The annual observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is always a good occasion to remember and give thanks for those whose crusade for justice a half-century ago changed the context of American life in significant ways.
The tributes that will fill the pages and the airwaves in these few days will praise the courage, commitment and hard work that brought to the larger American consciousness the need to correct problems long ignored.
This is as it should be, for the heroes, sung and unsung, of that effort gave to future generations a gift of liberation and the possibility of community – a blessing for which we should be eternally grateful.
The memory of an early discovery reminds me each year that there was another aspect of King’s leadership that lay behind his personal charisma, eloquent speech and ability to inspire people across the spectrum to courageous action. It was his perceptive mind and wise discernment.
While doing dissertation research in the early 1970s, I came across King’s carbon copy of a 1958 letter he sent to Earl Mazo of The New York Herald Tribune, who had asked the 29-year-old civil rights leader (not quite 3 years into his 14-year leadership of the movement) his impressions of then Vice President Richard Nixon.
Mazo was preparing “Richard Nixon: a Political and Personal Portrait,” which would be published the next year.
King‘s letter was a thoughtful and measured assessment, acknowledging his earlier opposition to Nixon’s tactics in a California Senate race and his affiliation with the right wing of the Republican Party.
Meeting him personally changed that impression, however, and King suggested that the vice presidency had “matured his person and his judgment.”
King affirmed Nixon’s Quaker tradition and its lack of racial prejudice, even suggesting that Nixon might have been more able than President Eisenhower to temper the reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision and to further the cause of civil rights.
The last two paragraphs of his letter reflect a level of discernment about Nixon and of the political processes with which we live.
Readers might appreciate this little noted piece of thinking and writing by a young minister who would appropriately become a national icon. King writes:
I have found Nixon to be a very personable man. He has one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted. Certainly, his personality will carry him a long, long way politically. Of course there is a danger in such a personality, and that is that it will be turned on merely for political expedience when at bottom the real man has insincere motives. I hope this is not the case with Nixon. He has a genius for winning people. I watched him in Africa. He is a superb diplomat. He knows what to say, when to say, and where to say. A reporter friend of mine who traveled on the Nixon plane to Africa said to me that when they left the States, ninety-eight per cent of the reporters were opposed to Nixon. When they returned, ninety-nine per cent were wildly enthusiastic about Nixon. He had won almost every man and left them with a new appreciation of his ability and judgment.
Finally, I would say that Nixon has a genius for convincing one that he is sincere. When you are close to Nixon he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity. You never get the impression that he is the same man who campaigned in California a few years ago, and who made a tear jerking speech on television in the 1952 campaign to save himself from an obvious misdeed. And so I would conclude by saying that if Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.
King – the courageous leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, the penetrating theologian of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the prophetic voice of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the visionary in Memphis, where he had been to the “mountaintop” and had “seen the promised land.” King – the model of wise discernment about both people and processes with which we live, shown here in ordinary correspondence at the age of 29.
Perhaps honoring him in this annual remembrance should include an effort to cultivate such discernment in ourselves and in our children, and to put it to work in the political decisions we make.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).