We know of no better way to observe Martin Luther King Day than by cracking open, if you haven’t already, Taylor Branch’s monumental (as it’s described on the writer’s Web site, but the description is true) trilogy on MLK and the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, continuing with Pillar of Fire (an even better and more profound book) and ending with the just-published final installment, At Canaan’s Edge.
Branch, a onetime Texas Monthly writer and a longtime friend and advisor to former president Clinton, does history right. His books are prodigiously reported and meticulously documented and present an almost day-by-day contextualization of the movement, from its post-World War II and pre-Brown vs. Board stirrings through the crazed hothouse bloomings of the late 1960s. King is the central character, but Branch draws in dozens of lesser-knowns and near-forgotten episodes that had an impact on King and propelled the pitched battle to end segregation forward. There’s nothing pompous or strained about the titles: This is one story that has real biblical sweep.
Pillar of Fire was notable for laying out the full scope of J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless and insanely intrusive surveillance (blessed by Robert Kenney) and hounding of King and his family. Read this, and you’ll find it hard to get too worked up over President Bush’s authorizing the NSA to wiretap potential terrorists without judicial approval, and it becomes easier to understand why some members of King’s family would give credence to the notion that he was killed as the result of a government-engineered conspiracy.
The revelation that drew the most attention when Pillar of Fire was published seven years ago was Branch’s recounting of the contents of an FBI tape of what is described as a 14-hour party in D.C.’s Willard Hotel in January 1964, during which King could be heard shouting ecstatically, apparently in the throes of intercourse with prostitute, “I’m fucking for God!” and “I’m not a Negro tonight!”
When we first read of this episode, we thought, “Gee that’s sad---here he is rolling around with a whore in some tawdry wall-to-wall orgy and he’s caught on tape by the FBI screaming out this odd proclamation of self-denial …” But the more we thought about it, the more it seemed like a pained cry of liberation---not only from the burden of being the saintly MLK (“Fucking for God”) but from the shackles of being a “Negro.” After all, King was a “Negro” only in relation to something else---at the time, that something else was whiteness (and it still is, a bit, though much, much less so). A “Negro” wasn’t who King was, but it was what America forced him to be, and he was reminded of that fact almost every moment of his waking life---and probably in his dreams.
Like all of us, King was flawed, maybe more than most. The portrait that has emerged since his death reveals a man who was horrible to women and whose personal life was unsavory (to be polite). But his greatness can’t be denied, even if it’s simply as the leading player in the great American story—African-Americans’ long struggle up from slavery and segregation to something approaching near equality (yeah). But King was so much more than the embodiment of a movement, as Branch makes clear.
When we think about the world we came up in---one that was strictly segregated, where the word “nigger” constantly and savagely echoed about* (although never, ever in our parents’ home---that’s where you get it from)---we can only marvel at the one we’ve managed to live long enough to see. Things are better, much better, and while there is of course “more work to do” (there’s always "more work to do"), to say otherwise is an inexcusable lie.
That’s why Monday is a good day not to be a Negro, or an African-American. Or a white person. Or whatever you are in relation to others.
It’s a good day just to be human.
*We still hear the word occasionally, but it’s always from the mouth of a younger African American. Always. We can’t remember the last time we actually heard a white person use the word in our presence.