Martin Luther King Jr
R Radhakrishnan ·       

Any student of social science would display legitimate curiosity about the state of the Afro-Americans, whose ancestors were enslaved, transported to the new world and struggled to attain the status and rights of a human and then of a Citizen. The present political boundaries of the African continent are but the creation of the former colonial empires. The history of the Black community in America (people of African origin) has been one of poignancy, desperation and that of a sub-human existence, of beasts carrying the burden of their imperial masters. The biography of Martin Luther King Jr. written by Peter J. Ling is both moving and astonishing given the account of struggle, agony and success of a big section of humanity who were subjugated on the basis of colour (racism). The writer has hit the nail on the head when he in categorical terms mentions the propensity of a section of white settlers in Southern states of USA to uphold slavery by invoking the Bible. The response to this distorted religious skullduggery has been a very philosophical introspection and a vibrant transformation of the Afro-Americans from a sense of subjugation to that of an assertive minority invoking the same scriptures for their emancipation. Stephen R. Haynes argues that it is widely acknowledged that the so-called curse of Ham was the religious rationale for slavery, utilized most often by antebellum southerners and by southern proslavery intellectuals particularly between 1830 and 1860 ("Original Dishonor: Noah's Curse and the Southern Defense of Slavery"). It has to be noted that during the American civil war the southern states sought to defend their right to preserve slavery whereas majority of its white populace didn't own any slaves but hoped to eventually get some by supporting the confederacy.

The author Peter J. Ling displays an intellectual honesty when he accepts the general suspicion revolving around biographies of historical personalities, which sometimes tend to exaggerate the role of its subject and undermine the structural forces and major events behind the emergence of the leader/personality. It would remain an endless debate whether martyrdom salvaged or preserved the position of Martin Luther King in the annals of black liberation movement. The author has invested an enormous amount of labour in tracing the events, circumstances and the historical forces which went into the making of Martin Luther King into a national icon to command a National public holiday in 1983. This is vindicated by the incorporation of various perspectives on the movement including contributions of other people in taking the movement to its logical end. The scholarly integrity is very obvious when Peter J. Ling takes note of the role of media in cultivating an image. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP resenting the manner in which the role of other Black leaders got camouflaged and at times played down. The reader can be assured that the book is not a heart rending narration of the life and times of Martin Luther King, his strength and weakness as an individual, but a dispassionate assessment of a man and the movement and how they influenced each other. The role of the First Baptist Church - the first "free negro" institution followed by the gathering of 700 black communicants in 1867 laid the way for group emancipation. Later organizations ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME), the Women's Political Council, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and numerous other organizations which shaped the movement have been discussed at length and their role meticulously chronicled.

Afro-Americans of Martin Luther King's generation had a dream that they would eventually be accepted and accorded like other Americans with the same rights and privileges, as enshrined in the constitution, regardless of their colour and creed. The Civil Rights Movement, school integration, bus boycotts, move against segregation and mixed neighbourhoods were seen as instruments to achieve these goals. Much water has flown down the Ohio which witnessed symbols of resistance of the segregationist era, when sports legend Cassias Clay (presently known as Mohammad Ali), flung his Olympic gold medal in the river for having failed to secure an egalitarian America - for its involuntary migrants turned citizens.

The author deserves accolades for not only taking an unbiased picture of a historical personality and an era marred by contestations for equality and dignity for the marginalized and subjugated black community, but more for unraveling the human side of an icon of the liberation movement whilst assessing his contribution in an objective manner. Peter J. Ling is neither discreet nor vituperative about Martin Luther's personal life, but has thoughtfully ensured in his writing, that it doesn't overshadow the central concern of his research on the struggle of the Afro-Americans. This is the paradox of history that sometimes movements produce a personality and sometimes it is the personality who outlives the movement in the later stages, by assuming a legendary status.

The book very aptly covers wide ranging aspects of the black struggle ranging from the genesis of the problem, the making of Martin Luther King as a socio-political persona, the movement and its strategies. Like any other movement the black movement had its own set of challenges ranging from the internal squabbles as seen in any mass movements and a failure to broaden the base to accommodate inter-racial politics. However this doesn't in any manner obfuscate the contribution of some liberals from outside, like James J. Reeb, a clergyman from Boston and Mrs. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, who volunteered for the cause of Blacks and fell prey to the violence of the white supremacist groups like Ku Klux Klan.

