Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2

Critical Essay

Candadai Seshachari

The Re-Making of a Leader: Martin Luther King's Last Phase1

Candadai Seshachari (Ph.D., University of Utah) is Professor of English and Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Weber State University. His publications have appeared in Western Humanities Review, Dialogue, Indian Journal of American Studies and several anthologies. He is the author of Gandhi and the American Scene: An Intellectual History and Inquiry (1969).

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first major address, at Riverside Church in New York City on 4 April 1967, denouncing the American war in Vietnam in the harshest terms, presidential adviser John P. Roche, in an "eyes only" memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote: "As you know, the civil rights movement is shotdisorganized and broke." In trying to account for King's belated but forthright stand on Vietnam, Roche opined that the "inordinately ambitious" King was " in desperate search of a constituency" of the alienated whites and other "Communist-oriented 'peace' types" who "have played him (and his driving wife) like trout" (Roche). The White House frustration and anger were understandable for, over a period of a year, it had tried to influence King's stand on Vietnam. At one point, on 7 January 1966, presidential aide Clifford Alexander told the President that the most difficult part of the problem of gauging the black reaction to the war was what King would do next (Alexander). Once King had come out openly and boldly against the Vietnam war, the Johnson Administration lost no time in unleashing its wrath against him. Presidential press secretary George Christian, for instance, informed President Johnson that he had talked to black columnist Carl Rowan in "the Martin Luther King matter" (Garrow 554). Rowan obliged. Shortly thereafter, he asserted in his syndicated column that once King had the "uncanny knack for saying the right thing" but, of late, had exhibited "little sense or concern for public relations, and no tactical skill." He concluded: "Based on King's recent activities and public utterances, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation" (qtd. in Garrow 555).

These attacks on Martin Luther King, Jr. by erstwhile followers and friends were not stray instances of peeve, prejudice or irrationalism. As if on cue, the civil rights coalition of his black and white followers splintered when he enlarged the scope of what was essentially a regional civil rights movement for human equality and dignity into a more pressing economic and political national movement. The white support that was such a visible and stirring aspect of the civil rights movement, as one heady victory succeeded anotherthrough the sit-ins of 1960, the freedom rides of 1961,

Albany in 1962, Birmingham in 1963, and through Selma in 1965all but vanished in the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 1966 and the riot-stricken streets of Newark and Detroit in the sweltering July of 1967. White fear and anger began to assert themselves in the streets and the market place as well as the halls of government as it became obvious that economic and political gains, unlike moral gestures of accommodation, have implications of power.

If the whites had deserted King's ranks, the blacks were doing no less. If anything, militant black organizations were contemptuous of King and his brand of "Uncle Tom" leadership. The raucous and divisive Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) proclaimed their own revolutionary manifestos. Floyd McKissick, the National Director of CORE and the principle spokesman for the Black Power concept, for instance, argued that the civil rights movement had become irrelevant. "The tactics and philosophy of the civil rights era can take us no further along the road to Total Equality. New methods must be found: A new era must begin," McKissick asserted (Black Manifesto 3). In an earlier draft of "A Black Manifesto," he proclaimed: "The civil rights struggle is over: The Black Revolution has begun" (8).

Similarly but not surprisingly, the moderate NAACP officially condemned King, though not by name, for confusing the two separate issues of civil rights and the war in Vietnam (New York Times 11 & 13 April 1967). Even his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) repudiated King: It supported King's right to his conscience but asserted that the "primary function" of SCLC was "to secure full citizenship rights for the Negro citizens of this country." As if in rebuke to King, the ninth annual convention of the SCLC averred that its resources were insufficient "to assume the burden of two major issues" ("Report of the Committee" 16). Not only on Vietnam, but on the question of the Poor People's March on Washington, Marian Logan, Assistant Secretary to the SCLC Board, seriously questioned King's wisdom in organizing the April demonstrations in the context of the prevailing "climate of confusion, splintering, backlash and reaction that reigns over the country at present" (Logan 2).

