King's life, unvarnished

Any biographer attempting to publish a new version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life faces a gigantic obstacle. Lots of obstacles, really.

The most formidable obstacle is the sheer number of biographies, memoirs and histories of the civil-rights movement, with King at the center, since his assassination in 1968.

Other obstacles carry the names of David J. Garrow and Taylor Branch, each of whom has published a superb biography of King. Branch's biography, which simultaneously relates the civil-rights movement's successes and failures, comes in three thick volumes.

Harvard Sitkoff, a University of New Hampshire history professor, obviously knew about those obstacles before deciding to forge ahead with a King biography. In fact, he praises the Garrow and Branch books lavishly.

So why proceed with a relatively slim book about King that contains few new facts and no facts likely to generate news headlines? Sitkoff's explanation is straightforward: King, the Baptist minister, altered American racial relations through his brilliant public sermons, his physical courage despite threats from powerful Caucasian forces and his intellect. Today, however, King is portrayed mostly as a saint, which he most decidedly was not and as a mainstream dissenter (seeming oxymoron intended), which he most decidedly was not. Sitkoff wants contemporary readers to understand the real King, not the airbrushed mythical King. Although an avid admirer of King, Sitkoff believes that accurate history honors the man far more than altered history.

Sitkoff's rationale is persuasive, even to a reviewer who has consumed a half-dozen King biographies. Furthermore, Sitkoff's skillful choice of material, his organization of the text and his fine writing style (especially compared with most academic historians) raise the biography to the top rank of books about King.

Among many other locales seminal to the civil-rights movement, Raleigh circa 1960 is referenced; readers wanting to explore this local angle should focus on pages 68 to 70.

Sitkoff writes of aspects of King's biography usually overlooked: the married minister's infidelities, his borrowing of material as a graduate student and as a preacher writing sermons that can fairly be termed plagiarism, and his fears bordering on cowardice at times. Just as potentially shocking is the virulence of hatred aimed at King, especially by J. Edgar Hoover, director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not to mention state government officials throughout the South and North. Hoover and his racist cohorts broke both laws and moral codes over and over in their campaign to discredit King. But King ended up in prison and then shot to death at a Memphis motel, while the lawbreakers with badges retained their freedom and their lives.

Summarizing the relevant King for readers in 2008, Sitkoff recommends that readers forget about the King portrayed as "a moderate, respectable ally of presidents and a facile spokesperson for the American Dream." Forget about current government officials who invoke King "as a model of peaceful, incremental change." Forget about the story line that because of King's goodness, "whites recognized the errors of their ways and made all the necessary changes in race relations to rectify the nation's shameful past."

Instead, Sitkoff suggests, recall that federal and state and local government officials viewed King as a pariah during his lifetime. Neither Lyndon Baines Johnson nor two former U.S. presidents alive in 1968 attended King's funeral. Recall that the investigation into King's murder never yielded satisfactory answers. Recall how frequently King's name is invoked hypocritically by racists still embedded at all levels of government and in the private sector as they impede rather than promote equality.

"The King often shunned by those in power and despised by many in the population is the King I have depicted," Sitkoff says. The book fulfils Sitkoff's promises to explain King's radical (not moderate) agenda; to describe "the American-style apartheid of the South" into which King was born in 1929; to explore "the legendary black preaching tradition, the source of King's oratorical power"; to, overall, depict "King both making history and being made by history." Amen to that.