Why Martin Luther King Saw His Life as a Sacrifice
A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer Sheds Light on the Civil Rights Icon's Spiritual Trials
Illustration by Jaya Nicely.
Interview by Warren Olney |
David J. Garrow is the author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1987. Warren Olney, a veteran journalist for KCRW, Southern California’s flagship NPR affiliate, who covered the civil rights movement as a young reporter, interviewed Garrow about King’s life in December 2017 in Los Angeles. They discussed the ongoing relevance of King’s work and his deep commitment to Christianity, equality, and nonviolence—including his response when he was actually punched by Nazis.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Bearing the Cross. The title, it seems to me, says it all, because Martin Luther King Jr. really saw his life—certainly the end of his life—as a kind of sacrificial drama.
Yes. Right from the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, Dr. King saw his role, saw his calling, as a personal sacrifice. He had no egotistical desire to be a quote-unquote “leader,” or to be a famous person. He got drafted by the other black civic activists in Montgomery to be the spokesperson for the bus boycott, primarily because he was brand-new in town and wasn’t aligned with any of the existing sort of black civic factions in the city. And all along throughout the late ’50s, throughout the course of the 1960s, Dr. King always thinks of his life and his role in a self-sacrificial way. “Bearing the cross,” is the phrase that he himself used on at least four or five occasions that we have recorded on audiotape—where he is explicitly or implicitly talking about how he copes with this role that he feels he got dragged into.
He was drafted by other civil rights leaders but there was also another influence. Tell us about the moment in the kitchen.
About eight weeks into the Montgomery boycott, late January of 1956. By that time, King has become a known name in Montgomery, thanks to the local news coverage of the boycott. And he started to get a lot of threatening phone calls at the house—the parsonage of his church. It was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church; it’s 309 South Jackson Street—the house is still there. And King experiences a sort of crisis of faith late one night, sitting at the kitchen table. Several times in later sermons, he spoke very emotionally about really praying to God about what to do at being thrust into this very unpleasant, very dangerous role, a role he didn’t want to be in. And it’s really important for everyone to understand that King was first and foremost a Baptist minister. His real grounding was biblical. Not Gandhi. Not Thoreau. King was through-and-through a Christian preacher. And so, it is that religious faith resource that he turned to that night. He felt that he was being told that this was the role, this was the obligation, that he was being called upon to take up. And whenever, in subsequent years, he underwent really serious emotional stress again, he would think back to this vision in the kitchen—as Jim Cone and myself each refer to it—as a source of deep strength.
His father was a minister.
He became a minister. Did he at that time really have a crisis of faith? Did he doubt his own faith?
He didn’t doubt his faith; he doubted his own strength. Doc, as I refer to Dr. King, Doc had made the decision as a very young undergraduate at Morehouse College. Doc finishes his undergraduate education, at age 19. He had started college at age 15. And the real formative experience for Dr. King was the three years that he went to seminary just outside Philadelphia, from 1948 to 1951, after his undergraduate years at Morehouse College in Atlanta. By the time he gets to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, now he’s mature enough to really benefit from the education. That was frankly less true at Morehouse. He then went on to a Ph.D. program in theology at Boston University in Massachusetts. And so by the time of the Montgomery bus boycott King is only 26 years old, but he’s had really a dozen years of academic training.
He had that crisis of faith that you described, but he also at seminary overcame his antipathy to white people, which developed because he thought white people had an antipathy to him.
As a young child, a high school student, and growing up in Atlanta; Atlanta was sufficiently segregated in the 1930s and 1940s, that Dr. King, being from an upper-middle-class family, had a fairly protected childhood. He only had really three experiences prior to age 16 of experiencing racial hostility from white people. Crozer had a very small student body, but it was at least 30 to 35 percent African American. And it had generally a very good racial tone. There was one segregationist white student there who only lasted a year, Lucius Hall, who threatened King once when a sort-of student prank backfired.
But also, at Crozer, Dr. King ended up in a very serious romantic relationship with a white woman whose mother was on the staff of the seminary, Betty Moitz. They were very, very attached to each other. But King’s closest friends in seminary—Horace Whitaker, his sort of substitute father figure there in Chester, Pennsylvania and Rev. J. Pius Barbour, an old friend of Rev. King Sr.—they told King that there is no way that you can be a black pastor in the South with a white wife.
