An exemplary, brief life of the African-American leader who effected epochal changes in his 39 years.
Frady (Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, 1996, etc.), a TV and magazine writer, spent much time with King in the 1960s, covering the marches, speeches, and trials that accompanied the early years of the civil-rights movement. He brings a personal point of view to bear on King, avoiding hagiography while professing great respect for his subject, offering explanations for matters of controversy without attempting to explain them away. Yes, Frady writes, the ordained minister and sometimes otherworldly King had extramarital affairs. But these adventures, he adds, are understandable, for “in King’s lapses into that ‘lower self’ he so often decried, one sensed an extraordinarily harrowed man—caught in the almost insupportable strain of having to sustain the high spirituality of his mass moral struggle, while living increasingly in a daily expectation of death—intermittently resorting to releases into sweetly obliterating riots of the flesh.” Other riots, Frady writes, affected King more deeply; having launched a civil-rights movement based on the precepts of his intellectual heroes Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi, and Karl Marx, and having preached the necessity of nonviolent opposition to racism, he found himself more and more on the sidelines, nearly irrelevant, as the ’60s drew on and as other leaders, from Malcolm X to Huey Newton, diverted the struggle for equality into more general revolution. Frady captures King in heroic moments and occasional failures alike, delivering a nuanced portrait of a complex, brilliant man who, Frady writes, seemed “physically and emotionally shaken” at the end of his life, as if awed by the righteous fury he had helped unleash.
Excellent, as are almost all of the volumes in the Penguin Lives series, and a fitting homage to a man now much honored but little studied.