Martin Luther King, Jr.
Peter J. Ling
Routledge Historical Biographies
London: Routledge, 2015 (Second Edition [First edition, 2002])
Paperback. xxxvii+382 p. ISBN 978-1138781634. £24.99
Reviewed by Jennifer J. Yanco
West African Research Association
& Boston University African Studies Center
This second edition (the first published in 2002) of Peter Ling’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. will be especially valuable to those who would draw inspiration from his work and life. Martin Luther King, Jr. summarily interrupts the increasingly popular portrayals of King, revealing a man of great moral stature, but a man nonetheless, acting within a complex and changing web of people and attending to the imperatives of his own inner voice. Ling’s book dispels the Dr. King of popular memory—the gentle preacher living outside of time and history, someone exhorting us to do nice things for one another—and focuses our attention on
the radical prophet who felt that the very architecture of American society had to be transformed so that it no longer sustained injustice and fetishized wealth but cherished the sanctity of every person by guaranteeing their human rights to food, shelter, healthcare, work, and security. [Introduction : 8]
Ling’s book is a detailed recounting of King’s life and the many forces that shaped it at each turn. One of the great strengths of the book is its attention to context. At the outset, Ling notes Ella Baker’s claim that ‘the Movement made Martin, not Martin the Movement’ [Introduction : 1]. But if Ling’s book shows the ways in which Baker’s criticism is valid, it also makes clear the impact Martin had—and continues to have—on the Civil Rights Movement and on subsequent movements for justice. He shows how closely intertwined King’s life was with a wide range of characters, from local police chiefs to the president, from community organizers to internationally known figures like Thich Nhat Hahn. We see from the inside the intrigues and power struggles King was part of, as well as the loneliness that dogged him as he stepped further and further out into the sparsely occupied territory reserved for those categorically committed to justice.
And, we see that King’s strategies, although carefully calculated, were not foregone successes, but were often likely disasters, saved by circumstances and by the sheer power of his oratory and moral leadership. Reading through the hair-raising stories of Albany and Birmingham puts you on the edge of your seat, in spite of the fact that we now know the outcomes. Ling does a commendable job of conveying the extreme volatility of the times. I came away from Ling’s book with a visceral sense of the uncertainty, fear, and confusion, as well as the hope that characterized the times in which King’s life unfolded.
Reading about the various chapters in King’s life, we get a sense of this extraordinary man as a person: we see his foibles and his strengths, his doubts and missteps, as well as his victories. We see resentments and jealousy growing as King’s oratory and what some considered recklessness put him at the center of the public spotlight. King’s moral sense was grounded in his strong Christian faith, which he believed called upon him to take an unequivocal stand for justice. This led him to make choices that few have the courage to make—especially in the face of betrayal and abandonment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. consists of eleven chapters, and includes a tabular chronology at the beginning, which serves as a useful point of reference for contextually situating particular points in Dr. King’s trajectory. The chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with King’s early years, and following him through various points along his itinerary: Montgomery; Albany; Birmingham; Selma; Chicago; his increasingly vocal stance against economic injustice, white racism, and US military involvement in Vietnam; and finally, his stand in solidarity with poor black sanitation workers in Memphis.
Each chapter is a detailed and clear presentation of events, characters, and descriptions of how events unfolded. We see the interdependence of King and ‘the Movement’ and the ways they learned as they went along. We see the careful planning, the disagreements, the strategies designed to increase ‘creative tension’ without losing allies. Most importantly, we see King in the changing swirl of people who made up his universe. Ling presents so many of the countless people working on the different sides of the issues King engaged.
The last chapter, entitled ‘In Memoriam,’ looks at the ways in which King’s memory has become ‘a contested commodity’, used by those who continue in his tradition of protest as well as those promoting the idea of a colorblind society, and various other factions along the spectrum. This final chapter is followed by a quite comprehensive Guide to Further Reading that provides a background on how the literature on King has developed over time, with annotated references in a number of categories. Again, Ling demonstrates the importance of context—this time, the literary context in which his work appears. I would add my own 2014 book, Misremembering Dr. King, a short presentation of King’s ideas, to the list.
Ling’s biography is a much-needed antidote to the common portrayals of King as a kindly and meek voice for peace rather than a fiery and committed force for justice. Ling reminds us that King identified the source of racial injustice in persistent white racism and points to his disappointment in the fearfulness and inertia of white allies. This is something that is virtually absent from the popular memories of King.
As I read through Ling’s book, I saw so many parallels to current protest movements and the kinds of arguments marshaled to resist change. White supremacy remains a key organizing principle of American society, kept in place through institutional structures that few are willing to seriously challenge. Witness the recent subprime lending debacle and the disproportionate effect on African American homeowners. Look at continuing police brutality against communities of color. Look at economic disparities along lines of race. Ling notes that in 1962, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and others made an initial plan to gather 100,000 people in Washington to call attention to the shocking disparity in employment: at the beginning of that year, black unemployment rates were double those of whites. In April of 2015, in the U.S., black unemployment was 9.6%; white unemployment was 4.7%. Data for other measures of social well-being are similarly skewed. When I read the quote from George Wallace denouncing civil rights demonstrations because they were ‘not conducive to the orderly flow of traffic and commerce,’ I thought of similar arguments used to discount and often demonize Black Lives Matter and allied demonstrations. In Massachusetts, 18 young people arrested for blocking highway traffic to call attention to police killings of unarmed black men were charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and conspiracy. Some state legislators suggested that anyone blocking the highway should be charged with attempted murder. They were calling attention to actual murder. The demonstration was on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
In his concluding remarks about King’s ‘lasting significance,’ Ling maintains that his first legacy ‘is an exhortation to take risks for what you believe to be right’ . It is indeed heartening to see that there are still those willing to put their lives on the line to call out injustice, knowing that calls for peace and order are hollow if not grounded in justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by his faith, an extraordinary man shaped by and shaping the extraordinary times in which he lived. In Martin Luther King, Jr, Peter Ling presents his readers with a deeply nuanced account of the life and struggles of this activist and visionary who had the rare courage to listen to and heed his inner voice. His courage, conviction, and social vision are much-needed resources for all of us at this moment in time.
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