Martin Luther King was not unused to being attacked or abused; he had been vilified, slandered and defamed. He had been dubbed a communist; his home and hotel suites had been bugged by the FBI; his home bombed. His easy sexual conduct had been purveyed in the press and his character held to ridicule. The FBI had blackmailed him, and invited him to commit suicide. "There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation," threatened an anonymous FBI letter (qtd. in Garrow 373). King had suffered persecution, bitterness and depression before but had not known such unrelenting attacks on him as he did in the last full twelve months of his life, from 4 April 1967, when he made his Riverside Church Vietnam speech, to 4 April 1968, when he was assassinated on the premises of a Memphis motel. For much of the last year of his life, King was a troubled man. Sometimes he was bitter, sometimes he was depressed, but mostly he was a troubled leader whose followers had forsaken him. King was bewildered and confused, and there was a time before his Riverside Church address when King was uncertain as to where he or the movement was headed. Gone were the days of the earlier exuberance with which he greeted the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill: "We can sense at this exhilarating moment, with the dawning of a new day, that the dark shadows of the dread night are fading . . . " ("Statement").

Martin Luther King's troubles may be laid at the door of his inability to realize the implications of the new struggle he was launching in the North. His troubles began when he made his first civil rights foray into Chicago the summer of 1965. He was not prepared for the different kinds of challenges the North posed. He did not comprehend the North as he had the South. The South was in his blood; he knew what it was to be black in the American South. He had suffered its humiliations and been heir to its indignities. The unremitting memories of its shames and insults had lingered on. So in 1955 in Montgomery, more by circumstance than by design, when King was literally voted into leadership and history, he was not unprepared for the challenge. He was charismatic and could articulate the frustrations and dreams of the American blacks from the platform and the pulpit with a fervor that was deeply moving. He spoke to them, not from the glib surface, but from the depths of a commonly shared racial experience whose hallmark was servitude and humiliation. He made them stir with a human dignity for which they hungered in their souls.

Martin Luther King also was prepared in other ways. He was a preacher in the best traditions of the black South; he had a strong sense of justice and a burning moral indignation, and a will and courage to set things straight. He also had an unswerving commitment to nonviolence as a political strategy. Given his commitment and fervor, he was forever to alter the civil rights scene. He was to change the agenda of the diehard majority and force them to deal with the rights and privileges of a disenfranchised minority.

Martin Luther King succeeded beyond all hope in the American South: he succeeded in enlarging the meaning of the civil rights movement by brilliantly turning the fight from questions of desegregation into a struggle for moral legitimacy. He involved the church in the forefront of the struggle. He sought not only the right to sit next to a white, but also to be treated as equal before the eyes of law and God alike. Through the uncanny elevation of the struggle, he challenged the Northern whites to fight shoulder to shoulder with the Southern blacks. Rev. James J. Reeb of Boston, and Viola Gregg Liuzzo of Detroit, both killed during the Selma protest, were two examples of several hundred whites who responded to King's appeal for support. If King bestowed upon his fellow blacks their right to freedom, their right to being treated as humans instead of being consigned to a sub-human existence, he compelled the Northern whites of conscience to respond to their own innate decency. The successes of the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the protests in Albany, Birmingham, and Selma were vouchsafed because the Southern struggle for civil rights had an ally in the conscience of the Northern whites.

Unlike in the South, the struggle in the North had different components for its equation. If the Southern struggle was to mount attacks on the citadels of racial inequalities, the Northern assaults were on the bastions of economic and political power. The moral persuasion which worked in the South had yielded place in the North to calls for integration of housing, for employment, for sharing of political power and, generally, as King pointed out, for "the restructuring of the architecture of American society" ("King's Speech" 14). An SCLC proposal for a nonviolent movement in Greater Chicago mentions a broad spectrum of twelve socio-economic and political institutions, from education, trade unions, real estate agencies to mortgage companies as target institutions ("Proposal by SCLC" 1-13). Likewise, in an address to SCLC at a South Carolina retreat in November 1966, King pointed out that the earlier civil rights movement had not cost the nation or "its businessmen one penny." The new economic movement would make "demands that will cost the nation something." "You can't talk about solving the economic problem without talking about billions of dollars," King said ("King's Speech" 14). Even in King's official camp the talk was of raw power. The whites parted company when the movement turned to sharing economic and political power with the blacks. Power was a new determinant of the struggle in the North.

