Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life

Portraiture, as an art form, seeks to encapsulate the character, rather than merely the likeness, of the subject in question. For some subjects this is more difficult than others—in some cases the public charisma of the individual hangs like a cloud between the artist and the subject. In other cases, the subject shiftingly squirms in the chair. Such a subject, on both counts, is Martin Luther King Jr., but Marshall Frady presses through these difficulties in his admirable 2005 biography of King, succeeding in painting a difficult, compelling, literary portrait of one of the best recognized figures of the 20th century.

King’s likeness is difficult to capture for both of the above reasons. In the first place, King has been elevated to the level of a cultural icon; he has been sanctified by culture, and now the clouds of devotional incense that mark his sanctification obscure the original man. Nothing, after all, serves to cover a man’s faults quite like his becoming a hero. Consequentially, his iconic face has been largely ripped from its historical moorings. As a cultural symbol King’s face now represents ‘hope’ in much the same fashion that Che Guevara’s represents ‘freedom’—both faces divorced from the men who lived behind them; both figures elevated to supra-human stature; both figures become masks that movements wear to ascribe to themselves meaning and significance, the original personalities remaining only in silhouette. Such stature, and the hopes and dreams that are attached to the man, cast an obscuring veil between him and his memory.

But the second reason why King’s likeness is difficult to capture is because the man himself, without any help from history or the culture that followed him, wore obscuring masks of his own making throughout his life. King’s public image was of a minister of the gospel, a moral figurehead, a family man, and a brilliant thinker and rhetorician. But King’s private life was vastly different—we discover, through Frady, concerns about King’s ministerial call; was it genuine, or merely inherited from his father? We discover that he drank and swore in private, committed serial infidelity, and even plagiarized portions of his dissertation. This duality in King’s life is so severe that one comes to feel that even his famed and exalted rhetoric was itself a veil obscuring the man. In the end, we discover that King’s public face was a projection of what he wanted us to see, an edited persona for public consumption. And these twin factors—King’s elevated status and his own self-editing—make the innerworkings of King’s heart almost inscrutable.

Nevertheless, Frady navigates these difficulties with skill, and succeeds in giving us a picture of a man who was both great and terrible; who led a nation through a time of crisis, and whose private life was a shambles. And yet the most rewarding outcome, perhaps, from reading Frady’s account was the manner in which the arc of King’s life becomes instructive, as a negative example, for any life of leadership, and especially of leadership in the Church. From that life I want to make the two following observations.

1) As a minister, your life is rhetoric. The simple principle here is that if your character does not accord with the content of your message, then your message is invalidated. One does not lead by position alone, but chiefly by example. King, while he was living, was mostly able to hide his indiscretions and infidelities, and yet discovery of these things would have meant the discrediting not, primarily, of King, but rather of the Civil Rights Movement itself. As a leader, King’s life was rhetoric. And so the discovery that the great preacher drank and swore in private, that he slept around and liked to talk about it with his inner circle, that discovery revealed would have been deadly to the man’s image and his goals, not to mention the people he represented. As it stood, King lived in genuine fear of these discoveries—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (out of pure malice, I should add) spied upon and threatened both King and his family with the information he had gathered. The result for King was added fear—not only did he have enemies who hated him for his work in the Civil Rights Movement, but he needed also to fear the enemy of the double-life that he had created himself. This fear, sadly, was not enough to motivate King to change his ways.

The tensions and stresses of life as a minister/leader are manifold, and one of the key ways to manage these stresses is to commit oneself to a life that is harmonious—consonant between outer and inner personae. Such a life is not subject to the consequent fear of self, and as a result is better able to manage the stresses of the work of ministry.

2) Power does not create, but rather magnifies, temptation. This is also a simple, but often overlooked principle. You cannot wait until you are in a position of power to deal with the temptations in your life, because the position will only magnify your preexistent temptations. James 1:13-15 says that no one should lay temptation at the feet of God, but rather recognize that it is our own evil desire within us that is enflamed and leads us toward death. Temptations, then, are like fault lines in the human soul—they are there, and when the stresses increase we discover that we are tempted along those deeply embedded fractures in our personalities. The stress fractures are small enough when we are not leading, but become great rifts as we are drawn into the pressure of public life.

King was subject to the trebly intense pressures of leadership, public expectations, and the figurehead-ism that accompanied the civil rights movement. Additionally, he was under the added pressure of his own hidden life. It is also clear that King mismanaged the elation of success—the powerful, drug-like euphoria that accompanies public successes and adulation. Hence, as the pressure in King’s life increased, his recourse to sinful activities also increased, such that on the night before his assassination, after a successful evening meeting, he embarked on what Frady calls “a final, all-night release into carnal carousal,” directing the energy of success into sleeping with two, and possibly a third, of his mistresses consecutively until dawn (203).

There is an urge to lay these temptations, and King’s submission to them, at the feet of the pressures he was under, and yet no one is to blame for how King acted other than King. He himself had managed his inner life poorly. He himself had surrounded himself with people who accommodated, rather than challenged, his private choices. And the lesson for ministers and leaders today remains the same: if you do not learn to manage the small temptations, you will certainly be unable to manage them when the pressure of being a public figure mounts. And furthermore, if you do not establish channels of accountability in your life, no one will help to keep you accountable.

King’s life leaves us with a troubling rumination—is the so-called ‘great life’ that flashes on our television screens of real lasting value when the actual man, the private individual, is so inwardly tortured and personally destructive? There may never be a satisfactory answer, and yet, as it stands, King’s life is like the buoy that alerts a sailor to a hidden reef, a flashing light to the danger that lies below the surface of ministry, and especially of ministry with power.

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