If you made your way through the American public school system in the last quarter-century or so, you have probably heard more classroom references to Martin Luther King, Jr., than to any other historical figure. And of course it's impossible to read even for a week in the best newspapers and journals of public opinion without encountering mention of King and his legacy.
This very familiarity can be deceptive, in two ways. First, we can easily imagine we know more about King than we really do. Those documentaries with their iconic images are indispensable, but they don't magically confer knowledge in depth. And second, even if we have read a good deal in the massive and ever-growing literature devoted to King's life and his role in the civil rights movement—not "even if," in fact, but precisely because—we may very well be jaded, despite ourselves, jaded from overexposure and false piety, so that to recover a sense of those incredible events and, just as important, what they might mean for America right now, today: that is a formidable challenge, but one worth taking.
If you are up for that challenge, there's a timely new book, issued to mark the 75th anniversary of King's birth. (Did that stop you in your tracks for a moment as it did me? King could so very easily still be alive to day, I thought—but doesn't that miss the inexorable logic of his confrontation with Sauron-like powers?) The book is To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr,'s Sacred Mission to Save America 1955-1968, by Stewart Burns, for many years an editor of the King papers at Stanford and the compiler of Daybreak of Freedom, a valuable documentary history of the Montgomery bus boycott. (See my "Bookshelf" in the March/April 1998 Books &Culture, an issue which includes a special section, "Thirty Years After Martin Luther King.")
To the Mountaintop is billed as a biography of King, but that is misleading, and readers who come to the book expecting a "life" will be disappointed. It's neither a biography, strictly speaking—though it includes some stretches of biographical narrative—nor a straight history, but rather an unusual sort of book that combines biography, history, and spiritual exhortation. The closest analogue I can think of is the "providential history" practiced by Ian Murray, for example, though Burns is operating with a very different set of assumptions.
At the heart of Burns' book is an account of King's spiritual transformation. The young King, in part by temperament, in part under the influence of the intellectual establishment, practiced a fastidious detachment from the emotional faith that animated black congregations. "By the time he graduated from Crozer Seminary in 1951," Burns writes, "he was determined to find an orderly, rational God to undergird his faith, a God of ideas rather emotions, a thinking man's personal God befitting a suave, modern Negro intellectual."
The turning point came on the night of December 5, 1955, when King spoke to a congregation of thousands (most of them listening outside via loud speaker) at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks had been arrested several days before for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Here, Burns writes, King encountered "working poor people who, unlike [him], talked to God every day and lived their toilsome lives in an elevated world of Spirit."
This is no detached report of "lived religion" by a scholar who is keeping himself at a safe distance. "As many participants later testified," Burns writes, "the holy spirit was alive that night, and in a hundred such nights to come, with a palpable power and crystal clarity that overwhelmed the freshly minted doctor of theology." Indeed, it was "by some uncanny act of grace" that "the breath of Spirit that [King] drew in that evening burst out of him in a jeweled torrent of unscripted words, a Lincoln-like synthesis of the rational and the emotional, the secular and the sacred. The faithful, King now among them, had conjured the kingdom of God in that place."
As is evident from this passionate passage, Burns uses theological language freely, without apology, and yet the reader is often unsure of its precise meaning. What's not in doubt is the arc of the story as Burns tells it. From this point on, and increasingly as the struggle deepens, King experiences an intimate, personal relationship with Christ even as he often stumbles.
While Burns is candid about his subject's failings, by largely avoiding King's personal life, except for the briefest references, he dodges the sort of reckoning that is a biographer's sometimes unwelcome responsibility. (There is an oddly equivocal sentence in a penetrating analysis of King's pervasive sense of guilt, speaking of one of the "compartments" of that guilt: "In another, one can imagine, was searing guilt about his alleged extramarital relationships.")
Some readers may be stunned, as I was, by Burns' account of the Six-Day War, "when modern Israelites trounced Egypt and its neighbors in a six-day blitzkrieg and reconquered Jerusalem after two millennia of exile." Whatever one thinks of the subsequent history of Israel and the Palestinian question, it is simply grotesque to use a term inextricably associated with Nazi conquests to describe a war against Arab states determined to erase Israel's existence. But Burns likes it so much he uses it again on the next page.
This is suggestive of a certain slack acceptance of stock notions of "peace and justice." Yet Burns' engagement with such matters is grounded in the particulars of a confrontation in which peace and justice nonviolently overcame evil—a victory sealed by Martin Luther King's willingness to give up his own life.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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To the Mountaintop is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
O'Connor v. the Antichrist (Jan. 12, 2004)
Moody, the Media, and the Birth of Modern Evangelism | A cautionary tale. (Jan. 05, 2004)
A Few Coming Attractions from 2004 | Plus: What to buy with those gift cards, and some of the books in my to-read stacks. (Dec. 29, 2003)
The Top Ten Books of 2003 | Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music. (Dec. 22, 2003)
Books at Warp Speed | We continue our annual roundup of noteworthy books. (Dec. 15, 2003)
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms? | Read this unconventional collection of sermons and judge for yourself. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Books, Books, Books! | We begin our annual roundup. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Urban Eden | In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly? (Dec. 01, 2003)
Cool Drink of Water | A poet's voice in the evangelical wilderness.
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"-against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)