It is not as if Martin Luther King himself was unaware of the nature of the newer struggle. Black Power was a fact of life of the Vietnam era. The Black Power slogans had sensitized King to the idea of power as never before. "When you put black and power together, it sounds like you are trying to say black domination," he said ("King's Speech" 13). Unlike the other black leaders, King never really came out against Black Power. He was totally against the implied and obvious calls for violence by the proponents of Black Power, but was never really critical of the concept. Often he was at pains to explain the origin and nature of Black Power. He pointedly said: "Black Power is a cry of pain. It is in fact a reaction to the failure of White Power to deliver the promises and to do it in a hurry" ("King's Speech 11). In reality, he argued, power was "the ability to achieve purpose. Certainly the Negro needs power because this is our problem, we are powerless" ("King's Speech" 13).

King's concern with power was so pervasive that it even found way into an official in-house statement of policy by Andrew Young, the Executive Director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Paraphrasing King, Young averred that "power was the ability to make events happen." "The powerless, on the other hand, never experience opportunityit is always arriving at a later time." In short, Young flatly stated that the greatest challenge confronting the SCLC was "to discover the levers of power that Negroes must grasp in order to influence the course of events." Since the sources of power could always be traced to economic and political forces, it was incumbent upon the SCLC "to undertake a massive job of organization to gain economic and political power for Negroes" (Young 2, 4-5).

The reasons for the shift of emphasis are not far to see. King's shift to power-based politics was a natural next step in his leadership of the African Americans in their quest for a share of the American dream but, in the process, he had become more involved and entangled in practical politics. The more political he became, the less a preacher he was; the more political he was, the more susceptible he became to attacks of all and sundry kinds. By moving to the politics of power, King gave up the insights of religion for concrete balance sheets which tallied black and white unemployment percentages, per capita income of white haves against the income of black have-nots, the disproportionately high death tolls of black GIs against the lower death counts for white soldiers. Even as late as November 1967, he was pointing out to his staff at another South Carolina retreat that the Department of Labor unemployment figures for Atlanta, which was one of the most booming cities, was between 12 and 14 percent. "Now that simply means that unemployment is almost zero in the white community," King elaborated ("SCLC Retreat" 14). On another occasion, he hammered in the same point but with a different statistic. In Cleveland, where he had spent part of the summer of 1967, King said that the unemployment rate was 15.8 percent and that "58% young Negro men of Cleveland are either unemployed or making wages lower than the poverty scale" ("Transforming a Neighborhood" 7). Numbers were also on King's mind when he talked of Vietnam at the 15 April 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. He told his audience that it was estimated that the United States spent "$332,000 for each enemy we kill, while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53.00 for each person classified as 'poor'" ("Spring Mobilization" 7). Addressing another audience, this time the Chicago Peace Parade and Rally on 25 March 1967, he pointed out that "of all the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half of those of whites; of the bad, he has twice that of white." Driving home the point he said: "There are twice as many Negroes in combat in Vietnam at the beginning of 1967 and twice as many died in action (20.6%) in proportion to their numbers in the population as whites" ("Address to Peace Parade" 9). Power and numbers were two new mainstays of the King rhetoric of politics.

In coming North, King obviously had lost touch with the moral vitality and vibrancy of the message he had earlier preached and lived by. The struggle in Montgomery was solidly founded on the age-old quest for human dignity; the struggle in King's last phase was comparatively more crass. Perhaps King's change in the direction of the civil rights movement was unavoidable, but it certainly makes more comprehensible the troubles King was having when one realizes that his Chicago agenda was not set by him out of his deepest and best instinct but was one set by others. Specifically, the Chicago-based Coordination Council of Community Organizations had initiated the attack on discriminatory housing practices; the Operation Bread-Basket was the successful brain child of Jesse Jackson. This was not the first time that King had entered a struggle which he had not directly planned. King had a history of similar mid-movement involvement.

The sit-ins, for instance, were sparked by four black college freshmen who sat at a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth store lunch counter and refused to move until they were served. The freedom ride was organized, not by King and the SCLC, but by James Farmer and his Congress of Racial Equality. When the freedom rides began, King was elsewhere in Atlanta tending to SCLC business. Similarly, Albany was the creation of the SNCC. The fight against segregation in St. Augustine pre-dated the civil rights movement, and King's involvement in the city's struggle to desegregate was not one of the brightest chapters of his leadership either. White House aide Lee C. White reported receiving a call from King to say he "wanted to find some means of pulling out of St. Augustine and 'saving face' in the process" (White). The Mississippi Summer Project to aid voter registration had been masterminded by Bob Moses and his SNCC.