Right from the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, Dr. King saw his role, saw his calling as a personal sacrifice. He had no egotistical desire to be a quote-unquote “leader,” or to be a famous person.
One of the things you talked about a moment ago was the risk and danger of what he ultimately decided that he would do, and I want to talk more about that. But it’s interesting that he was raised in a very pampered way, there’s simply no other way to describe it.
Right. Daddy King—Martin Luther King Sr.—was a very successful pastor, who had built Ebenezer Baptist Church into a top Baptist Church in Atlanta. Not the top church, that was Wheat Street. But Daddy King was not someone of much academic education whatsoever. He graduated college, but he was a very different style preacher then Dr. King Jr. came to be. And Daddy King was a very domineering, powerful figure, and so it was very purposeful on Martin Luther Jr.’s part to get away from Atlanta and go to seminary in Pennsylvania and then to go for his Ph.D. up in Boston. That’s a way both of credentialing himself, in a way that his father was not, really distinguishing himself from his dad, and also getting away from still living in the family home. When Doc went to Morehouse as an undergrad, he’s a day student. I mean he’s commuting across from the east side of Atlanta to the west side. His collegiate experience was he was just still living upstairs with Mommy and Daddy.
So back to the Montgomery experience. You said he was initially new to the area. Obviously, he had been to Atlanta and other places, so how much of a shock was it to him when he was, all of a sudden, sort of drafted into the civil rights movement?
Dr. King had only been there in Montgomery at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for about 15 months when the bus boycott got started. Mrs. Rosa Parks, whose arrest kicked off the boycott, she was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter. And she had tried to get Dr. King to be an active participant in that chapter, and he begged off, saying he had too much to do with the church and starting a family. When the boycott gets going, it’s really started by other black women in Atlanta, the Women’s Political Council. They’re the people who actually get it organized, get it started. But those women were all teachers, primarily at Alabama State College, and ergo they were on white-controlled payrolls, and vulnerable to economic retaliation. King and other ministers weren’t so economically vulnerable. That’s why King and his best friend Ralph Abernathy end up becoming the public face of the boycott. And people like Jo Ann Robinson, Mary Fair Burks, stay in the background so as not to lose their teaching jobs.
Ralph Abernathy succeeded and, of course, was the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. How did that organization come about, and how soon after the Montgomery boycott?
The real initiative for creating SCLC as a South-wide regional organization, playing off the success of the boycott, came from three New Yorkers. Ella Baker—a long-standing black political activist who had been a top official at the NAACP, but who didn’t like the NAACP’s top-down decision-making structure; Bayard Rustin—longtime peace activist, very experienced; and then Stanley Levinson—white lawyer from an old left background who was wealthy enough that he, too, was a supporter of efforts in the South. And it is really Bayard and Mrs. Baker and Stanley who sell the idea of SCLC to King and Abernathy and other ministers that King and Ralph knew, like Joe Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, who are from Mobile and Birmingham, respectively. But Bayard Rustin is the one who actually typed up the founding documents for SCLC.
KCRW’s Warren Olney interviews David J. Garrow at Zócalo in Los Angeles. Photo by Zócalo Public Square.
Stanley Levinson became King’s best friend in many ways, certainly his best white friend.
And that caused him some problems as time went on.
Yes. Stan Levison was an attorney, didn’t practice, real-estate investor, part-owner of a car dealership. But up until 1954, 1955, Levison has secretly been one of the most important financial functionaries in the Communist Party U.S.A. Unbeknownst to Levison or any of the Communist Party folks at that time in the mid-’50s, the American party’s two international ambassadors, guys who traveled to the Soviet Union, eventually traveled to Red China, were paid FBI informants: Jack and Morris Childs. And so, when Levison—who basically left the Communist Party in the mid-’50s—when Levison then turns up as an advisor to King, the FBI is rather tardy in discovering this. The FBI’s hypothesis in 1962 is essentially: Voila! Someone who once had been as important as Levison is now Martin Luther King’s top advisor by accident?
So that’s the beginning of all the electronic surveillance of Levison, of Bayard Rustin, of other King advisors, eventually of King himself. And King was pressured again and again by the Kennedy administration, by Robert Kennedy’s deputies, and by President John F. Kennedy himself in 1963, to break ties with Levison. But these vague assertions about what Levison was—that he was a Soviet agent—King thought that was laughable. So, King basically did not take the Kennedy brothers’ warnings with any degree of seriousness. And he was frankly less than forthright in what he said to the Kennedys. You know, he keeps in touch with Levison, through an intermediary, while the FBI hears about that, literally, from telephone taps. And so, the Kennedy brothers developed the perception, thanks to the FBI, that King isn’t being honest with them.
