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ONE Sunday morning in 1957, Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher who still had the open, unformed face of a boy, found an unexploded dynamite bomb on his front porch in Montgomery, Ala. Within hours he was in his pulpit saying, ''I'm not afraid of anybody this morning. Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I'm going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I'm going to stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning I would die happy because I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the promised land and it's going to be here in Montgomery.''
The language, of course, anticipates that of the more famous speech King gave in 1968 in Memphis on the eve of his assassination, and the similarity underscores the central miracle and mystery of his life. Early and late, this man was able to summon a moral and physical courage that was, let us not forget, a new force on the stage of Southern history.
In the period marked by his two ''mountaintop'' speeches, King led the movement that ended the segregation of public facilities in the South, secured the franchise for black voters and changed profoundly the unwritten protocols and daily practice of social custom in the region. While some veterans of the civil rights movement are quick to point out that these victories were not the achievement of King alone, ''Bearing the Cross'' reminds us anew that his leadership was the indispensable ingredient.
David Garrow, an associate professor of history at City College and the author of ''The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.,'' has given this biography the informal subtitle ''A Personal Portrait,'' and that is apt. More thoroughly than any King scholar to date, he has explored what we might call the sacred and profane aspects of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. Along with the civil rights achievements, he documents the inner torments King suffered because of his compulsive sexual adventuring and because of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's conscienceless campaign to use this weakness to destroy him. But Mr. Garrow does not let the sensational side of his story distract him from the central task of any King biographer, which is to explain the wellsprings of King's courage and of his genius for inspiring poor, powerless people to acts of bravery and defiance. Like most people of both races who grew up in the Deep South in his day, Martin Luther King believed anyone who truly challenged racial segregation would be killed. On the facts of his life, King seemed an unlikely candidate to make such a challenge. He had been sheltered and spoiled by domineering parents as a child, and he was often undisciplined and hedonistic as an adult. Where, then, did King acquire the ability to look death in the eye and wring from the experience an unflinching poetry of sacrifice and redemption?
For an answer, Mr. Garrow points us to a single night, Jan. 27, 1956. King, at 26, was on his way to national celebrity as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. But the telephoned death threats had weakened his resolve. Unable to sleep, he sat at the kitchen table and reflected on the fact that he had inherited the ministerial profession from his father and had mastered the philosophy of religion at seminary and graduate school, yet he himself had no sustaining faith. Then King heard an ''inner voice'' that he identified as that of Jesus Christ. ''I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.'' OTHER biographers have noted this episode, but Mr. Garrow asks us to regard it as the transforming moment, ''the most important night of his life, the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great.''
The temptation is to assume that the author is placing too much emphasis on this epiphany. But he shows how King returned again and again in his own thinking and speeches to that ''vision in the kitchen.'' In the end, I think that Mr. Garrow makes the evidentiary case for Bayard Rustin's observation that King must be understood as a ''spiritual intellectual'' - that is, as a leader who combined a trained academic mind with a childlike faith that God would deliver him a transcending, albeit personally expensive victory.
Without the disciplined, analytical side of King's nature, the education that went so far beyond that of most preachers in the South, King could not have managed the rambunctious team that put together the brilliant tactical plans for Birmingham and Selma. But it was the childlike faith that spoke from the mountaintop moments of his career and sustained him in his final despair, when he realized that ''the cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.''
In its account of King's career and the history of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, ''Bearing the Cross'' is a foundation document. Through tireless interviewing, through skillful use of the Freedom of Information Act and, not least, through his principled refusal to submit to F.B.I. entreaties to suppress details of the bureau's spying on King, Mr. Garrow has provided the fundament of fact on which future King biographies must rest, both in regard to King's public and private lives. TAKEN together, this book and ''The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.'' demonstrate that only with an examination of King's private life can we understand the ''profound sadness'' that gripped him after 1966. The F.B.I., with the approval of Robert F. Kennedy, first began eavesdropping on King for information about his relationship with Stanley D. Levison, a New York lawyer and alleged Communist. Mr. Garrow offers firm evidence that Levison was an ''inactive party member'' with deeper Communist involvement than King realized. But he also disproves a segregationist canard that has wormed its way into some historical accounts - that Levison was a behind-the-scenes manipulator who really ran King and the movement.
In the course of monitoring King and Levison, the F.B.I. discovered something that would have greater impact on King's life than the subversion issue. King practiced a ''compulsive sexual athleticism'' that he explained to one friend as ''a form of anxiety reduction.''