Francis Fukuyama seems to be in a state of hallucination, with application of selective reading of current history, when he sermonizes that America is grounded in democracy and human rights and that there is a need to teach other people of the world to govern themselves. This proposition remains controversial and grandiose to some extent since the Afro-American community continues to be depicted in an incongruous manner by overzealous and excessive focus on the Rodney King episode, chasing O.J. Simpson and the recent trial of Michael Jackson. Notwithstanding the success of Justice Clarence Thomas, Gen.Collin Powell and Condolezza Rice, who are relegated as mere symbols. The position of Afro-American community remains abysmal in terms of poverty, unemployment and criminal activities.

This is very conspicuous age where there is a legitimate fear of states catering to majoriatrian democracy in the 'free world'. A fact endorsed by the toughest challenges faced by Martin Luther King from radicals like Malcolm X, who were out to justify the retaliatory strikes in Birmingham, citing the double standards of the Kennedy government in dealing with race riots. Earlier the anti-segregation Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) was countered by President Truman's Federal Employee Loyalty Program. The FBI went to the extent of branding inter-racial association as a criterion for defining a subversive organization. It is well established that the complicity of the state in serving only majoritarian interests eventually erodes its neutrality and legitimacy and distorts democratic norms.

While there have also been widespread gains and remarkable developments in terms of abolition of racial barriers in the choice of spouse, employment and place of residence. But Emerson's prophecy of an American nation being built, by constructing a new race, a new religion and a new state, has been checked by a resounding wave of multiculturalism. The Blacks redesignated as African Americans or Afro-Americans, have chosen to emphasize their ethnic distinctiveness and the multicultural character of American society, after being left out of the 'collective experience' of making a new nation. Multiculturalism in America today is viewed as a reactive phenomenon, a consequence of its inability to incorporate the Afro-American populace into its society, to the same degree it has able to incorporate so many other immigrant groups including Indians. While it is quite palpable to understand Condoleezza Rice's self righteous reaction some years ago that, "We are not going to stop talking about the things that matter to us - human rights and religious freedom and so forth. We're going to continue to press those issues. We would not be America if we did not." It would remain a puzzle to understand why mainstream Afro-American politicians like Rev. Jesse Jackson had difficulty in soliciting the votes of the white working class when he contested the Democratic nomination with Michael Dukakis in 1988 (He secured 92% of Black votes but only 17% of white votes).

The assumption as propounded by Huntington that modernity is an exclusive characteristic of the West, primarily America, may appear evident on the surface. But such one dimensional definition of modernity tends to get skewed since many oppressive notions, racism being the most visible, appear under the garb of modernity rationalized by colonial science. Multiculturalism and the melting pot syndrome of assimilation are debated in American Universities, media and Hollywood, while trying to portray an ideal world. It also confronts an inescapable reality of unequal distribution of wealth, freedom selectively denied to the marginalized sections, a heightened unease between groups in the country of immigrants, on the issues of differences in religion, value system, race, and historical memories (conquest of America and slave trade).

The use of non-violence in the movement is very rightly described as a move to seek justice and reconciliation, Gandhiji's weapon of the weak in persuading and as well as pressurizing the regime to address the issues of equality and human dignity. Some of the strategies of the movement are reminiscent of India's freedom movement to some extent, when non-cooperation movement and Satyagarha dominated in the Indian freedom struggle. The move to have voter registration and one for demonstration after bus boycotts highlight the importance of electoral means in achieving the goals of the movement. As the author argues that by 1965 political exclusion of the Afro-Americans had considerably receded, the half century of migration of the blacks out of rural south paved way for creation of significant voting blocks in cities of New York, California and Michigan forcing the presidential candidates to take notice of them. The success of the passage of Civil Rights Bill, King's view on Vietnam War, mobilization in Chicago and the march in Montgomery has been very vividly showcased in this book which is part of the Routledge Historical Biography series.

In the end one would agree with the perspectives through which a social movement is analysed, taking note of its success, limitations and internal contradictions. Despite being a successful social movement one would very justly endorse Peter J. Ling that "success to Martin Luther King was never complete, enduring or unambiguous".

One defining moment in the history of the struggle of the Afro-Americans has been the pivotal role of the Church, in fostering a sense of fraternity, brotherhood and also in mobilization as was witnessed during the advent of the Baptist church. The author could have devoted some space on this phenomenon since he has tried to evaluate the role of black movement in the contemporary era in the last chapter. The debates about equality and emancipation rooted to a particular religion and issues of black racism also warrant some explanation. The last two decades have witnessed the radicalization of various religious denominations and has primarily swayed people living on the margins of the society. On the publishing side the only major grouse is the small font size of the book which is very irksome and not reader friendly. Finally the issues of dominant culture being internalized by some sections (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture) and their propagation, affirmative action in the United States and their impact in wake of the movement could be explored, after all institutions outlive individuals.