Stephen Oates. Let The Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper and Row, 1982. Paper edition by Plume, New American Library, 1983.
By Lawrence J. Hanks
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, pp. 23-24
Let The Trumpet Sound is the first biography of King to appear since David Lewis’ King: A Critical Biography was published in 1970. One still might reasonably ask, “What could Oates possibly add to the telling of such a well-known life since four book length biographies have already appeared?” (Lawrence Reddick’s Crusader Without Violence, 1959;Lerone Bennett’s What Manner of Man, 1964; William Miller’s Martin Luther King, Jr. His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning for the World, 1968; and the Lewis biography.) To begin with, Oates is the first to use newly available King materials at Boston University and at the King Center in Atlanta. He has also made excellent use of government documents, oral histories and many writings touching upon King’s life and the civil rights movement that have appeared in the last ten years.
Oates allows King to speak for himself whenever possible, infusing the familiar portions of the biography with new vitality. At times, this device makes the work seem autobiographical, with Oates adding analysis: it creates a sense of listening to King.
Writing that he has “no interest in adding to the deification of King as a flawless immortal ” Oates deals compassionately with his frailties. The result is the best and most complete account we now have of King’s life, revealing an individual striving toward philosophical consistency. He wished to be more like Gandhi. yet his desire to take a vow of poverty and discard his middle-class wardrobe struggled with a strong sense of family responsibility and the image of his leadership role. He wanted to take a day for fasting and praying each week but the pace of his schedule often took control. King wanted to take a vacation from the movement and completely develop his non-violent philosophy, but his charismatic presence and fund raising skills always seemed to be required.
King reacted to the frequent charge of being middle-class by largely rejecting the more negative superficial middle-class values; he abhored conspicuous consumption and refused to enrich himself from speech making. donating these earnings to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups. He refused a number of lucrative jobs in order to stay with the movement.
The sacrificing of personal needs found little compensation in King’s role as leader. There were jealousies, factionalism and genuine strategic disagreements. And, he was extremely sensitive to the common perception of the modern black struggle for civil rights being called the “King Movement.”
While accepting the role as the most well-known figure, King felt that this was a result of his being the chosen leader of the movement rather than a result of personal ambition. He repeatedly pointed out that the real heroes and heroines were the blacks of the South who found the courage to fight for their rights–he was simply an “instrument of history.” He made this point in Stride Toward Freedom and in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Oates’ examination of King’s ordeal with the FBI and the campaign waged against him by J. Edgar Hoover is perhaps the only part of Let The Trumpet Sound that is “new.” Determined to discredit King. Hoover received official sanction from President Kennedy to tap his home telephone and those of the SCLC. Between October 1963 and December 1964 the FBI bugged rooms wherever King stayed. In January 1965, the FBI sent a composite tape of these recordings to the SCLC.
Oates argues that “whether or not the tape with its alleged sounds of sexual activity actually incriminated
King may never be known.” He dismisses Andrew Young’s and Coretta King’s denials of the tapes’ incriminating potential as attempts “to protect King.” Although it is never explicitly stated, Oates’ contention that King was guilty of infidelity is based on statements made by King to confidants, statements in his sermons and personal statements by confidants. The case is strong, albeit circumstantial, even to those who wish to deify. Since well-known papers such as the Chicago New, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Constitution, and the New York Times all refused to carry the King “sex stories” when they were offered by the FBI, the rumors never became widespread public knowledge during King’s life. Even within the movement, only a few confidants knew about the tape. King perservered to confront Selma, Chicago, Memphis, the Viet Nam war, and to make plans for the Poor People’s March on Washington before his assassination.
At the time of his death, King was becoming a more radical critic of America. He had grown to realize that segregation and disenfranchisement were only symptoms of a larger problem: the economic exploitation of poor people regardless of color. The Civil Rights Bill of [unclear] and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did little to improve the daily lives of the nation’s poor blacks. The Acts did not bring economic independence to rural Southern blacks or anything substantial to northern ghetto dwellers. Bayard Rustin had argued since 1962 that the civil rights movement should expand its agenda to focus on wealth and poverty in America as well as race. King could now see the merit of Rustin’s position and he was ready to act. The Poor People’s Campaign would have been his first effort toward the goal of bringing about a redistribution of wealth in America.
King theorized that part of the reconstructing of American society “might require nationalization of vital industries, as well as a guaranteed income for impoverished Americans.” While Oates stops short of placing an ideological label on King’s new philosophy, others have argued that King was moving toward democratic socialism (See David Garrow, Illinois Times, 31 March-6 April, 1983, “From Reformer to Revolutionary”). One can easily argue that King, if he were alive today, would support the women’s movement, disarmament, and abhor the growing middle-class consciousness among black Americans.
Having the credentials to insulate himself from the harshest aspects of class and racial discrimination, King could have easily lived a comfortable life. He could have pursued his personal dream and taught theology at a university. Instead, he felt compelled to advocate [unclear] rights and humanity of others that he jeopardized his own self-preservation. Let The Trumpet Sound is a comprehensive and compassionate account of this great life.
Lawrence J. Hanks is a graduate student in government at Harvard University. His dissertation research focuses on black political participation in the rural South since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.