiretapped and reviled by officials of the same government that elevated him.

King never held or sought public office, but he shaped more sweeping political change than any politician or private citizen of his era. He did not live out the American dream, as is obvious from his short, tormented biography. But for his age he did reinterpret the nation’s precious freedoms along the edge between religion and politics, where the country was founded. For this he earned his holiday.

A glance around the country--from the liberated, resurgent South to the faces in mayors’ seats, office buildings, television shows, and even college sports arenas--confirms the magnitude of the transformation wrought by King and his movement. We are that much further from South Africa. A glance there, or to the Middle East, or to eruptions of race hatred in Philadelphia and other cities, confirms that a renewal of that spirit could not be wasted.

This is what the holiday is for. King was a black leader but never a parochial one. The boundless vision of his message touched people far beyond his camp and sowed changes more profound than political accommodation. Ed Bethune, a little-known, last-term congressman, brought a small sign of it to the floor of the House of Representatives. “Mr. Speaker, as a Republican and a former FBI agent, I rise in strong support of the Martin Luther King holiday bill,” be said. After describing the travail of the civil rights movement in his home state of Arkansas, he continued: “And do you know what we learned out of all that? The great changes are not made here in the legislative chambers or in the judicial halls. The great changes in this world are made in the hearts and minds of men and women. Attitudes are so important. I think that this holiday for Martin Luther King will give us an annual opportunity to recommit ourselves to the proposition that all men are created equal. It will nourish the spirit of reconciliation that we need so desperately in this country right now.”