Last Night on Earth

Photo by Matt Herron/BlackstarI hate to appear sensationalistic here, especially when the subject is 20th century America's most profound moral prophet, but what happened in the last 24 hours of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life has the undeniably sensationalistic stuff of classical Greek tragedy about it, complete with a sense of a life swamped by uncontainable, wrenching contradiction veering terrifyingly toward a destiny anybody could see coming but nobody could control. And as in the world according to Sophocles and Euripides, the last hours of King's life have the bizarre, touching neatness of the three dramatic unities—that of time, certainly, of place (more or less), and of theme, too, capably summed up by Marshall Frady in the introduction to his short, plangent biography: "One sensed an extraordinarily harrowed man—caught in the almost insupportable strain of having to sustain the high spirituality of his mass moral struggle, while living increasingly in a daily expectation of death—intermittently resorting to releases into sweetly obliterating riots of the flesh."

King's last 24 hours on Earth began with his address to a large crowd at Memphis's Mason Temple on an April night in 1968 that was so stormy that "when he took the pulpit, lightning was still flashing outside with claps of thunder." Inside the sultry church, they turned on "fans [that] would bang now and then, and each time they did, King gave a start." King started because the death threats had been coming fast and furious, threats that started way back during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and were by no means idle: in his 13 years at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, his house had been bombed; his front door had been blasted through with a shotgun; and he had been stabbed in the chest, pummeled by a stranger on a plane, savagely kicked during demonstrations, and struck repeatedly in the head with stones, bricks and fists. He had long cultivated a hubristic identification with Christ, one that extended into a dark—and, it turns out, utterly credible—presentiment of martyrdom. So his speech struck chords that only the ear of History—and maybe King himself—could hear as the ironically elegiac ones reserved for the tragically destined: "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. Like anybody, I would like to live a long time; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. . . . And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over, and I've seeeen the Promised Land! . . . I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

By 1968, it needs pointing out, what King meant by the Promised Land had gone well beyond the black movement's original Canaan of desegregation and equality under the law. He had become a full-blown (if still defiantly nonviolent) political radical. Frady tells us, "King had come to feel an unease of soul that he was trapped in some accelerating contest between the last hopes for a true, interconnected human community in America and the progressive deadening of its heart by the advance of a new sort of technotronic, corporate totalitarianism—a national order of power, composed of the megaconglomerates and the huge machineries of government acting in their interests, that was working a systematic impoverishment of modern man's very humanity, conducting the country ever further into a computerized, materialistic void."

King spelled it out directly in a talk with historian David Halberstam: "You have got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values. . . . We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure. Power must be relocated, a radical [re]distribution of power must take place."

After the "transported thundering in the church" had died down, King and his closest aide, Ralph Abernathy, retired to a late dinner at the home of one of King's mistresses, where, "according to Abernathy, King flung himself into a final, all-night release, into carnal carousal." King and the woman retired to the bedroom; Abernathy waited. The lovers emerged at 1 in the morning, and King and Abernathy returned to the motel where they were staying. There, King was met by a second woman, with whom he disappeared into a room for several more hours. When he returned to his own room at dawn, he was met, amazingly enough, by a third woman, here for the same thing. But when she realized what King had been up to, she engaged in an "angry scuffle" with him and rushed out of his room, with King following her, crying desperately "Don't go! Don't go!"

Now, King had many mistresses sprinkled throughout the South, a matter he once explained away to a friend by saying that for a man who lived away from home 25 days a month under extraordinary pressures, "fucking's a form of anxiety reduction." Of course, his philandering also filled him with a guilt so intense that Frady plausibly speculates King's embrace of death in the end might have partially been a form of self-punishment. Whatever the case, the afternoon following his debauch, King stepped out onto that motel balcony, and, as Bono has put it, a "shot rings out in the Memphis sky," putting an end to King's extraordinary personal agony—as well as his dream.

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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