I recently read Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Stephen B. Oates. My goal was to correct my ignorance of this man. Let the Trumpet Sound certainly helped. Here's what I learned (in addition to what I've already blogged here and here.)
Though he moved slower than what he would have liked, King liked JFK and thought him genuinely interested in promoting civil rights. He felt much the same way about Sen. Robert Kennedy later. When LBJ moved on civil rights issues, at one point King and other black civil rights leaders considered him the greatest president of all time, including Lincoln. King's opinion drastically changed, however, with LBJ's (immoral) persistence in the Vietnam War. King was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and became the most famous/influential person to speak out against it, which brought a significant rift between him and LBJ. When LBJ finally announced that he would not seek a second term in office, many felt it was due to King's influential opposition to LBJ's prosecution of Vietnam.
Once he settled on nonviolent passive resistance as his strategy, he never deviated from that. He thought it was the best way and the right away to gain equal rights for blacks. Among other things, black nonviolence seen side-by-side with white violence revealed in startling form the moral bankruptcy of white superiority. When civil rights seemed at a standstill in the late 60s, other groups and organizations began talking about black power, and some of his associates abandoned the nonviolent approach, but he never did. When noticeable violence erupted at the end of a march he led in TN, he immediately abandoned the march. Nor would he have anything to do with reverse racism. His goals were always equal rights for blacks and reconciliation between blacks and whites.
His initial work was in the South, but as he became a nationally-known leader, he began to deal with the prejudice in the North that manifested itself in terms of economic hardships for blacks, like low wages, substandard housing projects and ghettos, and discriminatory real estate practices. He often found ready allies in labor unions. Then his attention also turned toward the Vietnam War, and he fought against that as well.
Quite startling to me was his moral failure. About half way through the book I learn that this pastor and moral leader on more than one occasion had trysts with women who were not his wife. He was separated from his family much of the time, and he fell prey to the sins of the flesh. He felt guilty over these sins, and he tried to overcome them. I do not know how successful he was. The bio I read was spare in details. There were times when he thought he ought to hang up his spurs, so to speak, because of his failure in this area, but then he always felt the right thing to do was to continue on in the work he believed God had called him to, despite his moral failures.
I come away from this book with a deep appreciation for Martin Luther King. I live in an America far different from the one King challenged, and I believe that such is the case because King did challenge it, and successfully so. He was a man with a clear vision of what he wanted to see happen, an incredible wisdom which he implemented to accomplish his vision, and the belief that God had called him to this mission and that the Lord had his hand on his life. He recognized his power and influence, but he was nonetheless marked by humility and battled self-doubts. I appreciate the fact that he not only recognized that his moral failures were in fact sin (and that's a huge step there), but that he also grieved and mourned over those failures. His life bears a remarkable resume for one who died before he turned 40.