June 16, 2019
The boss said, ‘Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you.’ And I said, ‘Callahan?’ And he said, “nope, Irwin.’ And I said, ‘I don’t reckon you’ll find anything on Irwin.’ And he said, ‘You’ll find it.’ . . . We clocked off five miles more, and I said, “But suppose there isn’t anything to find?’ And the boss said, ‘There is always something.’ And I said ‘Maybe not on the Judge.’ And he said, ‘Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’ Two miles more, and he said, ‘And make it stick.[i]
My college roommate’s father wrote those lines. Robert Penn Warren was his name. All the King’s Men was the title of the novel. The “boss” was a fictional facsimile of Huey Long. In 1947, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Now a second quote, non-fictional.
Five years earlier, King had come to Montgomery in search of a quiet but socially relevant pastorship. Then, through no initiative of his own, he had been caught up in something larger than he had ever imagined. The vision in the kitchen had given him the courage and faith to accept that, but even when the protest ended, he realized that he was not free, that he could not and would not escape from the responsibility of the larger role into which had been cast. After almost three years of struggling against himself, he realized that this decision . . . was not really his to make. It was made for him, whether he wanted it or not.[ii]
David Garrow wrote those lines in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1987, Bearing the Cross won the Pulitzer Prize for history. I spent last year reading Martin Luther King, including Garrow’s book, where Garrow’s admiration for King shone from cover to cover. In my year of reading King, I spoke of him often in Sunday sermons and I am sure my admiration for him shone through too. I think that without Martin Luther King the United States might have been split irreparably. More than anyone outside the bible, it was he who taught us not to judge by the color of skin, but by the content of a person’s character. By no means is that the only thing he taught or did, but it alone would have merited his Nobel Prize.
About fault-lines in the content of Dr. King’s character I haven’t said much. I did say once that his weakness was marital infidelity and his was a severe case. That was not a secret.
I bring it up now because while we were in England last month newspapers there were covering a story that the press back home was mostly kept under wraps. David Garrow has published new research that shows Dr. King in harsh light. As a recognized authority on King, he said, he felt duty-bound to report it. On a local scale, I feel the same. As often as I’ve praised King from this pulpit, I now feel obliged to reckon with ugly information Garrow brings to light concerning Dr. King’s promiscuous, and frequently inebriate, entanglements with women, not his wife.
Garrow’s sources are FBI summary reports that had been under seal but now, by law, have been opened to the public. The worst incident the documents describe as heard on tape, if true, sounds criminal.
For admirers of King, like me, the story was painful to read. For admirers of the FBI, like me, ditto. The long story of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King is another well-known scandal. David Garrow wrote an entire book about it. The worst thing alleged is that it was someone high in the FBI who sent a blackmail recording to King, with a note urging him to consider suicide. That, if true, was evil.
Garrow’s new article hits both King and the FBI hard. The original transcripts and recordings on which the summary descriptions are based are still under a court-ordered, fifty-year seal. The order expires in 2027. When opened, we will learn if the recordings validate the summaries. If they do, Garrow writes, they pose “so fundamental a challenge to [Dr. King’s] historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.”[iii]
I will leave that to the historians. My job is theological review. Theology is “faith seeking understanding.” How, in faith, are we to understand a great leader’s moral failures? Our church calendar includes a holiday to remember and honor Martin Luther King. If the worst is true, would we erase that observance and remove him, figuratively or literally, from the stained glass windows?
In Proverbs, the Holy Spirit is personified as wisdom. “When God marked out the foundations of the world, then I was there beside him like a master worker.” Human wisdom is knowledge from experience. Through long experience, we know that good people are susceptible to evil. This wisdom is ubiquitous in scripture. Think of David and Bathsheba. What David did to cover up that sin was tantamount to murder, and the bible lays it bare to history. That doesn’t keep him out of stained glass windows.
