During his last three years on Earth, Martin Luther King went through hell
In January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr.—founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Nobel laureate and the nation’s most prominent civil rights activist—moved his family into a squalid tenement apartment in one of Chicago’s economically barren ghetto neighborhoods.
A fixture in American political life since December 1955, when he assumed leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association—a coalition of churches and organizations that banded together to coordinate a boycott of city buses following Rosa Parks’ arrest just weeks before Christmas—King subsequently appeared to be everywhere the civil rights movement took root. Albany, Georgia; Birmingham; Selma; Atlanta. Even when he wasn’t at the forefront of events, as was the case with the wave of lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides that shook the South in 1960 and 1961, civil rights activists at the grassroots level looked to him for guidance and inspiration.
Now, the man who helped spearhead a movement that had pressed successfully for laws integrating schools, public accommodations and voting booths was ready to take the struggle north, where, as he put it, “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.”
That summer, King led protests throughout the “bungalow belt” in Chicago’s working-class white neighborhoods and the nearby blue-collar suburb of Cicero. Polish, Italian and Irish residents who once regarded themselves as strident New Deal Democrats and who had applauded passage of the Voting Rights Act a year earlier now erupted in rage against the invading legion of peaceful black protesters. They cascaded marchers with rocks, beat them with clubs and fists, and hurled ugly invective of the sort that most people would have expected of Southern Klansmen.
Cries of “White Power! White Power!” rang out in an angry rebuke of the “black power” mantra that many young, radical civil rights activists had adopted a year earlier. “Polish Power!” “Burn them like Jews!” “Roses are red, violets are black, King would look good with a knife in his back.” (One protester tried to do just that but missed, inadvertently sending a knife into the shoulder of another backlash heckler.)
King was aghast at the ugly reception accorded his peaceful marchers. “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” he mournfully observed.
Almost 50 years after his death, we remember MLK as the transcendent figure who helped lift the South out of Jim Crow. We also remember him as almost preternaturally calm in the face of great pressure and danger. He was indeed all of these things. But the passage of time has obscured his dimensionality. In the last years of his life, King expanded his vision beyond the former Confederacy and took on a broader struggle to dismantle America’s jigsaw edifice of racial and economic discrimination—a struggle that took him deep into northern states and cities, where onetime allies became bitter enemies. He did so even as he strained to keep a fractious civil rights movement unified, and in the face of unremitting sabotage from federal authorities.
He was a young man, still in his 30s—foisted onto the national stage with actors many years or decades his senior, suspect in the eyes of both younger and older civil rights leaders—and the burdens of leadership took their toll on him.
Seven months before his death,
King gathered his closest advisers for a planning retreat in rural Virginia. Over five days, the fractious group of activists argued amongst themselves. Some thought that King went “too far” in voicing opposition to the Vietnam War; others argued that he hadn’t gone far enough. Some advocated a renewed emphasis on poverty; others believed that the focus on economic issues had drawn the SCLC away from its charter mission—civil rights for black Americans. They argued about whether to narrow their efforts to the South, where the organization had been born, or to recommit resources to the urban North. They argued about money: There was too little of it. And they fought over tactics: When one of MLK’s longtime white advisers questioned Jesse Jackson over the efficacy of “Operation Breadbasket,” a Chicago-based initiative, Jackson acidly replied that he was disinterested in the opinion of a “slavemaster.”
Every person has a breaking point. After drinking alone in his hotel room after the meeting, King flew into an uncharacteristic rage. Smashing the furniture in the small room, he wailed, “I don’t want to do this anymore! I want to go back to my little church!” Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, two of his closest aides, calmed him down and convinced him to get some badly needed sleep. “Well,” he apologetically told associates the following morning, “now it’s established that I ain’t a saint.”
Since the age of 26, King had lived a mercilessly public life. He spent as much time, if not more, in airports and hotel rooms as he did at home with his wife and children. He faced relentless pressure to raise money, mediate internecine disagreements within the movement, speak before local civil rights groups and act as the national spokesman and government liaison for the black freedom movement. It was not the life that he chose. Rather, it was the life that chose him.
On his birthday, Americans celebrate King’s accomplishments and commemorate his martyrdom. It bears remembering, too, that he struggled with the role he played. And that he willingly surrendered life’s comforts—small and large—to give himself wholly to a country that didn’t, in his brief time here, fully appreciate him.
– Submitted by Joshua Zeitz