A review of Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Stephen B. Oates
Most writing about Martin Luther King, Jr., does him a great disservice: It emphasizes those strands of his thought which are alien to American political life, at the expense of those which are rooted in it. No doubt this is done with a laudable intention-to make King's greatness seem not to lie in his tradition but in himself-yet the effect is to make King seem threatening or hostile to America.
Stephen Oates's new biography of King, Let the Trumpet Sound, tends in the same direction. Fortunately, the comprehensiveness of this well-written and extremely readable biography enables the discerning reader to check this tendency. One still finds, however, that more attention is paid to the influence of Gandhi and others outside the American political tradition than to those within it. For example, in his lengthy treatment of King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Dates quotes King's reference to "the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber," yet does not refer to the immediately following discussion-intended by King to clarify his reference to Buber-of the fundamental American concept of the rule of law (p. 225). (Even more telling, in this context, is the fact that the index to this book does not even list the Declaration of Independence, although King referred constantly to it.)
In addition to Gandhi, Dates emphasizes the influence of Hegel, whom King studied as a graduate student, and of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It is obvious that King was, in fact, influenced by the thought of these men. Yet it is equally important to realize that King was not attempting to replace American principles with a distillate of Gandhi and Hegel.
King loved America; he saw his movement as a way to fulfill the promise inherent in American democracy. Even near the end of his life, when his rhetoric had hardened and he tended to emphasize the injustices he perceived in American politics, he never repudiated his commitment to what he called "the American dream." In a commencement address at Lincoln University in May 1968, he described that dream:
It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities, and of all creeds can line together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: "We hold these truths to be self-evident-that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
King was striving for a fulfillment of the promise of equality. The tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience were mere means. The ends toward which those means were directed were provided by the Declaration of Independence, which King described as "a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir" (p. 259). It is only by keeping this point in mind that the moral force of King's approach is comprehensible.
It was precisely this point that the "Black Power" and separationist critics of King missed. For example, Malcolm X criticized King's use of the Gandhian tactics of nonviolence, arguing that they were inapplicable in America since "Gandhi was a big dark elephant sitting on a little white mouse. King is a little black mouse sitting on top of a big white elephant" (p. 251).
Malcolm X did not understand, however, the moral persuasiveness of the principles of the Declaration of Independence in American political life. Thus he misunderstood the ultimate strength of an appeal to those principles-regardless of the size of the group doing the appealing.
The relationship between the principle of equality and King's doctrine of civil disobedience is made manifest in King's famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." King responded to the criticism that civil disobedience was a kind of anarchy by going to its basis. First, King argued, following Augustine, that "an unjust law is no law." Segregation laws are unjust because-using Buber's terminology-they substitute an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship. This is simply an abstract relating of the Declaration's principle of equality. The essence of equality is the recognition of common humanity, a recognition inherently denied by segregation laws. The second part of King's argument was that the rule of law depended upon the principle of equality. The rule of law is the radical principle of equality made conventional or legal; i.e., that all should be equally governed by the law. If a majority makes laws which are not binding on itself-laws which do not apply to those who make them-then it is that majority, and not those who disobey such laws, who are subverting the idea of the rule of law. The greatest proponent of the rule of law, Abraham Lincoln, stated precisely this point: "When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government-that is despotism" (speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854). Thus, we see that King's civil disobedience was not anarchy but the highest form of citizenship. King broke the law to preserve the law.
King was performing one of the fundamental tasks of a democratic statesman-the education of public opinion to the meaning and requirements of democracy. But King was not a statesman. His followers were united by their attachment to civil rights. King did not have the challenge of dealing with a diverse constituency containing fundamentally competing interests. The compromises and delays of the political process were disheartening to King, and finally embittering. He began to lose faith in America.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in King's opposition to the Vietnam War. Some regarded this opposition to be imprudent because it alienated those (most notably Lyndon Johnson) who were friends of civil rights but opponents of the antiwar movement. But this opposition was fundamentally imprudent in that it vitiated the principles of the civil rights movement itself.
Unlike the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement was not based on the fundamental democratic principles of equality. The antiwar protesters appealed to a variety of principles-sometimes unarticulated, occasionally incoherent. Some opposed the war on grounds of general pacifism, others because they thought there was something uniquely immoral about this war. Some were opposed to "U.S. imperialism," others simply to "hysterical anticommunism." By lending his great influence, as well as the tremendous moral authority of the civil rights movement, to the antiwar protesters and condoning their brand of civil disobedience, King was sanctioning something very different from the tactics used in Montgomery and Birmingham. There, King's civil disobedience was directed at exposing and removing laws which were destructive of the principle of equality, and so the rule of law. The civil disobedience of the war protesters, however, was directed at attempting to force their wishes on an unwilling majority. In this case, King lent his sanction to the use of civil disobedience as an alternative to-not a support of-democracy. This idea of civil disobedience is essentially anarchy. It means that whenever one finds policies not to one's liking, one may use any convenient means to have them overturned. The rule of law, of course, requires that minorities obey laws passed by majorities, however distasteful they may be-given the premise that those minorities may persuade their fellow citizens to accept their view, and so become the majority. In thus opposing the war in Vietnam and supporting the antiwar protesters, King abandoned the justification for civil disobedience expounded in the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" in favor of a kind of rootless civil disobedience, or at best a justification of civil disobedience grounded in some inchoate idea of justice not necessarily shared by his fellow citizens.
To say that this foolishness tarnished King's greatness is not to gainsay his merits. He ranks as an American hero: first, because he fought courageously to remove the great blight of segregation from our national character; second, because his life was dedicated to making manifest "the American dream," a glory and a vision which transfigures all Americans.