Indeed only in Montgomery had King been truly the leader, functioning as leader, leading his people at every turn and twist of the movement. A leader by definition has to lead and not, as Jawaharlal Nehru once said, merely follow the dictates of the crowd. On several occasions instead of leading the crowd, he had followed it and had, as a result, taken the slippery path in a terrain he did not quite know, thus creating a crisis of confidence in his leadership.

Faced with the ensuing massive erosion of confidence in him during the early fall of 1966, King was uncertain of his future plans or role. There was not one preeminent black organization, including his own SCLC, which could grapple with the newer forces emerging on the national scene. The fragmentation of his power base and the loss of his credibility would have been unthinkable phenomena a mere two years earlier. The militant blacks disowned him, and the Johnson administration was out to discredit him. The whites were following an agenda of their own in which concerns about civil rights were put outside the pale; their newer war cry was Vietnam. Frustrated, hurt and demoralized, King was forced to analyze his strategies and leadership. Out of the turmoil of self-search, he would arrive at a clearer perception of his commitment to principle and a truer sense of his role as a leader. In a crucial way he would reassert principles over the politics of the moment, articulate his sense of moral imperatives as clearly and surely as he once did during the long drawn-out Montgomery bus boycott days, recognize the validity of religious insights over political impulses, restore the deeply felt sense of moral indignation which was such a hallmark of the earlier King and, above all, rediscover the plank of ideas and idealism upon which he had so firmly stood. In short, he had to become the King he was during the days of the epic Montgomery struggle and begin to march to the rhythms of his own soul. But there was always the other King to contend with, one who was increasingly impatient, given to misjudgment, and one who had a penchant for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The battle to regain his earlier sense of destiny would not be easy. In a rare and uncharacteristic moment for King, he publicly confided to a Chicago audience at a crucial time during the 1966 demonstrations that he was "tired of marching." He was tired of the "tensions surrounding him," "tired of living under the threat of death." He admitted that he too, like the people in the audience, wished "to live as long as anybody in the building."

He concluded: "I don't march because I like it, I march because I must" (qtd. in Garrow 515). If the buffetings he received in Chicago nudged him to self-analysis, then the war in Vietnam, which had become the moral issue of the decade, forced him to delve more deeply into the meaning of his commitments.

"I want to assure you that I am still searching myself," he told his SCLC staffers in November of 1966. "I don't have all the answers, and I, as I have said so often, I have no pretense to omniscience, I don't know everything." There was a ring of earnestness in his voice. "If there is anything about nonviolence that I accept absolutely and that is the fact that it is an experiment with truth; I am simply engaged in the truth searching process . . . ," he elaborated ("King's Speech" 2-3). King had simply fallen back on Gandhi; his statement was reminiscent of Gandhi in tone, tenor, content and even in phraseology.

In a sense King was probing into Gandhi to find answers to his present predicaments. Gandhi had given him the tools with which to fight the ingrained injustices and social evils of a society of which the African Americans were such a vital and historic part. King had learned many things from Gandhi, but there were many others he did not learn.2 There were things in Gandhi that a Western mind had "to learn," to quote Vincent Sheean, "as one learns a foreign language or a multiplication table" (7). King was acutely aware of this fact. During his visit to India in February-March 1959, he constantly quizzed his hosts about Gandhism. In Bombay, for instance, when an opportunity presented itself for him and Corretta King to stay at Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi had stayed during his visits to Bombay from 1917 to 1934 in what became an ephochal period in the Indian freedom movement, King jumped at the opportunity with alacrity. King slept and ate and conversed in the very premises which Gandhi had hallowed by his presence. He saw parts of "His Memory We Cherish," a film saga of the Gandhian movement, well into the night, and was struck by how Gandhi had an alternate program for every evil he attacked. S.K. De3, his travel companion for the Bombay segment of the visit, pointedly told King that Gandhian techniques and truths were constantly evolving. That truth must forever be sought (De). King rarely forgot anything about Gandhi. Indeed Gandhi had never been far away from his mind, either in practice or principle.

