The Angry Martin Luther King

Why we must resist the 'Santaclausification' of the great leader.
The Angry Martin Luther King

In the 2012 superhero film The Avengers, a serpent-like, mechanical behemoth is closing in on our ragtag team of heroes.

Tired and overmatched, their only hope lies hidden within the mild-mannered frame of scientist Dr. Bruce Banner, who morphs into the big, green and powerful creature known as the Hulk when rattled by conditions of great stress or anger. Seconds before Banner gives himself over to the rage that transforms him into his alter ego, a no-nonsense Captain America volunteers, “Dr. Banner, I think now might be a good time for you to get angry.” Banner responds with a roguish smile, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”

I’m always angry.

I identified with that line and repeated it many times in the weeks after I saw the movie, much to my wife’s chagrin. What resonated with me was that sense of living with a concealed, low-temperature rage; of wanting to avoid difficult people or awkward situations but being dragged into them wholesale nonetheless; of knowing certain conversations with certain folks would invariably lead to unpleasant debates about politics, religion or—heaven forbid—race, but being sucked in anyway; of being looked upon as the harmless black guy my white friends could talk to about virtually anything related to race and know they wouldn’t be unfairly judged.

Of course, these are all good things in their own way—sometimes it’s beneficial to be dragged into uncomfortable situations or forced into interacting with people with whom we wouldn’t ordinarily connect; sometimes a fierce debate on a taboo subject such as politics or religion can help both parties see a different side to an issue; sometimes being a person’s nonjudgmental bridge to another cultural perspective can be viewed as an act of compassion and service. I know all that. But sometimes a man gets tired of wearing that façade Paul Laurence Dunbar spoke of so eloquently, and he just wants to detonate. Sometimes the life of constant smiling and pretending and interpreting can wear on the nerves.

I doubt I’ll ever be mistaken for an Angry Black Man—a label some white critics have pinned on controversial black personalities such as Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson or Jeremiah Wright—but my wife can testify that there have been moments when I’ve let my guard down and regretted it. It has happened in the form of a cynical comment on Facebook, a terse email, a sarcastic comment that I never should’ve allowed to escape from my brain to find audible expression for others to hear.

It’s important to talk about the harder aspects of race and culture honestly before they boil over into something destructive.

On the other hand, it’s important to talk about the harder aspects of race and culture honestly before they boil over into something destructive. This is the conclusion that an academic researcher recently arrived at through her work on race and mental health in African American men. In her study, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Wizdom Powell Hammond examined the phenomenon scholars call “everyday racism,” which is evidenced not so much by the egregiousness of the discrimination encountered, but by its persistence and subtlety.

“These daily hassles have consequences for men’s health,” Hammond said. “It chips away at people’s sense of humanity and very likely at their hope and optimism.” Hammond found that black men who openly discuss their everyday struggles with racial issues are less likely to suffer depression than those who keep their feelings bottled inside. This is probably Psychology 101–level stuff that applies to anyone who’s repressing heavy emotions of whatever variety, but I was still fascinated to see scientific research that actually quantifies many of the things I’d experienced personally and encountered anecdotally through my work as a journalist.

And this sense of racial anxiety isn’t just experienced by people of color alone; many whites know the pangs of a simmering rage and resentment as well. We hear it all the time now from the provocative voices of talk radio, the Internet and Fox News. They’re as mad as hell and eager to tell you about it. They’re mad at government programs that abet unworthy individuals in moving to the head of the line based strictly on their skin color or ethnicity; they’re incensed over lax policies that would allow foreigners to enter this country illegally and benefit from its resources; they’re disgusted by welfare-loving baby-mamas whose lifestyles appear to normalize dysfunctional behavior.

But lately, what seems to irk them the most is the notion of being falsely accused of racism when we live in a country that overcame its racial hang-ups long ago. To their way of thinking, the only racists left in the world are people of color who are relentlessly screaming racism. Consequently, it sometimes seems, one of the most dangerous things for a black man to talk about today in the open air is anything related to race. Do it and risk the scorn of a tacit movement designed to squelch the idea that race still matters.

One commentator even dared to put a label on the phenomenon. “You might call these people anti-anti-racists,” wrote journalist Michelle Goldberg in 2012. “They are determined to push back against any narrative that would suggest that a black man has been targeted for the color of his skin.” In the end it all comes back to anger—anger at injustice, anger at what we perceive to be injustice, anger at not being able to speak frankly about those real and perceived injustices.

Is it any wonder, then, that many of us are always angry?

Angry Roots Showing

I mentioned earlier how frustrated I became after that traffic-cop incident in Atlanta, where the historical ghosts of the Deep South setting and the feeling that I was being treated as little more than a racial statistic (rather than a human being lost in an unfamiliar part of town) conspired to test my Christian charity. My friend LaTonya is a kind and unassuming woman in her early thirties who you’d never guess possesses a piercing wit. She jokes that whenever she’s preparing to visit the South, she gets “pre-annoyed” simply as an act of solidarity with her black ancestors who suffered under Jim Crow discrimination and at the hands of police who were a lot more ill-tempered than the officer I tangled with.