So, the wiretaps were conducted by the FBI under the supervision of J. Edgar Hoover?
How were those tapes used against Martin Luther King?
Dr. King was not monogamous. From 1963 onward, Dr. King had a very serious relationship with a woman, a relationship as important as any in his life. And the FBI was aware of that. She was someone who was very active in the movement. And he also had eight, 10 other lady friends in different cities. That’s the sort of material that the FBI, come 1963, ’64 into ’65, is obsessed with gathering. And they're sending teams of agents around the country, city to city, trying to be one step ahead of King so that they could get the hotel rooms wired up before King gets there. And it’s those sort of hotel bedroom surveillances that the FBI then starts distributing both within the federal government—to Lyndon Johnson once he becomes president in late 1963—and also surreptitiously sharing with journalists and religious leaders. But in the journalism ethics of the 1960s, nobody year after year, in the press—either in print media or in broadcast media—ever went public with how the FBI was handing around this sexual material on King. Everyone within elite Washington knew this was happening, but it was never put on the record. So, King suffers great emotional turmoil knowing that this is being done to him, but it never emerges as a public issue.
So, from King’s standpoint, this was part of bearing the cross?
Why did they do it?
The FBI had a racial paternalism to it. Now, J. Edgar Hoover, by any definition of the word, was a capital “R” racist. But, Hoover's deputies were not hostile to the entire black civil rights movement. It’s very important to stress that. The FBI had close working relationships with Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP, with Jim Farmer at the Congress of Racial Equality, and with Whitney Young at the National Urban League. The FBI saw King as a dangerous threat both because of Levison and this notion of Communist influence and because they insisted they were horror-struck that a minister was sleeping around. They also were very hostile to SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, because the FBI viewed SNCC as also dangerously radical. So, the FBI’s behavior was wanting to sort of help the civil rights movement be conservative and moderate and protect it from communist influence. All throughout the ’50s, ’60s into the ’70s, the FBI retained a hugely exaggerated fear of communism long after the U.S. Communist Party—as of 1956 and thereafter—was basically just a husk of an organization.
So, he was drafted into the movement. He conducted himself with the extraordinary intensity that you describe. What were his goals?
As of 1956, the NAACP, and Thurgood Marshall, have this phrase, “Free by ’63.” The Brown v. Board of Education decision come down in 1954. And even at the time of the Montgomery boycott, a year and a half, two years later, the attitude within the leadership of black civil rights organizations was that beating down legal segregation—legalized discrimination—was going to happen fairly quickly given this powerful Supreme Court precedent. Well, they didn’t quite make it by ’63, but then the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaws all racial discrimination in public accommodations. And then the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlaws racially discriminatory voting practices.
But by the time the 1965 statute is signed into law by President Johnson, King and most everyone else in the movement have come to realize that they had been incredibly, naively optimistic about what curing American racism would involve. Back in the ’50s, people thought that Supreme Court decisions, passing federal statutes—that was the goal. That was the solution. But by a decade later, everyone realizes that simply outlawing discrimination at lunch counters and in motels or on voter registration rolls….
Or in schools.
Or in schools, exactly—that’s not doing anything with regard to the economic privation that most black Americans were suffering from. So, Dr. King by 1965, 1966, has essentially seen the horizon recede away from him at a pretty dramatic degree. And he’s thinking, OK, what do we have to do to tackle housing discrimination, employment discrimination, all sorts of particularly urban racial practices, and the economic privation of black America? King and his top aides make the decision, after that voting rights victory in Selma, to go north to Chicago. There’s a big effort in 1966, the Chicago Freedom Movement, which ends up focusing primarily on how incredibly discriminatory urban housing markets are. And they win a symbolic victory from the powers-that-be in Chicago. But that success didn’t even really begin to really touch the surface of just how pervasive, rip-off real estate practices were in targeting black people in a city like Chicago.
King’s ethic of Christian love always taught him that these people could be saved: saved from their racism. He was always optimistic about converting people to the cause of human equality.
You mentioned earlier the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael being the principal leader. How did Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference get along with SNCC and with the other civil rights organizations?
