Author Interview:
“An Escalation of Humanity”

Author Stewart Burns on King’s relevance for today’s America, from Sojourners magazine, January 2004,

Sojourners: What about Martin Luther King Jr. has America tried to forget?

Burns: Many like to honor King only as he stood at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, frozen in time, talking about his dream of justice. But King lived for five more years, during which time he deepened his understanding of American society, especially what was needed in terms of solutions. When he gave that speech in 1963, he really wasn’t that concerned with poverty, or with militarism for that matter—the war in Vietnam had not really gotten off the ground yet. Poverty had just been “discovered” by Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book The Other America told the American mainstream that yes, in fact, there is poverty in the United States. JFK read that book, but still there was very little consciousness about poverty and economic justice in 1963, at least among the mainstream political leaders, including King. And of course militarism, except for nuclear weapons, was not really such a huge problem for most of society.
King had to come to grips with urban rebellions in cities across the United States that resulted from desperate poverty and dashed expectations. People in the ghettos were saying, well if we’re supposed to have freedom now, where is it? We don’t have jobs, we’re massively unemployed, rats are attacking our babies. King, who had grown up middle class, really didn’t understand poverty until the Watts revolt of 1965, when he went and talked to people there. He then took leadership in focusing the civil rights movement on economic justice and on a broad range of human rights. And he came to oppose the Vietnam War very strongly and bravely.
A lot of Americans today want to forget that King was much more than a civil rights leader. He was a leader for economic justice and human rights; he condemned the war.
This all had terrific repercussions on his home organization, the SCLC, and on his credibility as a civil rights leader. He had been a genius at what I call radical moderation, but it got to the point where his radicalism won out and he could no longer be a moderate leader. So he alienated himself from the other civil rights leaders whom he had mediated among previously—between Roy Wilkins on the one side and Stokely Carmichael on the other. Now he was much closer to Carmichael. He became a nonviolent revolutionary in the sense of deep adherence to the American creed of freedom, equality, and democracy, and dedication to making it real for all.

Sojourners: Why do we need another book on King?

Burns: This nation is in the kind of desperate condition, the soul sickness, that King prophesied about in the late 1960s. When he prophesied that America would be doomed unless we solved these interwoven problems of racism, exploitation, and militarism, it was as if he was really talking about the 21st century.
King’s message was that these evils were structural evils that cannot be separated, that you can’t just fight on the peace front, on the economic justice front, or the racism front alone. At the very core of these interwoven evils was what King called the systematic depersonalization of human beings in the culture and throughout the world. His theology was called personalism, a school of thought that he picked up at Boston University. That philosophy really believes that personality is the reflection of the divine in each person. Forces that depersonalize human beings are forces that are sinning against God. Particularly racism, poverty—which he always connected with exploitation—and militarism were sins against God because they were sins against human personality.
For all these reasons I think that King speaks to the 21st century in an extremely powerful way.
There have been a number of excellent books about King, but they tend to present certain dimensions of his life and leadership without showing the integrated whole. For a long time the books tended to focus on strictly his civil rights leadership and political leadership, but they really didn’t bring in much of his religious leadership or his spiritual journey, or his intellectual leadership and journey. Other books have focused more exclusively on his religious background. I attempt to tie together King’s civil rights and human rights leadership with his fundamental spiritual journey.

Sojourners: What could today’s activists learn from King?

Burns: He clearly escalated his militancy in the last year of his life—he talked about the need to do massive civil disobedience that would dislocate the functioning of American cities. But as he became increasingly militant in his tactics, he also escalated his humanity. He became more and more fiercely dedicated to nonviolent tactics.
This is what’s truly astonishing. Often when we look at revolutionaries, they go through a phase of nonviolence but then come to the erroneous conclusion that nonviolence doesn’t work. Then they adopt violent methods or even armed struggle. Ultimately some end up like the Weather Underground, engaging in terrorist tactics.
It’s rather phenomenal to see how King could be so passionately committed to eliminating poverty, his final great crusade, yet at the same time be almost a fanatic about the need to adhere to nonviolent principles. Many activists today are doing magnificent things in terms of the global justice movement, very creative nonviolent actions. But they’re not escalating their human concern for their adversary. They’re escalating their commitment to justice, but not their compassion. King was a remarkable example of doing both at once.
It’s something we can all do, although I think it makes a huge difference to have a spiritual base; it is hard to be fully committed to nonviolence without some sort of spiritual grounding. We have a long way to go to convince people that nonviolence is not only the moral and spiritual way to go, but that it’s historically effective. King thought it more effective than violence, if you consider the long run and not just the short run.

Sojourners: What (if anything) surprised you in the course of researching this book?

Burns: Unknown to most people, King had an extraordinary sense of humor. He was such a funny guy, and that is such a contrast to the public perception of him as such a formal person. There was a split that he was certainly aware of, between a public self and a private self that were somewhat at odds.
More important, King was a great listener. This is so different from just about any other leader you can think of in the 20th century. It seems like a contradiction, because he had an authoritarian leadership style that he inherited from his father, also a minister in the black Baptist church, a tradition that is very top-down, very hierarchical. But even when he would run meetings in a very top-down way, he insisted on hearing everyone’s view. There are transcripts of meetings where you hear him say “let so and so have their say.” He might make the decision himself, but on the basis of listening carefully to all different views. Within his own staff he made sure there was a diversity of views, with advisers and aides across the whole spectrum. Andy Young, for example, tended to have more conservative views or suggestions and on the other side, someone like James Bevel had more radical views. King would come down in the middle somewhere. This was his genius as a leader.

Sojourners: What for you is the main point of the book?

Burns: I’d refer to the last paragraphs of the book’s preface:

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, St. 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. Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

What I’m trying to say about King is that he believed that faith was absolutely essential and indispensable, but that love was ultimately more important than faith. Compassion was ultimately more important than faith.