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A Gift of Grace to the United States

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A Gift of Grace to the United States

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., 50 years after his assassination April 2, 2018
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On Sunday night, March 31, 1968, Travis and I sat drinking beer and watching a black-and-white television set in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Lyndon Johnson was delivering yet another of his mournful, hound-dog addresses to the nation about Vietnam. But this time, he ended with a surprise: he would abdicate. He would remove himself from the melodrama. He would not seek reelection in 1968. He would make himself disappear. He would go away. It took a moment for this to sink in. Then Travis and I whooped, and went out to finish getting drunk. 

Travis Williams was a classmate of mine from college, a black man, the son of a Durham, North Carolina barber. Travis had gone to Exeter on a scholarship and to Harvard as a National Merit Scholar. His father hated all white men and bitterly warned his son against them. Travis—a tall, rollicking, complicated guy who was very smart and drank too much—had a contrary view; or anyway, a different strategy. Many of his friends were white. He was succeeding quite handsomely in the white world; by spring of 1968, he was a reporter for Life magazine. I was a national affairs writer for Time.

LBJ’s abdication—coming after the Tet offensive and after the New Hampshire primary in which Eugene McCarthy did well and after Bobby Kennedy entered the presidential race—was one of the early earthquakes of 1968. At Time, we settled down to write about Johnson’s withdrawal and its aftershocks. We had our stories written or half-written by Thursday night, April 4, and a group of us— national editor Mike Demarest and a few writers—went off for dinner at a Greek restaurant in the West Fifties. In half an hour, the owner bustled over with the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis. We leaped up, paid the check, and by the time we were back at the office, the flash was on the AP ticker that King had died. 

Travis called me up from a bar somewhere and shouted: “I’m getting pretty sick of this shit!” He slammed down the phone.

I mention personal details—private memories mixed with the public—because, 50 years later, the two are mingled inseparably in the mind. You locate the meaning of these things only by seeing them in both dimensions—in many dimensions. Anyway, the great public issue of race in America is always intensely personal. The dread word— “the N-word”—compresses, in six letters, centuries of public and private meanings (hatred, tragedy). 

I first met Martin Luther King, Jr., for a moment, at a labor union convention in Buffalo in the summer of 1960. I had just finished my freshman year and was working a summer job as a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News. King gave a speech. I forget the subject. I made my way through the crowd of labor leaders, up to the stage, and I shook King’s hand and, with what were no doubt excesses of sincerity, told him how much I admired him. It was true.  

One of the things that distinguished King was his air of gravity and dignity and formality (which he might pronounce gravitay and dignitay and formalitay). His body English was like his prose: stately, with restrained Biblical embellishments—the Moses note, by way of Ebenezer Baptist Church. There in Buffalo, he appraised me for a second (earnest white boy in horn-rims) and replied slowly, “Thank you verra much!” 

It happened that my father, who worked for Nelson Rockefeller, knew King pretty well. My father handled Rockefeller’s dealings with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and knew not only King but his lieutenants—Wyatt T. Walker, Ralph Abernathy. The Rockefeller family for many years had given money to black Baptist institutions in the South, to Spelman College, for example. King came to New York frequently, and sometimes my father lent him our Ford station wagon. I would ferry the car to King over at the house in Riverdale where he was staying. I would hand over the keys. (Thank you verra much). One time, King sheepishly returned the car with a dent in the side. He was abashed and charming. He wanted to have the dent fixed, but we would not hear of it. The dent remained—the Martin Luther King Dent, a cherished family relic.  

I admired Martin Luther King as much as I admired any American in the twentieth century. I felt—still do—a reverence for him. Charisma is Greek for “a gift of grace.” King was a gift of grace to the United States—a country that may have been unworthy of the gift, or else unable to understand it. Toward the end of his life, blacks had given up—a bit—on King and his ways. With amiable humor, they called him “De Lawd.” Travis referred to him that way. Some even used the lethal term, “Uncle Tom.” The Nobel Prize—a suspect apotheosis, bestowed by Whitey—subtly discredited him in contrast with black firebrands (H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael) to whom satyagraha was the wrong idea: they meant to take the passive out of passive resistance. King was getting to be passé— your father’s station wagon.

Few Americans have shown more courage than the civil rights workers in the South in the early 1960s: the Freedom Riders and others, those working for voter registration and access to public accommodations. One night in the summer of 1964, I was on a late shift at the old Washington Star. A long-distance call came in to the city desk from Sunflower County, Mississippi. I heard a frightened young voice coming from a house way out in the dark Mississippi countryside—a civil rights worker who told me that she just wanted someone to know that she was out there in the middle of the night and scared to death, and that now and then she heard a pickup truck. We talked for a long time. Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman had disappeared a few weeks earlier from Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their bodies would be found in the earthen dam where Klansmen buried them. 

The most conspicuous and vulnerable of them all was Martin Luther King. He saw it coming (“I may not get there with you”), but he never stopped. His gift to the country, apart from the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, was his miraculous example of grace and courage. People associated the phrase “grace under pressure” with John Kennedy, but it more aptly applied to King. Along with the grace and the courage, there came with him a motif of forbearance, of forgiveness—good manners on an exalted level. Kennedy in the 1960 election made an acid remark about Richard Nixon: “No class.” No one in that time had more class than Martin Luther King. 

Years later, in 1982, I was in Alabama to have a look at George Wallace’s last gubernatorial race. Wallace, in his time, had unspeakably bad manners, especially toward black people, and the power to inflict humiliation and pain. Yet I found, to my astonishment, that, in 1982, more than a few black Alabamians supported him. They found it in themselves to forgive him. (He had apologized that time in Birmingham, they said, and anyway, he was doing a lot for the people by starting up community colleges.) That seemed to me a very definition of grace—a blessing entirely unmerited but bestowed by the promptings of a good heart. There was a Southern churchy sweetness in these transactions—not sentimentality, but goodness.  

Wallace had been in a wheelchair for ten years, after being shot down and crippled in a Laurel, Maryland parking lot by an assassin during the 1972 presidential campaign. Now, on Labor Day a decade later, he sat in his wheelchair on a small flatbed metal stage in a park at Noccalula Falls, near Gadsden, and he communed with the people, white and black, who filed quietly past. He reached out his hands to them, consoling and almost, one thought, healing. I wrote in an article at the time: “He has the nimbus of saint and martyr—or at any rate, of a celebrity who has passed through the fire and the greater world: he has come back to them from history, come back with powder burns.” 

Wallace—though in great pain— survived his assassin’s bullet. Martin Luther King did not. Such outcomes are mysterious. Grace was at work: even a sinner like George Wallace might find shelter and be—at least a little bit—redeemed by the atmosphere of King’s example. The words Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do reverberated, as if in some obscure moral negotiation, between Memphis, Tennessee and Laurel, Maryland.

I find the entire year 1968 to be a sermon whose lesson is indecipherable, even 50 years later. There were four deaths that were decisive—to me, anyway. Two were public and two private; two were blacks, and two were whites. Nineteen sixty-eight was Moloch. These were blood sacrifices.

The public deaths: Martin Luther King, in early April; Bobby Kennedy, in early June. The private deaths: at the end of January, just at the time of the Tet offensive, my younger brother Mike, 17, died in Memorial Hospital on 68th Street of an obscure cancer that attached itself to his lung; in May, my friend Travis Williams, 28, burst a blood vessel in his brain. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village. We did not see that one coming.

Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images

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