LET THE TRUMPET SOUND: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen B. Oates

LET THE TRUMPET SOUND: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Oates, the biographer of Nat Turner, John Brown, and Lincoln, proceeds from a simple view of Martin Luther King as their successor (elaborated, a footnote advises, elsewhere) and duly hails him for teaching ""his long-suffering people in Dixie. . .how to confront those who oppressed them, how to take pride in their race and their history, how to demand and win their constitutional rights."" Oates knows better than to say ""Dixie"" re MLK--but that's typical of the sloppy, generally impoverished writing; and, in toto, of the stale, pappy, arm's-length tenor of the book. Its chief distinction is its size: so many of King's day-to-day doings are set forth, and he's so extensively quoted (or paraphrased), that this is the longest King biography yet. Since it's also the first for several years, it does incorporate some material from recent sources--in particular, on King's hounding by the FBI and the sexual indiscretions that made him vulnerable. Otherwise this is the familiar, inherently revealing story of King's boyhood (Daddy King's whippings and MLK's ""mute suffering""; the two suicide attempts; anger at discrimination; discovery of his voice) and of his education--with fill-ins on Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Neibuhr, and others who shaped his thinking. In 1954, just out of B.U. and just married, he takes up his first pastorate in Montgomery--and is shortly propelled into prominence by the bus boycott. Oates brings no particular narrative skill, factual exactitude, or historical insight to this or succeeding episodes of the civil rights movement--Albany, Birmingham, Selma, St. Augustine, Memphis--in which King took a leading part. On Montgomery, he gives the impression that Rosa Parks just happened to decide not to give up her seat; on the Albany Movement, he hews so closely to King's point-of-view (a ""staggering defeat"") that the dominant SNCC perspective is lost. Throughout we hear repeatedly about his ""crushing schedule,"" his depressions and doubts and preoccupation with death, his disillusion with the powers-that-be--valid enough but totally unevaluated. (""Depressed though he was, King somehow found the inner strength to go on."") Oates, in sum, has nothing much to say, and nothing at all new. David Lewis' biography (rev. 1978), though more critical, is by far the savvier and more solid of the two.

Pub Date: Aug. 28th, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row