The Man Behind the Legend

Let The Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther: King Jr. By Stephen B. Oates Harper and Row; 498 pp.; $19.95

TO MOST COLLEGE STUDENTS, Martin Luther King remains little more than a legend. Killed while we were still too young to be aware of him, he now symbolizes a more turbulent, idealistic time a movement now seemingly defunct and a group who rose up defiantly to demand its freedom. We see him standing before the Lincoln Memorial an Old Testament prophet in the guise of a Baptist preacher both admonishing a nation for its transgressions and exhorting it to live up to a vision of brotherhood and equality. But while the image of King as a modern day Moses has become fixed the human being behind that image has lost focus.

Stephen B. Oates new biography of King the first in more than a decade avoids a one dimensional image of King by showing his human complexity. Though thoroughly researched, Oates plainly written book offers rule analysis of King's activities or of the movement he came to lead. As Oates confesses in his preface, he views biography as a storytelling art not as a from of historical argumentation. Thus he rarely intrudes into his tale. Oates instead allows King to emerge largely through his own words and those of his friends and colleagues. And King seems less monumental and more uncertain and yet more inspiring than his popular image.

IN ONE OF HIS favorite sermons. King would often quote a French philosopher's remark that "No man is great who does not bear within his character antitheses strongly marked." King provides the best example for that maxim.

Born into a Baptist tradition of emotional fundamentalism. King acquired by education and temperament an intellectual theology of social activism. A member of the most alienated and oppressed group in American society, he was his generation's most eloquent expositor of the American Dream. Brought up among Atlanta's middle class Black elite he often found his strongest supporters and dearest friends among the South's poor Blacks. King combined within his person a host of conflicting traditions and ideals. His ability to embrace contradictions gave King his greatest strength as well as his greatest vulnerability.

His ability to understand and synthesize the viewpoints of conflicting groups in the Black community enabled him to gain broad based support. He had lived in Montgomery, Alabama for only a year when the arrest of Rosa Parks spurred Montgomery's Black leaders to call for a boycott of the city's buses. Just 26, King was an unlikely choice for the presidency of the organization formed to oversee the boycott. Yet he gained the position because as one observer put it, he could appeal to "both the masses and the classes," both the downtrodden majority and the affluent elite. He could talk to people "from any direction."


King's leadership of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott made him a national figure. As protest against segregation proliferated across the South and White resistance to integration stiffened, Black leaders came together to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, unanimously choosing King as president. From then on his life took an a frantic pace. The burden of King's responsibilities kneading marches giving speeches formulating strategy raising funds going to jail underscored the accuracy of a friend's earlier warning: "You ain't got much time to think cause you in the chair from now on."

KING FREQUENTLY YEARNED for a chance to pause and reflect. Indeed a few years before at 24, he received his doctorate in theology and only reluctantly decided against a career in academics. But now he couldn't let the movement down. Driving himself ever harder he became victim to increasing self doubt and sexiest. Often he condemned himself for failing to fulfill the mission God had given him.

King's increasingly harsh self criticism was compounded by the hostility of others. The same complexity and flexibility that had enabled him to gain his central position in the civil rights movement now made him a target for criticism from each of its extremes. By 1965, many members of the Student Non violent Coordinating Committee were deriding King both for his willingness to make compromises with local governments and for his unwillingness to break his commitment to peaceful tactics. At the same time leaders of the conservative National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Urban League were criticizing King. They resented his refusal to decrease the use of direct action techniques and his linking of civil rights to other issues particularly opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Although the growing strains of criticism hurt King deeply he nevertheless was able to reach the Southern Black masses, finding inspiration as he led others. King possessed many outstanding abilities, but no one so great as his oratorical skill and spiritual power. Though his speeches and demons before thousands of Blacks he was able to bring about a psychological revolution which dwarfed any of his other achievements. He was able to fill his people with the pride and courage to first defy, then change a society that demeaned and degraded them. As a Black janitor said after the completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, "We got our heads up now and we won't ever bow down again no sir except before God."