The Son’s Fault: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Search for and Recovery of Sonship
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This article examines the role of sonship in the psychological and spiritual development of men. In using the methodology of psychobiography, I explore the life history of Martin Luther King, Jr. to analyze his search for and recovery of sonship. I propose that sonship helps men rebel against and, in the end, overcome the feelings of inadequacy that are experienced in their struggles to achieve manhood, particularly within the father–son dyad. The scholarship of pastoral theologian Donald Capps is instructive in this regard, in that he suggests that sons should be allowed to search for a male figure, a father-substitute, who can affirm, not disdain or reject, this state of sonship. In the end, what is often viewed as a negative act of regression—i.e., the recovery of and return to sonship—is recognized instead as a positive one that assists a man in his journey toward wholeness.
KeywordsSonship Martin Luther King, Jr. Daddy King Fault Manhood Uncanny
Introduction: The Search Begins, Again and Again…
May 31, 2007. That’s when it happened.
I sat down at my office desk, hunched over, with my head resting in my hands, and my fingers feverishly tapping against my forehead, anticipating what was approaching. It would soon be night. And I knew, beyond a doubt, that, on this night, something unexpected was going to take place. My eyes, alert, watched the waning sunlight succumb to the expanding darkness, all while my mind computed how many minutes, how many seconds remained until this event would begin. Then suddenly, like a flash, my wife cried out, “Jay, come and get him…I’m ready to go to sleep.” And so it began. This would be the first time that I, as a new father, would be alone with our newborn son, Ellinton.
Many things transpired throughout that night that were new to me, such as diaper changing and bottle feeding, but none of these equaled the poignant unsettledness that occurred when I noticed, for the first time, my son staring at me. He lay there, motionless, no crying, nothing, only a fixed stare. After a while, it seemed to me a gaze of inquiry—it was penetrating and searching, like a skilled detective searching for evidence, all of which made me feel exposed, terribly vulnerable. I turned away for several minutes, hoping that by performing some sleep-inducing practices—e.g., dimming the lights, accompanied by rocking and sonorous humming—he would eventually fall asleep. But nothing worked. The stare persisted. He kept searching. And the more he stared, I am sorry to report, the more I became undone.
What was he looking at? No, it wasn’t that simple; the question had to be more precise. What was he looking for? Did I have what he was looking for? And if I didn’t have it, would he look somewhere else to find it? The questions continued: Was it just Ellinton? Wasn’t I looking for the same thing? And aren’t there others looking for the same thing as well?
The Search for Fellow Searchers
A few months later, I was set to begin the Master of Theology program at Princeton Theological Seminary. In preparation for doing so, my advisor told me that, since my focus would be the psychology of religion, I should have a meeting with Donald Capps, an expert on that topic. My knowledge of Professor Capps until then, unfortunately, had come mostly from his books and from tales provided by students. The books, such as Reframing and Giving Counsel, gave evidence of Capps’s abilities as a critical thinker and, of no less importance, a graceful writer. There were also the stories told to me by fellow students about his noticeably placid demeanor, which, they claimed, created a calming presence, whether inside or outside of the classroom. With all this in mind, I didn’t know what to expect during our meeting. Would he question my knowledge of the psychology of religion, calling out seminal texts like William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience or Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy? Or would I find out that his cool and calm ways, all this stuff about his being so laid-back, were signs of indifference, even a lack of empathy, a means by which he maintained a distance from others? What would Capps do…[gasp]…what would he say? Many of my fears were soon eased, however, when I finally met him face-to-face. He neither said nor did much, at least during the first 20 min or so. But he listened. He listened to it all. He listened to my woes about fathering, my agony over my son’s gaze. He listened to the point that his bodily posture began to change and his face took on an eerily familiar countenance. He listened like he could actually feel what I was saying. And at the moment, it became evident to me that—Yes!—Donald Capps, too, was a searcher. And I had to know if he, like Ellinton and I, was searching for the same thing.