From 1965, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation mailed to S.C.L.C. headquarters a tape recording of sexual encounters in King's hotel rooms, King understood what the F.B.I. had and how they meant to use it. ''They are out to break me. They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit,'' he said in a telephone conversation that was, fittingly, tapped by the F.B.I. Shortly after this awareness struck him, King's closest associates began to remark on the ''spiritual depression,'' insomnia, exhaustion and morbid preoccupation with death that gripped King. For the final three years of his life, King would be tormented by a ''death wish'' that seemed to have its roots, at least in part, in a fear of exposure that would undermine his moral authority.
While making the case for such a linkage, Mr. Garrow does not fully explore its implications, and Continued on next page his preference for amassing facts rather than analyzing them is a bothersome flaw in this otherwise admirable book. Mr. Garrow presents the reader with the most complete dossier yet published on the life King led in hotel rooms and in his hideaway apartment in Atlanta. Yet he seems reluctant to integrate this material into a deeper understanding of why King continued his libertine pursuits even when it became clear they might be used to destroy him. PART of the answer for King's behavior, Mr. Garrow writes, could be found in the ''serious marital differences'' between King and his wife, Coretta - differences over money and their conflicting visions of the wife's role. But a deeper motivation for this philandering was apparently a profound sexual hunger rather than the petty reasons that triggered domestic squabbles. ''Outweighing them all,'' Mr. Garrow concludes on these points of conflict, ''was the fact that there were some things Martin King badly needed that he could not find at home.''
The number of King's affairs would suggest some of these needs were purely physical. But he also had a long-term relationship with a female colleague, which became the ''emotional centerpiece of King's life,'' and the need to sustain this romance may have contributed to his recklessness. Whatever the cause, it was precisely during this period of deepening anxiety over F.B.I. prying into his sex life that King's political activities increased his vulnerability to the bureau's threat of public-image blackmail. He was challenging the Government on the Vietnam War and became increasingly open in calling for ''a radical redistribution of economic and political power.''
Still he did not alter his behavior. Indeed, the vacations without his wife in the Bahamas, Miami and California became more frequent. He began to drink more heavily. Finally, what this author has documented is a portrait of a man unwilling to chasten his private behavior, unwilling to abandon his principled opposition to injustice and war and increasingly convinced that the F.B.I. or other forces would use the private information to discredit and destroy him. In the end, he fell back on the lion-heartedness that had come to him after the ''vision in the kitchen'' over a decade earlier in Montgomery.
''I'd rather be dead than afraid,'' King told his staff when they warned him against the dangers of marching in Memphis. A few hours earlier, King gave his final speech, citing the same thought in a public way. ''Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. . . . I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.'' In the end, Mr. Garrow's presentation and his choice of title invite us to see King acting out a sacrificial drama in which death loomed as a release from the irreconcilable cross-pressures of principle, public role and private desire.
On this point, however, I wish Mr. Garrow had been more forthcoming, even more speculative in helping the reader interpret material that, at this point, he knows better than anyone in the country. Instead, he has been careful, perhaps overly so, to avoid the pitfalls of psychohistory and of the F.B.I. voyeurism that he documents in his books. Even so, there are important issues of biographical scholarship and public policy that cannot be avoided and that beg for deeper analysis. On the policy level, we are not likely to encounter a more chilling or more convincingly documented case of the Government's attempt to control an individual's political behavior by intruding into his private life. President Nixon's offenses in this regard -most notably the burgling of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist - have been vigorously denounced. But one leaves this book feeling that John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson have got too little blame for their roles in creating the conditions that led to the surveillance and harassment of civil rights and antiwar activists. They had the authority to restrain J. Edgar Hoover's campaign to discredit King; they cannot escape the responsibility for failing to use it, no matter how politic their reasons.
On the personal side, King's associates have feared for years that full disclosure of his private life would dim the aura of his memory. But this impulse to sanctify King, to put a veil over his personal life and to sanitize the increasingly radical politics of his final years, is misguided. Books like this one are needed for an understanding of the dramatic scope of an important American life. We see King in the full dimensions of his humanity, struggling not only against the external evil of segregation, but also persevering against private assaults and inner demons that even now cannot be fully explained. It is a story with the symmetry of classic tragedy.
