Ghosted life sounds like a saintly dream;Books

19th March 1999 at 00:00
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. Edited by Clayborne Carson. Little, Brown. pound;18.99. Aleks Sierz finds the autobiography of Martin Luther King almost too good to be true.

The main problem with this autobiography of Martin Luther King is that it wasn't really written by him. After his assassination in 1968, King left behind a variety of autobiographical notes, as well as letters, sermons and speeches. These have been expertly collated by Clayborne Carson into what reads like a cross between a source book and a volume of collected works.

It immediately begs comparison with the autobiography of King's rival, Malcolm X, which was also edited - by Alex Haley, author of Roots - but remains a much better read. Partly, this is due to the fact that Malcolm X's life was a symbolic story of a bad boy who saw the light, whereas King - in this account - seems to have been almost too good to be true.

The chapters on his early years read like the life of a medieval saint, all natural goodness and not a bad word to be said about anybody. His parents are honoured, his schooling is praised and his wife, Coretta, is ever understanding and supportive. The only arguments are political discussions with colleagues in the civil rights movement. There's no mention of King's affairs with other women, no domestic squabbles, no misbehaving in class.

That said, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr does gradually grow out of its pious beginnings. The mixture of rhetorical vision and plain-spoken simplicity which you remember from his speeches makes his account of the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama - sparked off by Mrs Rosa Parks's dignified refusal to budge from a "white seat" on a segregated bus - both eloquent and touching.

The same applies to the epic story of the civil rights movement, from the dark early days when King's home was bombed by white supremacists to the great demonstrations which culminated in the march on Washington DC in 1962.

Particularly moving are excerpts from King's 1962 jail diary and his account of the savage civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the following year. Lesser known episodes from his life, such as his journey to Ghana in 1957 for that country's independence ceremony, also get their due. Running through the book is the theme of non-violent resistance to racist laws. Here, King pays tribute to all the influences on his thinking, from the anti-pacifism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to King's adaptation of Mahatma Gandhi's ideas to the situation of black Americans. His conflicts with Malcolm X are also highlighted.

And it's difficult to remain untouched by the famous speeches in which King told us of his hopes for a multi-racial society and his vision of equality for all. In many of this book's finest passages, you can hear the unforgettable voice of King the preacher whose dreams still await realisation.

Bearing in mind the recommendation of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry for more teaching of cultural diversity in schools, teachers will find here many vivid passages which illustrate the heroic side of the American civil rights movement. They may want to balance this with information from other sources which shows that, as well as being an inspiring leader, King was also a human being, with all the passions and frailties that implies.

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