Capps and I never discussed his childhood that day, nor did it come up in any of our subsequent conversations. Certainly, there are a number of reasons, such as the age difference between us, that kept me from asking him about his past. There are, thankfully, bits and pieces of evidence scattered throughout a few of his texts that provide a simulacrum of the young Capps. For instance, in his essay “The Rebellious Spirit of the Early Adolescent Boy,” in Losers, Loners, and Rebels (2007), Capps reveals that he was possessed by the “spirit of rebellion” during his younger years (p. 167). In interrogating this period of development and its attendant spirit in the essay “The Making of a Reliably Religious Boy,” Capps says,
Given what Freud expounded in his theories regarding male development, most specifically the Oedipus Complex, we know that the most significant adult authority figure in a boy’s life is his father. From castration anxiety to the formation of the superego, it is the father who serves as the model of authentic individuation, i.e., maturity. And yet, unfortunately, the father often fails to meet his son’s expectations. Fathers fail. And, at times, in full view of their sons. These failures, as some theorists have argued, set these sons on an ongoing search, at times a lifelong search, a religious quest, perhaps, for someone or something powerful enough to be called father. There is textual evidence that suggests Capps would support this hypothesis.
[b]y expressing and exercising the spirit of rebellion, a boy also discovers that there are limits to how far those who have power and resources to help and assist him are willing to go. By trying and testing these limits, he becomes more aware of his own power and resources, his own capacities for making good things happen. He discovers the futility, at times, of relying upon the support and beneficence of the adults who have authority over him. (p. 132)
Nestled within the pages of Capps’s The Child’s Song (1995), there is a profound confession. In fact, if not careful, the reader can easily overlook it by focusing instead on the wealth of information regarding the religious abuse of children, as seen, for example, in figures ranging from the early-church father Augustine to the modern-day evangelist Billy Graham. Nevertheless, it is in considering Jesus’ controversial childhood that Capps is moved to interrogate his own childhood experiences, especially those between him and his father. After sharing that he was, in fact, grateful for his father’s “dependability and personal sacrifices,” Capps states,
He goes on to explain, again, that there was nothing that his father did to warrant such feelings. There was, however, something that was done to his father that elicited this desire within young Donald. He shares that his mother had “frequently belittled” his father, which, as Capps witnessed this, left the young boy feeling a deep sense of shame, on many levels—i.e., not only shame for but also ashamed of his father. To overcome this feeling, Capps searched for not just another father but the Father, one who, as he says, would fulfill his wish to be a “beloved son” (p. 113). As noted, this, for Capps, requires an act of rebellion, in that the son has to declare that, in this instance, his father cannot meet his son’s needs. But an added act of rebellion, for Capps, is that the meaning of what it means to be a son, and quite possibly a man, especially with regard to the issue of identification, must be challenged as well. A revaluing of our sonship must take place. Learning to be in relationship with—or to have a friendship with—the son within is of great importance. Capps says as much in his essay “Close Friendships” (2012) in stating that a relationship with an “earlier version” of ourselves is of great assistance when we are suffering through difficult times (p. 93).
Yet the more I pursued this exercise in introspection, a rather darker atmosphere emerged, as I became aware in myself of the feelings associated with the third scenario. Surely not the sense that my father was evil or despicable, or that he had violated or abused my mother. No, not that. But the sense nevertheless, that it may have been better for this child to have had a different man for his father. Such feelings, long repressed, came to my awareness, and I reexperienced what must be one of the most painful experiences of childhood and possibly the strongest impetus for repressing our childhood experiences. (p. 113)
In true Cappsian fashion, the present essay uses psychobiography, more specifically psychoanalytic psychobiography and its focus on childhood experiences, to examine how Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced a crisis that was not just psychological but spiritual as well, one that exposed within him what I term the son’s fault. My use of the word fault requires some clarification. It is defined by Merriam-Webster as “lack, weakness, failing or defect.” Therefore, traditionally, the word is used to underscore a person’s individual failing, evident, for instance, in such statements as “the family’s financial struggles are the father’s fault.” But the fault I have in mind is not of the individual’s own doing but rather is created through a harmful relationship. Psychoanalyst Michael Balint provides the following description of this more relational understanding of the fault: “There is a feeling that the cause of this fault is that someone has either failed the patient or defaulted on him” (Balint 1968, p. 21, emphasis added).
