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Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (P.S.) Paperback – December 31, 2013
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“The most comprehensive, the most thoroughly researched and documented, the most scholarly of the biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (HENRY STEELE COMMAGER, Philadelphia Inquirer)
“Moving, scholarly, lucid, invaluable. ... The book on Martin Luther King.” (WILLIAM MANCHESTER, author of The Last Lion)
“Oates has written the most comprehensive account of King’s life yet published. ... Displays a remarkable understanding of King’s individual role in the civil rights movement. ... Helps us appreciate how sorely King is missed.” (ERIC FONER, New York Times Book Review)
“A monumental work. ... A stirring portrait.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Martin Luther King is captured in all his power, glory, and humility.” (Chicago Tribune)
“Clearly the best biography we have. ... Stirring. ... Evokes King and his epic struggle with you-are-there vividness.” (Newsday)
A Notable Book of the Year (New York Times Book Review)
About the Author
Stephen B. Oates is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. His books include Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. Oates has been awarded numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and Nevins-Freeman Award of the Civil War Round Table of Chicago for lifetime achievement in the field of Civil War studies.
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In LET THE TRUMPET SOUND Stephen B. Oates has written what is the definitive MLK biography. From his birth, MLK seemed destined to be one of W.E.B. DuBois's "Talented Tenth." The grandson of a slave, the son of preacher, and an intellectual prodigy who entered college at age 15, Dr. King lived only a scant thirty nine years, but accomplished more than many people who have been granted their biblical "threescore and ten" only to live them out in obscurity, or worse yet, wastrelism.
Even as a child, King felt things deeply. Oates recounts the young man's rage, once when he is called an obscene name, and once when he has his face slapped by a white woman for no reason, and once again when he is rejected as a proper playmate by a white boy's family, and many times when he is subjected to the soul-corroding existence of segregation, being sent to separate seating, dining, and living quarters when he travelled. He attempted suicide twice, once when he believed his beloved grandmother had died, and once again when she did in fact die. And though he at first "fought off" the call to preach, his post-secondary education focused on philosophy and comparative religion, laying a deep and intellectual foundation for his ministry rather than the "whoop-and- holler" form of service which initially embarrassed him.
As King matured, however, he began to see the African-American Church as both a sanctuary and a gathering place for its adherents. It became the base for the Civil Rights Movement of which he was to become such a great leader. He was not its first leader; in fact, the first exponent of "Negro" equal rights in this nation was Abraham Lincoln, who, in his last speech, advocated limited black suffrage. John Wilkes Booth, in the audience that day, decided to kill the President for uttering those words, and he did. The 90 years from 1865 when Lincoln died to 1955 when King began his ministry, were a slow, undulating wave of advances, setbacks, and advances for African Americans. The modern Civil Rights Movement began during World War II, when the Federal Government, pressured by the almost exclusively black Union of Sleeping Car Porters and others, and in need of workers, employed blacks in wartime industries (over often violent local protest), and (belatedly) formed (segregated) black combat units.
Returning black soldiers chose not to passively accept the very indignities they had fought against in Europe, and the Movement began to gain momentum after the War. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. The NAACP won a number of critical court victories desegregating universities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And in 1954, the young Rev. Dr. King took a job pastoring to the Dexter Avenue Church in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, the cradle of the Confederacy.
Not long after Dr. King's arrival, Rosa Parks was arrested for violating the segregation ordinance on city buses when she sat, tiredly, in the "Whites Only" section one day. The uproar that followed gave birth to the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), headed by Dr. King, that organized a yearlong Negro boycott of the buses. While the boycott went on, the Supreme Court desegregated public schools in "Brown v. Board of Ed.", and ultimately, the Court held Montgomery's segregation statutes unconstitutional.
This victory made the erudite, articulate Dr. King world famous. Ultimately, he was to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He became known to the media as the "unofficial 'President of the Negroes' in America." One of Dr. King's greatest weapons was Nonviolent Noncooperation With Evil, the same tactic used by Gandhi in India, called by the Mahatma "Satyagraha" or "Love Force." He undertook a punishing schedule to promote Nonviolence and to lend his name to the various Civil Rights actions springing up across America, most of which became coordinated under the umbrella of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Dr. King.
Oates does not really spend a great deal of time or energy analyzing King's effectiveness as a leader. LET THE TRUMPET SOUND is straight, pure biography, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Several points do stand out as worthy of mention:
First, King was almost universally admired in the late 1950s, even by his enemies and those who disagreed with the nonviolent approach. King used this time to promote Civil Rights effectively, but he was less effective in promoting the idea of Nonviolent Noncooperation With Evil. It should not just have been a tool of the Movement, but a social gospel that he spread to all, black and white;
Second, that the black leadership was indeed the "barrel of crabs" described by Booker T. Washington, and that King's preeminence as the youngest, arguably best-educated, certainly most articulate of those leaders caused fault lines in the Movement that impeded it from within;
Third, that King became the charismatic center of gravity of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s to such an extent that it became a Cult of Personality. Thus, his faults (like his overly-publicized but relatively limited womanizing), foibles and misstatements willy-nilly became the Movement's. Younger up-and-coming leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael might not have found their way to the world stage without his being there already, but they nonetheless found him easy to attack, as did the white establishment, particularly after 1965, when he began criticizing the Vietnam War, and by extension President Johnson, a Civil Rights President and former supporter, who perhaps not unnaturally, considered him ungrateful;
Fourth, that the Cult of Personality became so powerful that an adequate succession in the leadership was never developed, so that his assassination in 1968 crippled the Movement almost into immobility. His followers, men like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, tend toward ill-conceived statements and a less-than-simon-pure committment to Nonviolence.
Thus, Dr. King is seen in these pages, quite rightly, as one of the Great Men of History, but still, a man and not a demigod. Moving, even to the point of tears in some places, but not hagiographic, LET THE TRUMPET SOUND should be on everyone's bookshelf, and should be required reading for people too young to remember back before a terrible April day in Memphis, Tennessee.
Interesting that King was born to a family of preachers and that he was very highly educated. His education won him great honours and until circumstances intervened he anticipated a life as a scholar of comparative religion. He was also extremely well read in philosophy and sought desperately in his studies to answer questions about morality and social reform, being a huge fan of Gandhi. His talent in these fields was such that his professors expected great things from him.
However on completing his PhD he took a job a pastor in Montgomery, and very shortly found himself challenged to walk the walk his ideas led him to, a challenge which this biography says he never really flinched from his whole life.
This book presents a picture of a man who committed himself wholly to his work, almost from the beginning prepared to sacrifice just about everything, working incredible hours bringing deep thought and great eloquence to all his actions.
Along with his commitment to racial equality were a series of complex and carefully thought out political ideas about class, political reform, and also in later years the Vietnam war. Towards the end of his life his struggle broadened out to embrace these wider issues, much to the dismay of most of his more eminent followers. But then opposition was nothing new to him.
This book is also fascinating for what it reveals about the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson. It presents the picture of the Kennedys most people had at the time before the revisionists had a crack at them.
The picture of Johnson is extraordinary, but then seemingly he was. He passed a torrent of brilliantly marshalled and effective civil rights legislation which overnight solved many problems at a statutory level, and then moved on with equal vigour and efficiency to massively escalate a hugely destructive and pointless war.
This book is carefully researched as the notes reveal, but exceptionally easy to read as the scholarship is masked.