Reviewed by John Wilson
Baptized in Fire
If you made your way through the American public school system in the last quarter-century or so, you have probably heard more classroom references to Martin Luther King, Jr., than to any other historical figure. And of course it's impossible to read even for a week in the best newspapers and journals of public opinion without encountering mention of King and his legacy.
This very familiarity can be deceptive, in two ways. First, we can easily imagine we know more about King than we really do. Those documentaries with their iconic images are indispensable, but they don't magically confer knowledge in depth. And second, even if we have read a good deal in the massive and ever-growing literature devoted to King's life and his role in the civil rights movement—not "even if," in fact, but precisely because—we may very well be jaded, despite ourselves, jaded from overexposure and false piety, so that to recover a sense of those incredible events and, just as important, what they might mean for America right now, today: that is a formidable challenge, but one worth taking.
If you are up for that challenge, there's a timely new book, issued to mark the 75th anniversary of King's birth. (Did that stop you in your tracks for a moment as it did me? King could so very easily still be alive to day, I thought—but doesn't that miss the inexorable logic of his confrontation with Sauron-like powers?) The book is To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr,'s Sacred Mission to Save America 1955-1968, by Stewart Burns, for many years an editor of the King papers at Stanford and the compiler of Daybreak of Freedom, a valuable documentary history of the Montgomery bus boycott. (See my "Bookshelf" in the March/April 1998 Books &Culture, an issue which includes a special section, "Thirty Years After Martin Luther King.")
To the Mountaintop is billed as a biography of King, but that is misleading, and readers who come to the book expecting a "life" will be disappointed. It's neither a biography, strictly speaking—though it includes some stretches of biographical narrative—nor a straight history, but rather an unusual sort of book that combines biography, history, and spiritual exhortation. The closest analogue I can think of is the "providential history" practiced by Ian Murray, for example, though Burns is operating with a very different set of assumptions.
At the heart of Burns' book is an account of King's spiritual transformation. The young King, in part by temperament, in part under the influence of the intellectual establishment, practiced a fastidious detachment from the emotional faith that animated black congregations. "By the time he graduated from Crozer Seminary in 1951," Burns writes, "he was determined to find an orderly, rational God to undergird his faith, a God of ideas rather emotions, a thinking man's personal God befitting a suave, modern Negro intellectual."
The turning point came on the night of December 5, 1955, when King spoke to a congregation of thousands (most of them listening outside via loud speaker) at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks had been arrested several days before for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Here, Burns writes, King encountered "working poor people who, unlike [him], talked to God every day and lived their toilsome lives in an elevated world of Spirit."
This is no detached report of "lived religion" by a scholar who is keeping himself at a safe distance. "As many participants later testified," Burns writes, "the holy spirit was alive that night, and in a hundred such nights to come, with a palpable power and crystal clarity that overwhelmed the freshly minted doctor of theology." Indeed, it was "by some uncanny act of grace" that "the breath of Spirit that [King] drew in that evening burst out of him in a jeweled torrent of unscripted words, a Lincoln-like synthesis of the rational and the emotional, the secular and the sacred. The faithful, King now among them, had conjured the kingdom of God in that place."
As is evident from this passionate passage, Burns uses theological language freely, without apology, and yet the reader is often unsure of its precise meaning. What's not in doubt is the arc of the story as Burns tells it. From this point on, and increasingly as the struggle deepens, King experiences an intimate, personal relationship with Christ even as he often stumbles.
While Burns is candid about his subject's failings, by largely avoiding King's personal life, except for the briefest references, he dodges the sort of reckoning that is a biographer's sometimes unwelcome responsibility. (There is an oddly equivocal sentence in a penetrating analysis of King's pervasive sense of guilt, speaking of one of the "compartments" of that guilt: "In another, one can imagine, was searing guilt about his alleged extramarital relationships.")