King's search for truth soon lay bare a blueprint for action; in significant ways it bore the imprint of the Montgomery struggle. He decided that the war in Vietnam brooked no compromise with principles. During a one month sojourn in Jamaica to write a book, King thought about the civil rights movement, about the state of the world, and a great deal about Vietnam. A pictorial article he read on "The Children of Vietnam" in the January 1967 issue of Ramparts gave him no peace of mind. Indeed he had been horrified by the spectacle of the burnt and scorched bodies of Vietnamese children. "After reading that article, I said to myself never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation," said King of his decision to oppose the war. He was not going to be politic, vain or expeditious about his decision. He had cast his die to stand by principle: He would rather "choose to be a hammer" than "an anvil." More emphatically, he added: "Come what may, it does not matter now" ("Chart Our Course" 29, 32-33).

The speech he made that day in April 1967 at the Riverside Church was the result of a soul searching that provided King with no options but to boldly come out against the war. "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam," thundered King before a crowd of three thousand ("Time to Break Silence" 238). On the heels of this address, in a CBS television interview, on "Face the Nation," he made his position on Vietnam unequivocally clear: "The only thing that motivated me was a deep, agonizing conscience on this matter, and I could not afford any longer to be a silent onlooker," King told Martin Agronsky (3).

King's appeal to conscience as the chief arbiter of his policy on Vietnam was in keeping with his profession as a preacher, a fact that King had relegated into the background until the question of Vietnam came up. In a sermon he preached before his congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on 30 April 1967, he addressed himself to the question of why he was opposed to the war in Vietnam. His accusers, he charged, had forgotten that before he was a civil rights leader, he had answered a call from God. "I answered a call which left the Spirit of the Lord upon me and anointed me to preach the Gospel"; he said he was going to tell the truth as God revealed it to him ("Vietnam War" 3). He asserted that his Christian ministry was a commission "to bring the insights of our Christian heritage to bear on the evils of our day" ("Transforming a Neighborhood" 14). King's defense of himself was reminiscent of the vintage King of the nascent civil rights movement. For instance, he wrote at the time of the freedom rides, that no church could evade moral responsibility for the sins of society. He said, "since the church has a moral responsibility of being the moral guardian of society, then it cannot evade its responsibility in this tense period" ("Church on the Frontier" 3).

King had decided that he was not going to court his constituency any more. This resolution gave him new strength and freedom to openly chart a course unmindful of the criticism against him or of his own personal bitterness and depression. He reported that when someone asked him if he were going to hurt his leadership by his new stand on Vietnam, he responded: "'Sir, I'm sorry you don't know me.' I'm not a consensus leader.

. . . I don't determine what is wrong by roaming around taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a subject for consensus but he is a molder of consensus" ("Transforming a Neighborhood" 14). King felt good about himself.

Martin Luther King once again had a tryst with destiny. He was much surer of his leadership because he was much surer of his moorings. He had regained the fervor and passion of a leader in pursuit of a vision. There was a newer revolutionary zeal about him as he fashioned his campaign against poverty in America and fought for peace at home and abroad. The visionary in King had gone to the mountain top and had "seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" (qtd. in Garrow 621). Left behind in the valley was the other King, given to increasing bouts of cynicism, depression, and loneliness. His dalliance with women seemed more of a relief from anxieties. He displayed an edge to his temper and his rhetoric was harsher, sharper. The public King and the private were at war, with battle lines more deeply, more harrowingly drawn. Gandhi had taken the path of the ascetic to go public, until he had no private life of his own, so he could become a servant of the public. King never had the time or the opportunity to reconcile his personal life or ethics to the imperatives of the public life. He was swept away by the flood tides of history. When he was felled by an assassin's bullet on 4 April 1968 on the balcony of a Memphis motel, the King that died that day was the one who was heir to human foibles. King the maker of history is a part of history now, larger in death than he was in life, for his victories are legion.


1Much of the archival research for this article was done during a sabbatical leave in 1982-83 at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, GA., the Mugar Memorial Library of Boston University, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, TX.

2The many things that King learned from Gandhi and the many that he did not are discussed in Seshachari 138-159.

3S.K. De was King's escort for the Bombay segment of his journey on his visit to India, February and March of 1959. It was at De's suggestion that King and Coretta Scott King stayed at Mani Bhavan, which was M. K. Gandhi's residence on his visit to Bombay during 1917 to 1934. To a question by De on King's civil rights struggle, King replied: "Yes, I am an Ugly American, but I am proud to be an American." 


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