Book Review: The Arc of Truth: The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.
Publication Date: Oct 04, 2022
List Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover, 384 pages
Imprint: Fortress Press
Publisher: 1517 Media
Parent Company: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
From the start of his singular journey to confronting cultural bigotry and moral chaos, Dr. Martin Luther King stood out front, despite the threats and challenges of white nationalism and Jim Crow. The weapon of the pastor’s choice was a pure, untarnished gospel truth, delivered in the fiery Baptist cadences of years past. A contemporary interpreter of King’s life and spiritual legacy, Lewis V. Baldwin, the professor emeritus of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, has produced the fourth entry in his volumes on the leading spokesman in the ongoing civil rights campaign.
This latest examination of King’s understanding and devotion to the neon-bright principle of truth, The Arc of Truth: The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., advances the boundaries of the unyielding message that could not be ignored. The marketing of the book couldn’t come at a time when falsehoods, tainted promises, and corrupted versions of embellished half-truths. Scholars who know Baldwin’s previous work can buy this book confidently knowing his deep dive into the man’s commitment to the truth, even surpassing There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King Jr. (1991), To Make the Wounded Whole: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (1992), and Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2010).
Both as a child and adult, King focused on the emotional, intellectual, and social suffering and scars inflicted on the bodies and minds of Black Americans. He sought the meaning behind the words and labels. In his younger years, he cherished the value of truth and openness in his role of spiritual heir in his family and church environment. His family and friends recognized they were witnessing someone special. With his father, “Daddy King,” the boy modeled himself after the honesty, integrity, and “genuine Christian character” of the patriarch.
Jim Crow molded the youth, but King’s pursuit of openness, sound call for intelligence, and truth. As a student, he was not considered a brilliant, but he possessed a good mind, able to make the connections of ethics, philosophy, science, Bible, theology, history, and other areas of study. However, he questioned the supreme truth of the Scriptures while studying the Bible at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The teen years saw him question everything, even the virgin birth and the concept of hell.
At 15, he entered Morehouse College, confronting the promise of education, discarding half-truth, prejudices, and the irrelevant. He discovered education helped him know truth, love truth, and sacrifice for it. The emotion of Social Gospel was abundant in the lectures and sermons of college president Benjamin E. Mays and its religion professor George Kelsey. Another important work was his constant reading and re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
Another milestone in his thought occurred when he attended a lecture by Howard University Mordecai Johnson, a visitor of India, speaking Gandhi’s life. King was so impressed that he bought six books on the spiritual figure. He was intrigued by Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (meaning “holding on to Truth”). In May 1955, his studies on patriarchy, sexism, and gender inequality at Boston University caused him to revamp his comprehension of the Bible, seeing it now as the Word of God and the Word of Man.
The Montgomery experience awakened an even deeper cycle of spirituality and humanity. “In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. I’m here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I’m afraid… I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left.”
Truth came from within, listening to the presence of the Divine, telling King that he should stand up for righteousness, justice, and truth. That inner voice called for him to pursue truth. As the minister led the major civil rights campaigns of the 1960s South in cities such as Birmingham, St. Augustine, Selma, and Memphis, he lectured on the philosophy of nonviolence as the route of truth.
Early in the protests, reporters pressed him on the unpredictability of reality and the optimism of the truth. “You see, it would be a fact for me to say we have come a long, long way but it wouldn’t be telling the truth. A fact is the absence of contradiction, but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts.”
King was not an Uncle Tom. He knew the score. At six, he’d seen his father “verbally insulted” by a white policeman and a store clerk. Two years later, he was viciously slapped by a white woman in one of the downtown Atlanta stores. She said he stepped on her foot. From his vantage point in the Jim Crow South, he said all of the injustices and abuses had done something to his growing personality, adding that he had “come perilously close to resenting all white people.”
He was very wary of those who were experts at defining and assigning meaning to truth and untruth. He considered untruth as “perversion of the facts.” For this reason, he shunned Friedrich Nietzsche, Vladimir Lenin, the creators of communism, Adolf Hitler, McCarthyism, and the architects of Jim Crow. Following one protest, he noted: “The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror.”
One issue of culture and conflict caused white America to raise its head, for King was veering away from electoral equality and getting into the Vietnam war. Exactly a year from his death, he laid out the details of the battle in 1967:
When I see our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war, mutilating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm, burning villages and rice fields at random, painting the valleys of that small Asian country red with human blood, leaving broken bodies in countless ditches and sending home half-men, mutilated mentally and physically…I tremble for this world. I do so not only from dire recall of the nightmares wreaked in the wars of yesterday, but also from dreadful realization of today’s possible nuclear destructiveness and tomorrow’s even more calamitous prospects.
Some say Dr. King opened his message to include the position on Vietnam, with the majority of media criticizing him and even former Congressional allies and civil rights pals attacking him in editorials. It was a bold move. With the blinders off, he began speaking in more radical tones during the end of his life (1965-1968).
He wondered about the future of the church, for so many of the faithful were backing away. He wondered if God heard them.
And you know it seems that I can hear God saying this morning, ’I will not hear your eloquent sermons, Get out of my face. I will not listen to the glad outpouring, the general sighs, the beauty of your anthems, and your hymns. I will not hear your prayers until you release your prisoners. You’re not concerned about the least of these. I will not hear you. Until you release the prisoners, until you deal with the basic issues of life, I will not hear you.’
A true King scholar, Baldwin’s The Arc of Truth present a multi-faceted leader, a complicated human being, a man capable of introspection and reflection, and a resourceful strategist. Worthy of repeated readings, this well-researched narrative is on par with biographer Jonathan Eig’s excellent King A Life. In these troubled times, we all need a deeper understanding of our leaders.