Dr. King, it seemed, also carried a low-temperature but constant rage within.

Sometimes anger can be a handy conduit for working out our frustration and angst. When the psalmist said, “Be angry, and do not sin” (Psalm 4:4 esv), I believe he was giving us permission to embrace that anger and tension, but he also warned that we should not allow it to rule. The question is, What will we do with it?

King’s Angriest Moment

Dr. King, it seemed, also carried a low-temperature but constant rage within. He endured a lot: death threats, bomb blasts, a stabbing, incarceration. But most of all he endured the strain of knowing his dignity and humanity mattered, even when society and its laws said they didn’t. He bore the prophet’s burden of knowing it was his responsibility to demand a better reality for his people, a better way for all of America. Yet, America—especially the America of Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi—was not ready to listen. This had to be maddening.

In a 1964 interview King recalled a particularly painful incident from his youth that became a defining moment. At the age of fourteen he traveled with his teacher, Mrs. Sarah Bradley, from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, to participate in a speech contest sponsored by the Elks Club. The young King won the competition (go figure) with an address titled “The Negro and the Constitution.” After the event King and his teacher boarded a late-night bus back to Atlanta. As they settled into their seats, they were euphoric but tired from the night’s proceedings. During a brief stop in a small town along the way, a handful of white passengers boarded the bus.

The white bus drive shot a look at King and Mrs. Bradley and commanded them to surrender their seats to the whites. When King and Mrs. Bradley hesitated, the driver spewed profanities at them, calling them “black sons of bitches,” and made it clear that he was in no mood for insubordinate Negroes. Feeling stubbornly indignant, King stayed planted in his seat until Mrs. Bradley finally convinced him to move, explaining that they had to obey the law.

The student and his teacher stood in the aisle for the remaining ninety miles to Atlanta. King later told an interviewer that he would never forget that event. It was, he said, the angriest he had ever been in his life.

“Great leaders often have a strong capacity to experience anger,” said Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa in an Inc. magazine article about King’s leadership.

King shared this story after repeated stays in jail, after harassment from the FBI, after having all manner of indignities hurled at him from both segregationist and moderate white critics, and traditionalist and militant black leaders. He was truly hard-pressed from all sides. Yet, an episode from his childhood remained most trenchant in his memory.

“It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”

“Great leaders often have a strong capacity to experience anger,” said Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa in an Inc. magazine article about King’s leadership. “It wakes them up and makes them pay attention to what is wrong in their environment, or in themselves. Without anger, they would not have the awareness or the drive to fix what is wrong.”

According to King’s close friend and supporter, the renowned entertainer Harry Belafonte, “Martin always felt that anger was a very important commodity, a necessary part of the black movement in this country.”

And how could it not be?

One of King’s gifts as a leader was the ability to see more clearly than most the systemic roots, both spiritual and social, that created the dilemma of racial unrest in the United States. At the zenith of his career, in 1964, he keenly observed that the “frustration” and “desperation” of “the Negro today” was the cumulative effect of prolonged poverty and systematic injustices in housing and public education. He described the black community as being “trapped” in a “socioeconomic vise” and isolated by an “oppressive and constricting prejudice.”

But he not only addressed the issues critically. By virtue of his station in life, he experienced them personally. So besides providing sociological analysis, Dr. King likely was also preaching to himself when he added that a righteous man has no choice but to resist such an unrighteous system as Jim Crow. “If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently,” said King, “then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion.”

In the most crucial moments, King’s analytical side allowed him to separate emotion from the problem itself in his quest to interpret conditions for a watching nation. Yet it’s clear that he was not a man detached from his feelings.

King operated out of a Christian ethic of love that channeled his anger and hurt into a redemptive force for change.

Unfortunately, King is known more today as a poetic patron saint of racial harmony than a provocative prophet of social justice, someone who by the end of his life had managed to get on just about everyone’s last nerve. This surely is one reason why the scholar Cornel West has implored his audiences to resist the “Santa Clausification of Martin Luther King.” And why historian Tim Tyson lamented, “We have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates.” King, I believe, operated out of a Christian ethic of love that channeled his anger and hurt into a redemptive force for change.

He called it “creative nonviolence.” And nowhere are the mechanisms of this principled indignation more evident than in the fiery missive he would pen from his Birmingham jail cell.

Dungeons and Darkness

Solitary confinement seemed a cruel and unreasonable judgment for peaceably defying an impromptu injunction forbidding public demonstrations. But, then again, nothing was remotely reasonable about this intensifying battle for human rights taking place across the South. Anyone surveying the events happening in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 should’ve been able to see that.

