Crisis + Catharsis: Studying MLK
by Vann R. Newkirk II
The Atlantic staff writer, Vann Newkirk II, reflects on his relationship with studying and writing about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Articles + Essays
Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of his birth home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, GA
In some way, I suppose, I’ve always been writing about Martin Luther King Jr. My journey as a journalist, writer, and thinker has always been oriented towards probing the depths of American inequality, and the heights of the bonds of kinship and humanity. I suspect a rather large part of that comes from the constant presence of King in my life—the calendars, the holiday celebrations, the speeches, the little church gatherings. Like for most black folks, I imagine, King was the most famous dead man in my life, save for the Nazarene.
But there were further influences that led to my decision to turn my journalism explicitly towards probing King, himself, in The Atlantic’s eponymous special issue, which still—to my constant disbelief—sits on newsstands now. Reflecting on those influences makes it clear now that this publication marks the completion of one arc of my life.
The influences came early. The earliest major moment in American history that I remember with clarity was the Million Man March. I did not attend, but I recall all of the news coverage, the radio updates from Farrakhan, and the excited chatter in the masculine enclaves of the barbershop and late night card games. I did not understand why anyone was going to D.C.—a city I then considered to be a far-off northern place—but I did understand that the black men I knew were electrified, excited in a way that’d seemed forbidden.
I also understood that the most important figure in that march was a man who’d died decades before. In the suits, the impassioned oratories, and the conspicuous presence of a great many “reverends doctor,” I saw a thousand shadows of King. In the electricity of the men I knew, what I encountered in them was the experience of finally perhaps being able to touch the hem of the garment of someone who’d they’d been bent—sometimes broken—towards emulating. There was a thrill, yes, but also an obligation; a measuring.
Over the course of the next few years, King would become the model of masculinity as well, very much so against my own wishes sometimes. In the service of “not embarrassing us around these white folks,” I was expected to dress and behave a certain way, a way i knew instinctually to be cribbed from King. A middle school Black History Month project on Malcolm X was graded harshly, plainly for my white teacher’s discomfort with his message. Nonviolence was drilled into my head, not as a protest tactic, but as a survival tactic. As a book-smart boy—the one my community had “chosen” to go to college—I had three annual duties: playing Joseph in the church Christmas drama, portraying Jesus in the church Easter play, and giving a speech on King day.
It’s no wonder then, that I wound up at Morehouse College, among so many other chosen scions. I slept in Graves Hall, the place where King lived and studied. I cracked jokes in the balcony of Sale Hall, where he went to chapel. My brothers and I huddled under the statue of King and went to Sunday services in the behemoth on-campus chapel that carries his name. We lived four—sometimes, five, six, or seven—years in Martin’s shadow.
It was as if I lived in the shrine to a god. The immense pressure to become like King struck me as odd, given how little I still knew about who he actually was, and what he really did. Most of what I knew “King” to be was still largely an aesthetic and a collection of his greatest hits; a disembodied voice that boomed from speakers. I saw thousands of shadows of King, yes, but the more I advanced in my education, the more I began to realize that what I believed to be “King” was a shadow as well.
That began to change one day when I chanced upon a special class taught on King by his official biographer, Clayborne Carson. The class was serendipitous enough for me to consider it fateful—it was a one-time offering by a visiting scholar, tied to the procurement of the King papers collection by the school—and it came just after the election of Barack Obama, a time when I was probably most primed to actually listen and study in a class about the civil-rights movement.
The class knocked my socks off. It was far more rigorous than I’d expected, and guest lectures by people like Andrew Young and Julian Bond gave me firsthand accounts of what King and the movement were really like. Intensive readings of King’s scholarly works showed me just how shallow my understanding of him had been, and challenged my very beliefs. I walked away from each lecture shaken, understanding that King was not some single-minded granite founding father of a grateful nation, but a real person who worked alongside real people, and a person who endeavored hard to expand his mind and understanding of fighting injustice. He was not universally beloved; rather, I found that the biggest contradiction of his deification was that he was assassinated at the nadir of his national popularity while protesting, yet so much of his collective memory is dedicated to the lie that we did overcome.
That contradiction chafed at me as I worked to become a journalist; as I absorbed Ferguson and traveled to Flint. I was molded all my life to become like an image that I now knew was a falsehood, corrupted by staidness and respectability. Yet, the truer image that I’d learned in class was reviled, and King’s projects had largely been abandoned across the country. The two images were irreconcilable in my mind. They’ve only become more irreconcilable in the past year or so, as the culmination of a 50-year-long counterrevolution to the civil-rights movement entered the highest office in the land, and when just a few months later in March I looked into the eyes of my son for the first time, and realized that I had the monumental task of guiding him in a world where he will face the same pressures and contradictions.
A month later, I asked our Editor in Chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, if we could do something special on King. It’s clear to me now that, after all the work has been done, the project was a capstone for me in understanding what King has meant to me, in my struggle with figuring out just what masculinity and duty mean, and just how to try to do good in a world that seems to incentivize evil. It’s also clear to me that my ideal reader of this work has always been my son, who hopefully in some years will read the issue intently. I want all of our readers to be challenged, and I envision his life as being clearer and better because of that challenge.
But also, I think the King issue and the months and months of intense study of his work, the movement, our people, and our country, have been necessary pieces of my life’s work. I’ve always been writing about Martin Luther King Jr. But now, for the first time, I believe I understand who he is and what he did.
Vann R. Newkirk II is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy. He has covered health policy, civil rights, voting rights, environmental justice, race and class in American politics, and the evolution of black identity. Newkirk is also a co-founder of and contributing editor for Seven Scribes, a website and community dedicated to promoting writers and artists of color.