SNCC initially comes out of the student sit-in movement in spring of 1960. By 1961, early ’62, SNCC is sending young field secretaries—black college students, recent graduates—out to do local organizing in really difficult, hellacious, rural counties. In Southwest Georgia. In Southwest Mississippi. In the Mississippi Delta. And from 1962 to 1965, SNCC is really the leading edge, cutting edge, of the Southern movement, again and again.
Ahead of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?
More so, yes. And SNCC is doing, not big demonstrations and marches in a Birmingham or Selma, they’re doing local community organizing. SNCC makes a big effort in Mississippi in 1964 but then gets turned away when they try to go to the 1964 Democratic National Convention because Lyndon Johnson thinks that that sort of an embrace of SNCC in Mississippi might fatally harm his reelection possibilities. Up through 1965, SNCC is very much in close tandem with Dr. King and SCLC’s emphasis on nonviolent resistance.
Only in 1966, when Stokely Carmichael succeeds John Lewis, now Congressman John Lewis, as SNCC’s chairman does SNCC turn towards the rhetorical phrase, “Black Power.” And for much of 1966 and 1967, there’s huge media controversy over what does “Black Power” mean? And Carmichael is an intentional, rhetorical bomb thrower. He never quite wants to specify what does black power mean. He wants it to mean different things to different people. And King is very much torn, and pulled, and twisted. King doesn’t want to denounce black power. But he also wants to make crystal clear that there is nothing anti-white about it. This goes on for months.
For what it’s worth, in 1968 I covered a news conference with Stokely Carmichael. This was after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. But we were brought in, we the press with our television cameras and so on—and there were all these guys around the room that had pistols….
And they brandished them, and they made sure that we saw them, and we all took pictures of them and they were being very aggressive. Was nonviolence controversial within the movement?
Nonviolence is not controversial, certainly up through 1964. But, in rural Mississippi, in rural Louisiana, most black farmers had guns. The first organized self-defense efforts really come from Louisiana, a northern Louisiana group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice. They start showing up at protests in 1966 for defensive purposes. Prior to that, there was only fringe issues of Negros With Guns, the title of a book from that time. But King’s own grounding in nonviolence was just total: deep, ethical, religious commitment on his part. At two different times, in 1963, and again in 1965, King is literally punched by Nazis. Once in Birmingham. Once in Selma. And not only does King not punch back, but no one else punches these guys. They are taken away. And that was the ethic of how King lived his life. King made a very explicit emphasis on never let anyone drag you so low as to hate them. Hate destroys the hater. King always distinguished between the evil deed and the evildoer. So, for King, even with someone like Lester Maddox who becomes the segregationist governor of Georgia in 1966, or George Wallace in Alabama, King was totally clear in his own mind that he would never allow himself to hate these men. His ethic of Christian love always taught him that these people could be saved. Saved from their racism. He was always optimistic about converting people to the cause of human equality. And so, King had a strength of spirit that, to put it politely, I just don’t think we see much at all of in this country 50, 55 years later.
Was he able to convert anybody?
There are some instances of that. Not particularly well-known. There are literally some instances of Klan members who come to realize that their own racial hatred is wrong, and do convert. But it’s less a utilitarian hope on King’s part than it is a faith grounding.
David J. Garrow at Zócalo in Los Angeles. Photo by Zócalo Public Square.
What about the extraordinary speech on the Lincoln Memorial? How important was that to King, what role did he see himself playing at that point? And what role did he play? How significant was that moment?
The “I Have a Dream” phrase and speech was one that King had previously given at least twice that we know of. King almost always spoke and preached extemporaneously, not reading a text. He had in his head this huge archive or library of biblical stories, quotations. And he would start with a theme. He’d have a clear idea of what he wanted to do. But when he is speaking he is doing it off the cuff. So, in Washington that day, at the march, for that there actually was an advance text, because the organizers at the march had made everybody submit an advance text for approval. John Lewis’s SNCC speech was thought to be too radical and there ends up being a lot of arm wrestling about how Lewis’s speech gets censored and toned down. But King’s actual speech, the first two-thirds or three-quarters of it was roughly from text. But the famous parts are all extemporaneously added on and go line for line like previous speeches that King had given in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, about a year earlier, and Detroit, Michigan about two months earlier. To people today, who listen to that speech, or read the words from it—the King of that speech is a much more upbeat, optimistic political voice than the King of the ensuing five years: from the fall of 1963 up till his assassination in ’68. So, to me as a historian, that speech is unrepresentative and can be misleading because it can mislead people to fail to understand what a very tough critic of American inequality, and what a very outspoken critic of American militarism around the world King becomes in the last three or four years of his life, particularly with regard to the war in Vietnam.
