I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when I was twelve and he was thirty-two, in a house of worship in my hometown. It was April 1961, a month before the freedom rides that desegregated southern bus terminals. Dr. King was spending a week in residence at Williams College in western Massachusetts. That Sunday evening he was preaching at the tall Gothic chapel up the street from my home. His sermon was called Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. As I marched down the left-hand aisle to find a seat, I found myself walking right next to the heroic preacher, awash in brightly colored robes. He looked holy. His chocolate face was glowing.
Two summers later, during the Negro Revolution of 1963, I took a month-long train trip around my country. In cosmopolitan Chicago, my first stop, a middle-aged man tripped over my feet and fell into the busy street, breaking his glasses. Despite my earnest apology, he screamed at me: Id expect that from a nigger, but not from a boy like you! Shaken, I forged on. On my return from the West Coast, I tested desegregation of Atlantas train station, quietly sitting in the colored waiting room.
In late August, I rode a chartered bus all night from New England down to the March on Washington. Standing under a shady elm tree by the reflecting pool below the Lincoln Memorial, I encountered King again, this time from a distance. His voice boomed into history on that hot afternoon.
As a civil rights historian years later, I was privileged to serve as an editor of Dr. Kings papers at Stanford University. Learning about his life and leadership has transformed my own.
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On the eve of that historic March on Washington, the great African-American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois died in his adopted country of Ghana. One ever feels his twoness, Du Bois wrote a hundred years ago at the height of Jim Crow repression and brutality, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.
To the Mountaintop explores how on his climb toward freedom, a divided Martin King battled for his soul, struggled to make peace between his unreconciled strivings. There was King the black man, the American, the global citizen; the fighter for black emancipation alongside the fighter for American renewal and redemption, for the redemption and salvation of humanity. There was King the lofty idealist at odds with King the rooted realist; the rock of faith beset by the sands of doubt.
Even more consequential, for his time, our time, and times to come, stood King the fiery warrior for justice and right striving to reconcile with the increasingly devout apostle of nonviolence or soul force. Like his spiritual mentor Saint Paul, he fought his way to the revelation that militant faith, however essential, would remain blind without the morning light of compassion.
Though I have the gift of prophecy, Paul confessed to the Corinthians, in words King took to heart, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
\And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.