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n the weeks following a 1956 Supreme Court decision that Alabama's racial segregation of buses violated the Constitution, a number of bombs were exploded or guns fired at the homes and churches of black civil rights leaders in Montgomery, where a boycott of the city's bus system had gone on for nearly a year. In ''Martin Luther King, Jr.,'' his new biography of the man who led the boycott, Marshall Frady writes: ''This barrage of violence served to sink King into a deep undertow of guilt. In an address to a mass meeting that strangely prefigured the one he would deliver in Memphis on the last night of his life, he shocked the congregation by suddenly blurting out, 'Lord, I hope no one will have to die as a result of our struggle for freedom here in Montgomery. Certainly I don't want to die. But if anyone has to die, let it be me!' And he strangled into tears, so stricken that he clutched the sides of the pulpit, unable to utter anything further.''
This is one King we know, the tormented tribune who shoulders firmly, somberly, with hints of regret and even reluctance, the burden of an oppressed people's hopes. Having thought and read deeply as a graduate student at Boston University, he returns to the South and the pulpit, where, Frady writes, he can translate his ideas ''immediately and spectacularly into immense action.'' As he surveys the social achievements, personal transformations and violence his leadership inspires, his heart is a knot of guilt and resolve. His road leads ever upward to death at 39.
But there are other Kings: the tactician, friend, pastor, husband, intellectual, lover, father, son. Frady sketches in the ''small, somewhat tubby child'' born to Alberta and Mike King in 1929, who grew up in Atlanta's black middle class, ''a singularly favored boy.'' He matured in the shadow of his stolid pastor father, breaking free to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., then on to Boston, where he studied with steady passion, went out on the town and courted Coretta Scott.
As husband and wife they went to his first pastorate, in Montgomery. A year later the bus boycott began, and Frady catches us up in the familiar events of King's 13 years as a public figure. The Montgomery triumph gave him a national profile. He entered into several years of constant travel -- for the civil rights insurgency had become a movement, with sit-ins, then Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, court cases. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference tried to give the movement shape, whether through Gandhian teach-ins, attempts to win over the institutional black Baptist church, meetings with national politicians or simply King's own restless sermonizing in countless cities and towns.
As Frady tells the story, what King needed most was racial theater of such intensity that it forced social change -- which meant that he had to take his gospel of love and redemption to the worst possible enemy he could find. He tried Albany, Ga., in 1961, but was outmaneuvered by a police chief who dodged confrontation. In 1963, he latched onto the antisegregation movement in Birmingham, where ''perhaps the most inspiriting consideration'' was the enemy in chief, the public safety commissioner, Eugene Connor, better known as Bull. The Birmingham period was vicious, delirious; it ended with the city's leaders agreeing to desegregate the downtown shopping district, ''the first clear, authentic victory,'' Frady writes, ''actually won in popular confrontation and struggle, for King's movement of nonviolent mass protest.''
The Birmingham success led, not altogether directly, to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the downfall of Jim Crow segregation. After an indecisive engagement in St. Augustine, Fla., King moved on to Selma, Ala., to join the voter registration effort there. It was bloody, and successful in that it pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was the end of King's Southern phase. He was coming to believe that the movement's legislative triumphs were ''at best surface changes.'' He turned his attention north and steadily broadened his targets to include the Vietnam War -- which showed, King said, Americans ''glutted by our own barbarity'' -- and poverty in general. The Poor People's Campaign, King declared, would try to move ''a sick, neurotic nation'' away from ''at least a level of its sickness.''
But with these shifts, his national support weakened dramatically, for, Frady writes, he was addressing ''a force field of interests far more monolithic but also far more elusive to confront than a Bull Connor or George Wallace's troopers on the Selma Bridge -- a profusion of resistance in which, in the words of an old gospel song, You can't find the one to blame / It's too smart to have a name.'' With this faceless enemy in mind King took his sputtering campaign to Memphis, where he was killed.
Do we need another biography of King, given that there have been three solid ones (by David Levering Lewis, David J. Garrow and Stephen Oates), almost numberless works that touch on King's life, several excellent movement memoirs and personal histories, and Taylor Branch's matchless two-volume series on America in the King years? It depends on who we are and what we know. If there was a fresh fact or insight in Frady's brief account, I couldn't find it. At the same time, the book is dramatically written and accurate in its details. It seems likely to appeal most to people who want a quick introduction to the life of a great American they don't already know much about, people who are too young or had too little interest to have read earlier works -- a population certain to grow in coming years.
There is some danger in this appeal, because although Frady's book reads like a rather detached biography, it is really (like most of the volumes in the Penguin Lives series of which it is a part) an essay. Frady has a thesis: that King ''somehow felt, in his oldest moral workings, that he must continually experience sin to continuously know the soul-regenerating wonder of forgiveness and redemption.'' ''It may not be too fanciful to suggest,'' Frady continues, that King ''was driven to crucify himself over and over again on a cross of guilt with his secret licentiousness in order to renew his soul with the experience of yet another resurrection into grace and restoration to his high calling.''
These passages come near the middle of the book, but they have been amply foreshadowed. Frady has King loaded with ''great cargoes of guilt'' in early adolescence. And there's plenty more to come, from high school onward, through what must have been an at least intermittently pleasant series of ''romantic caperings,'' ''peccadilloes,'' ''carnal binges,'' ''abandons to the flesh,'' ''sexual gambols,'' ''indulgences'' and ''transgressions'' and ''lubricious binges,'' not to mention ''sexual corsairing.'' The book is a rich, almost leering catalog of sexual euphemisms. This all combines with what seems to interest Frady much less, namely King's guilt over inspiring so many people to risk and sometimes lose their lives.
Frady does not so much argue this guilt thesis as place its markers here and there through the narrative. Oddly, quietly, they support another theme of Frady's story: that King was essentially a creature of circumstance, pressed into shape by events, often timid though also brave in a self-dramatizing way.
There is certainly truth in this, but it makes King look the somewhat foolish and passive recipient of his own genius. And it makes the civil rights movement look very nearly random, giving those who followed King an additional burden of disillusionment they don't deserve.
In 2000, Michael Eric Dyson published an important book on King, ''I May Not Get There With You.'' Dyson brings a subtle passion to the questions that Frady tends simply to detonate in his corsairing.
''Guilt,'' Dyson writes, ''plagued King at every step not simply at the door of his sins, but even more cruelly on the thrones of his myriad successes. King was never able to bask completely in the sweet aura of his triumphs because he was forever pushing forward with a moral ambition to change the course of racial history. . . . And when King was forgiven, when he enjoyed a brief respite from his own ruthless self-criticism, he used his psychic freedom to imagine how much more he could pour into the movement. His life was spent in the relief of suffering for millions who looked to him as the symbol of changes they neither completely understood or entirely embraced.'' I'm sure we don't entirely embrace or understand them today. Frady's book doesn't much help us to do either, so it will be a shame if his King becomes the only one people know.
Scott Malcomson, an editor at The Times's Op-Ed page, is the author of
''One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race.''
Scott Malcomson, an editor at The Times's Op-Ed page, is the author of ''One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race.''