From the Archive — From the February 2017 issue

On Martin Luther King

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He is perhaps the best speaker in America of this generation, but his speech before the huge crowd in the U.N. Plaza on that afternoon in mid-April was bad; his words were flat, the drama and that special cadence, rooted in his Georgia past and handed down generation by generation in his family, were missing. It was as if he were reading someone else’s speech. There was no extemporizing; and he is at his best extemporaneously, and at his worst when he reads. There were no verbal mistakes, no surprise passions. When he finished his speech, and was embraced by a black brother, it seemed an unwanted embrace, and he looked uncomfortable. He left the U.N. Plaza as soon as he could.

On that cold day of a cold spring Martin Luther King Jr. made a sharp departure from his own past. He did it reluctantly; if he was not embittered over the loss of some old allies, he was clearly uneasy about some of his new ones. Yet join the peace movement he did. One part of his life was behind him, and a different and obviously more difficult one lay ahead. He had walked, marched, picketed, protested against legal segregation in America — in jails and out of jails, always in the spotlight. Where he went, the action went too. He had won a striking place of honor in the America society: if he was attacked as a radical, it was by men whose days were past. In the decade of 1956 to 1966 he was a radical America felt comfortable to have spawned.

But all that seemed long ago. In the year 1967, the vital issue of the time was not civil rights, but Vietnam. And in civil rights we were slowly learning some of the terrible truths about the ghettos of the North. Standing on the platform at the U.N. Plaza, he was not taking on George Wallace, or Bull Connor, or Jim Clark; he was taking on the president of the United States, challenging what is deemed national security, linking by his very presence much of the civil-rights movement with the peace movement. Before the war would be ended, before the president and King spoke as one on the American ghettos — if they ever would — his new radicalism might take him very far.

On both these issues there had been considerable controversy and debate within the King organization, especially among those people who care most deeply for King, and see him as the possessor of a certain amount of moral power. On the peace issue none of King’s associates really questioned how he felt; rather they questioned the wisdom of taking a stand. Would it hurt the civil-rights movement? Would it deprive the Negroes of King’s desperately needed time and resources? And some of these peace people, were they really the kind of people King wanted to play with? On the ghettos there were similar problems.

No one is really going to accomplish anything in the ghettos, goes the argument, until the federal government comes in with massive programs. In the meantime, King can only hurt and smear his own reputation; he will get dirt on his hands like the other ward heelers if he starts playing with practical day-by-day politics in the North. In the North, in addition to the white opponents, there are all the small-time Negro operators who will be out to make a reputation by bucking Martin King. Yet the ghettos exist, and to shun them is to lose moral status.

After the New York peace rally, I traveled with King for ten days on the new paths he had chosen. It was a time when the Negro seemed more than ever rebellious and disenchanted with the white; and when the white middle class — decent, upright — seemed near to saturation with the Negro’s new rebellion. The Negro in the cities seemed nearer to riots than ever; the white, seeing the riots on TV, wanted to move further away from the Negro than ever before. A terrible cycle was developing.

One sensed him struggling to speak to and for the alienated while still speaking to the mass of America, of trying to remain true to his own, while not becoming a known, identified, predictable, push-button radical, forgotten because he was no longer in the mainstream. The tug on him was already great, and there is no reason to believe that in the days ahead it would become any less excruciating.

From “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” which appeared in the August 1967 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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