Very definitely he was opposed to that. So, did he then get depressed? Did he conclude that the goals that he had set out to achieve were in fact unachievable?
By the end of his life, Dr. King is very pessimistic about America’s future. He’s exhausted. He’s just really drained, often depressed, because of how little progress and achievement he and others had been able to make in targeting economic inequality from ’66 to ’68. But he’s also very unhappy, very depressed, about how the war in Vietnam has expanded and grown. And anti-war protests have had very little impact on the Johnson administration.
Did that change his view about nonviolence at all?
No. King believed in nonviolence in the international realm as well as in a domestic protest context. When King received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, as sort of a symbol of the American black freedom struggle, King took that award as excessive individual praise of himself and as a result felt he had to try even harder to do even more. So, the peace prize increases King’s sense of burden and directly leads him to think that, now I’ve got to really speak prophetically about violence in the world, not just about violence in the American South.
King, you indicated, became somewhat depressed later in life. And we began by talking about the title of your book which is Bearing the Cross. Would it be wrong to say that given that he saw himself as sacrificing his life for the cause, he wouldn’t have been surprised by his own assassination?
Oh, no, not at all. Doc knew from very early in his civil rights career that he would be killed. He is always aware of that from 1956 forward. And he wasn’t in any way obsessed with it. It’s a completely rational perception. He, several times, said to people, “Yes, this ends with me getting killed.”
Are you satisfied that justice has been done in regard to King’s assassination? Do we really know who did it?
Yes. Without any imaginable rational question, James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. Period. No FBI involvement. No CIA involvement. We do not know, we never will be able to know whether Ray—small-time racist ex-con—believed (by word-of-mouth), that he would be financially rewarded by segregationist businessmen for having done this. It’s highly likely that Ray had heard there was money out there to be earned. But even when this was first really investigated in 1976, 1977—40 years ago now—too many people had already died in the ensuing 10 years for that to be discoverable. The FBI failed badly in 1968 in looking for that sort of a conspiracy contemporaneously. But there is no government involvement—notwithstanding how many deranged, unreliable people would still say that today.
King very much understood that he was a symbolic leader, not a commander. And again, and again the lesson that the black freedom struggle in the South in the ’60s should give us is that local people can take the initiative successfully for themselves.
What do you think is the ultimate legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
King’s answer to that question would be how much he failed to accomplish. That economic equality for black America remains almost as unachieved 50 years later as it was in 1968. He would similarly say that with regard to American military practices, policies, imperialism—a word he would use—in the world, America’s international footprint remains hugely different from what he wished for. But I think he would be most disappointed, unhappy, upset, by how the spirit of nonviolence had vanished from American life: on the left, as well as on the right.
You wrote Bearing the Cross some time ago, and I’m interested in whether, since you completed the book, you’ve changed your views at all? Do you see things in a different way, particularly as far as King’s contribution to the history of the country is concerned?
By 1986, when Bearing the Cross? came out, we had 25-plus years in time then from the high point of the movement. No, my fundamental attitude today is not particularly different at all than it was, say, 30 years ago. We have a better appreciation now of how important SNCC was. And I think it’s crucial for people to realize, especially younger people, that the civil rights movement was not somehow commanded by Dr. King. King very much understood that he was a symbolic leader, not a commander. And again, the lesson that the black freedom struggle in the South in the ’60s should give us is that local people—like in Montgomery, like in Birmingham—local people can take the initiative successfully for themselves; they don’t have to wait for a great man, a great person to come along and lead or instruct them.
Hypothetical questions always seem to be unfair, but I can’t help asking you. If his biggest regret would be the lack of the spirit of nonviolence, what would he try to do about it?
He would be preaching very forcefully that if a Nazi punches you, the progressive, the correct progressive political response is not to punch a Nazi. King would be denouncing Antifa at least as forcefully as he’d be denouncing white nationalists. It’s crucial for people of color, for people on the left, to realize that that’s the truth and the spirit of Martin Luther King—not some racial or political partisanship.