King sat alone in his dirty, mostly windowless quarters of the city jail. The rusty commode proffered no attached seat, and the tiny bunk, composed of little more than metal slats, sneered in the face of any occupant seriously desirous of unhindered rest. Save for the dim light from a small opening high above, his days were enveloped by gloom. He later said a person will never know the meaning of “utter darkness” until they have spent time in a “dungeon” like the narrow cell he occupied.

He remembered that first day in the Birmingham cell as “the longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours” he had ever lived.

For more than twenty-four hours, King was allowed no phone calls and no contact with visitors, not even his lawyers. Though he was treated coldly by the guards, who regarded King as an uppity troublemaker (not to mention other venomous words), there were no acts of physical brutality. Still, he remembered that first day in the Birmingham cell as “the longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours” he had ever lived.

There’s never a convenient time to go to jail, but this period was particularly challenging for King, whose wife, Coretta, had just given birth to the couple’s fourth child. Already guilt-ridden from being away from his family, and now cut off from contact with the outside world, all he could do was “think long thoughts and pray long prayers.”

King was especially concerned that he might fail the thousands who had put their trust in his leadership. He was behind bars at a time when the Birmingham campaign and its so-called Project Confrontation were hobbling and in danger of petering out like the mess that had occurred in Albany. The civil rights leader made a calculated bet that his imprisonment would provide the spark needed to light a wildfire beneath the Birmingham movement, but it could just as easily have become another Albany. What’s more, many in the movement worried that King’s imprisonment would hinder the fundraising infrastructure needed to secure bail money for the hundreds of youth and young adults who had also gone to jail for marching in the streets. Without the face of the movement on the outside to raise money, the SCLC coffers were running frighteningly dry.

Reclaiming the Moment

On the Saturday before Easter, the second day of King’s stay in solitary confinement, an unidentified jailer slipped him a copy of that morning’s edition of the Birmingham News, perhaps knowing the Atlanta preacher’s blood pressure would rise when he saw the guest editorial on page 2 of the paper. Despite the dim light in King’s cell, the headline jumped off the page like the opening credits of a Cecil B. DeMille movie: “White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.”

King pored over the statement from the eight white ministers, his pulse quickening with each line of text. Though the statement did not mention King or the SCLC by name, the insinuation was as loud as a church organ. King homed in on what must have felt to him like a paternalistic censure of the campaign’s efforts. He particularly locked in on the suggestion that SCLC leaders were “extremists” and “lawbreakers.”

Indulging one’s historical imagination and connecting the psychological dots, it’s probably safe to surmise King’s ego was tweaked. His immediate reaction was likely one of incredulity, followed closely by a sense of betrayal (these were, after all, moderate clergymen) and then vexation. It’s possible that the sight of the clergymen’s statement along with the other stressors in King’s mind at that moment combined to create a perfect storm.

“I suspect King was furious,” says University of Hartford historian Warren Goldstein. “Things probably looked grim from that jail cell. The movement was faltering again, and it looked like the eight clergymen’s interpretation of the situation would win the day and they would dance on his grave.”

As he fumed over the ministers’ audacity of nope, it’s possible that he flashed back and pondered a particularly infuriating moment he experienced in December 1955, during the early stages of the Montgomery bus boycott. As he attempted to reach a resolution with Montgomery’s white authorities, it became resoundingly evident that the city’s white leaders were unprepared to relinquish their segregated privilege and negotiate in good faith. Instead, they attempted to divide the Negro coalition by portraying King as the main stumbling block to an agreement. Had his colleague Ralph Abernathy not come to his defense, it’s possible that the white leaders would have succeeded. Unity in the King-led Montgomery Improvement Association was preserved, but the preacher was incensed. Still mastering the ways of the nonviolent dissenter, he even lost his composure during the meetings. He later recalled that he went home heavy-hearted, weighed down by guilt and regret that he had allowed himself to become angry. He knew even then that the only way to manage a crisis was to maintain control of his emotions, to endure the cruelty of his adversary without returning it in kind. He kept repeating to himself that no matter the situation, he had to remain calm and reject bitterness.

Repeating that mantra no doubt moved King closer to his Christo-Gandhian ideal. Seven years later he had learned to exercise more control over his emotions. Like a mystical Baptist Jedi, he was operating at another level. Rather than allow his anger to congeal into bitterness, he would now use it to reclaim the moment and reframe the Birmingham narrative. He said he became so “upset” and “righteously indignant” that he decided to respond to the letter. But even then, what appeared to be a spontaneous decision was actually part of a larger plan.

Edward Gilbreath is an editor at large for CT, and the executive director of communications for the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is also the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity (IVP).This exceprt is taken from Birmingham Revolution by Edward Gilbreath. Copyright (c) 2013 by Edward Gilbreath. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.

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The Angry Martin Luther King