Last Night on Earth

The final 24 hours of Martin Luther King Jr.

By 1968, that dream—that racial harmony could be achieved through Christly means, that there was such a thing as a politics of love—was already crumbling all around him, even among his own staff. Frady's biography covers all the major bases: King's grief-stricken, suicidal childhood (he jumped out of second-story windows twice); his education into the philosophy of nonviolence (however marred by acts of plagiarism at Boston University); his major successes in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, as well as his failures in Albany, St. Augustine and Chicago; his relationship with the Kennedys, which Frady says illustrates the "immemorial conflict between prophet and princes"; J. Edgar Hoover's obsessive hatred of King, which led to FBI wiretapping of much of King's "sexual corsairing" (in Frady's gentlemanly characterization); and most interestingly to me, the growth of King's vision, a vision that began with King's efforts to desegregate public buses in a small Alabaman city and ended with King's outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, the ambitious if badly organized Poor People's Campaign, and King's final pronouncements on the need for an entire "revolution of values." And practically all of this—King's eternal wrestling with love, sex, death, God—gets telescoped into the maelstromic passion play of his final hours.

People like their heroes and saints lily-white, be-like-Mike affirmative, Rushmore simple. When you get your own national holiday, you become "history" in the worst sense of that word: mythified into irrelevance, drowned in the American Lethe of patriotic clamor and miniseries mind-massage. So maybe it helps to imagine what King's last day must have been like, not just because it so vividly counteracts sloppy mystification, but also because we at last see into the torturous nature of this man-saint—with emphasis, let us pray, on the hyphen.

Martin Luther King Jr. by Marshall Frady; Lipper/Viking. Hardcover, 216 pages, $19.95.

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