'To the Mountaintop': Dr. King's mission

January 11, 2004|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America, 1955-1968, by Stewart Burns. HarperSanFrancisco. 512 pages. $27.95.

Like the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement is one of the great touchstones of American history, attracting dozens of writers, biographers and memoirists. Over time, familiar material gets plowed over again and again, sometimes with precious little that is new.

Such is the case with To The Mountaintop.

We have read this story before, have seen it before. Some among us even lived this story. Burns, who edited the third volume of the King papers, is steeped in the era's history and has drawn upon a wealth of resources.

All the big events are here, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. Familiar warriors such as Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy and Lyndon Johnson take their places alongside familiar villains -- George Wallace, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

Yet, for all its familiarity, the story of America's struggle toward Civil Rights and of Martin Luther King Jr.'s central role remains compelling. It never loses its grip on the soul. Barely 40 years have passed since that time of terror and triumph. Those with no memory of the 1950s and 1960s must shake their heads in wonder at the violence, bloodshed and hatred that erupted when black Americans demanded a seat at a lunch counter, a place in the voting line, a chance to try on a suit or dress in a fine department store.

That such concerns do not exist today is an indication of how far this country has come, but it is also a reminder of how terribly out of sync America was with its espoused ideals.

As the subtitle suggests, Burns' focus is on King, viewed through the lens of Christian faith and Gandhian nonviolence. The teachings of theologians such as Paul Tillich and Martin Buber are also noted. All helped to shape King's view of the world and himself. He became a modern-day Moses, "De Lawd" to some, a nickname that was equal parts sarcasm and respect.

Throughout his public years, he was beset by doubts, fears and depressions, spurred on by a sense of divine calling, his faith and his peoples' urgent need for a leader. You come away again impressed by his strength, fortitude and, yes, heroism. He spent his adult life in the public eye, endured bombings and jail sentences. Comrades near and far were murdered.

Burns recounts King's evolution from a 27-year-old preacher thrust into leadership in Montgomery, Ala., to an exhausted 39-year-old Civil Rights warrior.

He was often caught off-guard by the rapid changes that occurred. The 1960s passed in hyper-speed, with assassinations, riots, wars, protests and racist terrorism seemingly constant. King's dream of brotherhood and nonviolence became a nightmare of riots and militarism.

By 1968, he was ready to lead an army of America's poor in an invasion of Washington, to press for economic relief. All the while, there were personal struggles -- including fears that his private life of adultery and good times might be exposed and destroy his public image as God's chosen messenger.

All this is known.

Burns tells his story in a straightforward, journalistic style. Comparing King to Jesus Christ, his inner circle to the disciples and Memphis in 1968 to Jerusalem seems a bit forced. A reference to his forming a civil rights committee in high school after watching the Battle of Birmingham on television comes off as self-congratulatory. These are minor complaints. This story never loses its power and is still worth reading.

M. Dion Thompson, an editor and reporter for 20 years, is currently on leave from The Sun. His first novel, Walk Like a Natural Man, was published in October.

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