Like any great tragedy, this one has a conundrum at the center. Why, after 1965, did King seem to acquiesce in his own psychic destruction? Why did he not simply end the escapades that opened him to the threats of the F.B.I.? Was it a simple lack of self-discipline, some deeper sexual obsession, a romantic love before which he was powerless? Was it a yearning for what he called the ''glowing, epic-making days in Alabama and Mississippi'' before he became entangled in the seemingly insoluble problems of war, economic justice and what he saw as a deeper, intractable racism that lay beyond the reach of civil rights laws?
Mr. Garrow seems to think it is some combination of these forces that led King to prepare himself, at the zenith of his life, for death on the cross he had chosen as a young man. This book will endure as the starting point and inspiration for more fully analytical works that wrestle with the questions that have been opened before us by David Garrow's meticulous investigative scholarship.
Having wished for more interpretation at some points, I should add in fairness that this biography aims to establish its authority not with stylish writing or analysis but with the depth and detail of its scholarship. In this regard, Mr. Garrow must be given his due fully. No student of the Southern movement will leave ''Bearing the Cross'' feeling shortchanged on facts, and especially knowledgeable students are likely to be impressed by Mr. Garrow's willingness to tackle the hardest problems of research. For example, there is the moldy old legend of the mysterious ''well-dressed Negro man'' who bailed King out of jail in Albany, Ga., when King preferred to remain in the lockup to spur demonstrations there. At last, we learn beyond doubt that Mayor Asa D. Kelley and his canny police chief, Laurie Pritchett, threw King out of jail to break the emotional momentum of the protests and invented the mystery bondsman as a cover story. IN writing about Albany, Selma and Birmingham, Mr. Garrow guides us to an appreciation of the intuitive talent for crisismanagement that fired the civil rights movement in its early days. Even while under pressure from state and Federal authorities and his own staff, King had a sense of when to pull the grand, confrontational gesture that defied prudence, such as sending the children into the streets in Birmingham. ''Please don't be too soft,'' he exhorted Andrew Young at a critical moment in Selma. ''In a crisis, we must have a sense of drama.'' Here, the accretion of detail upon detail works well to produce a kind of battlefield portrait of King at the height of his powers in the years between Montgomery and Selma when his inspirational and tactical skills merged in an almost magical way.
Fortunately, we seem to be entering a period of intensifying scholarly study of the Southern civil rights movement. For, as it happens, we are already caught in a time when there is an attitude of denigration and forgetfulness toward the struggles of the 50's and 60's. Three years ago, free-associating before reporters at a news conference, President Reagan gave new life to the old charge that King was a Communist. Twice in recent months I have run across articles and books recycling Bear Bryant's flippant observation that a black running back did more to promote integration in Alabama than Martin Luther King Jr. Such comments are worse than misguided. In the environment of current opinion, they amount to an invitation to forget that no one was more in the tradition of American democratic protest and that no one did more than Martin Luther King to promote integration and progress and prosperity in his native region. That is how he earned his historical place - in the grandeur of his courage and the frailty of his humanity - as the greatest leader to emerge from the American South in this century. PEOPLE WERE EAGER TO TALK ABOUT KING Seven hundred interviews are at the heart of ''Bearing the Cross,'' David J. Garrow's biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Garrow, an associate professor of political science at City College, did nearly 200 himself; others are from archives. Most people, he found, were eager to talk about the slain civil rights leader, even the sheriffs and other white Southerners who opposed King. ''They saw me as a conventional-looking white boy,'' the 33-year-old author said recently, amid stacks of newspaper clippings on the floor of the study in his Manhattan brownstone, to whom they could tell ''the real story of Martin Luther King.''
What helped sustain him, he said, in the seven years it took to write the book, was his appreciation of King's religious faith. ''Realizing how deep a faith motivation he had really gave me a much deeper understanding of what this man was about and made him a more fundamentally powerful and moving figure for me.'' Taking the long view, the
King biography came about because Wesleyan University, where Mr. Garrow earned his bachelor's degree, required an undergraduate honors thesis. His dealt with King and was published as ''Protest at Selma.'' His second book was ''The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr.'' Two years later, in 1985, he made headlines when he obtained transcripts of conversations of King that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had wiretapped.
Mr. Garrow is at work on a study of the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover. ''I feel a little guilty moving on to the F.B.I. thing,'' he said. ''My whole focus so far has been on the civil rights movement. I don't want to dilute that.'' - Michael Molyneux