St. Paul said about himself: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” (Romans 7:21) Sure as gravity, St. Paul’s law weighs on both the FBI and Dr. King. The FBI wants to do right by solving crimes and protecting the country from enemies like the mob, terrorists, and the Ku Klux Klan. Originally, the bureau obtained warrants for surveillance on Dr. King on the grounds that one of his closest advisors was secretly an active communist and potentially disloyal to the United States. The worry was that, through this advisor, King might be manipulated by the Soviets. Given King’s importance, and Russian ingenuity, the concern was not outlandish. Those who think otherwise may underestimate the Soviet Union’s commitment to its cause. President Kennedy personally warned King to stay away from this advisor and King said he would, but fudged on that agreement.
Another great American leader, Abraham Lincoln, taught us to be firm in the right as God has given us to see the right. The FBI wanted to do right as it saw the right, but evil lay close at hand. Reading Garrow, we see that racism fouled bureau leaders’ motives and clouded their judgment—and that prurience did too. Ironically, as Garrow’s new research shows in detail, the FBI became so distracted by Dr. King’s sex life that it failed to notice clear evidence supporting its original concern that Dr. King’s good friend’s communist party days were not behind him.[iv]
As for Dr. King, while striving to do right, as God had given him to see it for his people and his country, he fell for the oldest sin in the book, shades of King David. As with David, one sin led to the next, from bad to worse. He played with fire.
Among celebrity men King’s vice was common. Among history makers his virtue was rare. Not only was he personally brave, generous, and forgiving, the good for which he worked was epic. He strove for nothing less than the fulfillment, long-deferred, of the promise of America—and its racial healing. That was his extraordinary dream and he was tireless in his service to it. Awareness of the vice joined with admiration for the good is wisdom.
What I said of King I will say of the United States. Among nations our vices are common and our virtue rare. Our founders gave birth to the promise in King’s extraordinary dream. As with King, as they sought to do good evil, lay close at hand. Racism, a sin as widespread and old as wrongful sex, led from one sin to the next, bad to worse. In the 1860s and the 1960s, it might have undone our country. We can thank Lincoln and King that it did not.
If we can celebrate America and reckon with its sins, we can do the same with Dr. King. If we admire Dr. King while acknowledging his flaws, we can do that for our country. That is my theological evaluation.
In All the King’s Men, the boss got what he wanted, as he knew he would, and the judge, his enemy, was ruined. The boss had absorbed the doctrine of original sin and weaponized it for purposes of political destruction. But his dying words to Jack, said with his last breath, were: “It might have been all different, Jack. You got to believe that.”[v]
Jack had blood on his hands because of his involvement in the judge’s destruction. The woman Jack loved, Anne Stanton, had also sinned. The Boss had seduced her, with Anne’s cooperation. Everyone was tainted. To a cynic, that is the moral of the story; but All the King’s Men is not cynical, it is biblical. After their fall, Adam and Eve go out into the world and live, still under God’s protection. David and Bathsheba: ditto. Jack and Anne do too.
As the story ends we find them newly married. The year is 1939, in the calm before our country would enter the war to save the world from evil. For now, but not much longer, they live in an old family place on the gulf coast. I love the Mississippi gulf coast. We used to go there before Katrina washed away the place we went to. I love the feel and smell of sand and salty water, the taste of plump, fresh boiled shrimp and fried oyster po-boys, dressed. Jack and Anne know they will leaving all that soon.
I’m going to read you the book’s last words because I doubt there could be a better ending to a novel. In light of what I’ve had to say, I was going to suggest it as an allegory, with Jack and Anne as symbols. Jack would represent America, our country, Uncle Sam. Anna would embody Lady Liberty, who in turn represents the great dream of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Then I decided not to.
Let’s bring it back down to a man and woman, Jack and Anne, who now have learned, as everyone must, that when we want to do good, evil lurks in the vicinity—and so what. Not as nations, nor as persons, are we undone by that. There is always a human price, but again and again, the grace of God picks up the tab and life goes on under his protection.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles think on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.[vi]
[i] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New York: Harvest Book, 1946), 49.
[ii] David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Kindle edition, loc. 1653).
[iii] David Garrow, “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King,” Standpoint, May 30, 2019.
[iv] Here’s a question for historians: did Stanley Levison play a part in shaping King’s thoughts about the war in Vietnam? For someone, a dissertation topic.
[v]All the King’s Men, 436.
[vi]All the King’s Men, 438.