This inner sense of being “failed or defaulted on,” as Balint describes it, is what Capps describes above and also, as I argue in what follows, is what led Martin Luther King, Jr. to search for a father/Father who could recognize (and value) an earlier version of the adult King. Even as an adult, King needed someone to honor his sonship. To some, it may seem inaccurate to suggest that King was, in fact, searching for someone or something to affirm his sonship, particularly since his father was a constant, often domineering, presence in his life. However, psychobiographical inquiry suggests that, from his childhood until his tragic death, King struggled with and, at times, rebelled against his father’s inadequacy. This inadequacy becomes terribly apparent not only for King but all those who experience this kind of fault during times of great distress. And Balint warns that if the fault is left unattended, particularly during times of “strains and stresses,” the overall structure of the person’s psyche could be compromised (Balint 1968, p. 21). I would add that there are also dire spiritual consequences when the fault is left unattended. Because of this, it is crucial that a remedy for the fault be found.
King’s life offers a model of one man’s ongoing search for a remedy. Through his example we learn of the need for a place in our development as men when we desire—no, when we actually need—much more than a father can offer, no matter his prowess. “This strong wish to be another man’s son,” writes Capps, “is the deep inspiration for his view of God as a personal father, a father who effectively replaces human fathers in his understanding of himself as someone’s son” (p. 114). Thus, one of the primary goals of this paper is to suggest that we cultivate this desire to be another man’s son in a responsible manner. This act of regression, then, would no longer be a source of shame and guilt. In fact, it could offer a means of forming a bond between fathers and sons, and even men from dissimilar backgrounds, as we are all, in the end, no matter how young or old, men who remain boys searching for our sonship.
A King Ascends to the Throne
It is difficult to understand the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father, Daddy King, due to the lack of forthright firsthand data about their interactions, most specifically in terms of the younger King’s recalling his father’s domineering disposition. It is instructive to see that in the same autobiography that King tells of the physical chastisement he suffered at the hands of whites (e.g., the time he was slapped by a white woman for stepping on her shoes), he never divulges the brutal beatings meted out by his father. Furthermore, he refuses to discuss his personal fear of his father, insisting that it was others who would quiver in the presence of Daddy King, many of whom expressed this sentiment by stating, “I’m scared to death of your dad” (Carson 1998, p. 5). Those who knew King, Jr. indicate that Daddy King could be terribly autocratic. For instance, Andrew Young, a person who maintained a close (quasi father–son) relationship with Daddy King, even after the younger King’s death, remarks that “Martin had developed interesting coping skills from his childhood under this strong-willed, even domineering man” (Young 1996, p. 286, emphasis added). Much of Daddy King’s epic persona had to do with his inspiring life story. He was the quintessential self-made man.
Martin Luther King, Sr. or Mike King was born on December 19, 1899 in the small, pastoral town of Stockbridge, Georgia. Life in Stockbridge was wearisome, however. Many of the blacks who lived in the city spent their time doing menial jobs, such as sharecropping or working in the homes of local whites. Besides the monotony of their daily work, blacks also had to contend with the racism of Stockbridge’s white population. In terms of racial violence, Mike had seen it all in Stockbridge: from beatings to hangings to seeing his father being cheated out of his wages, all of these left an array of horrific images within Mike’s psyche. In fact, he was so angered by the way blacks were being treated that he vowed “to hate white people until the day he died” (King 1980, p. 31).
Certainly, some of his personal experiences with racism, not just what he saw or heard about others, fueled his rage. For instance, there was the time that he refused a white man’s brusque request for water—e.g., “Say, boy…run get a bucket of water”—because he was busy running errands for his mother. The white man became so incensed by this refusal of service that he kicked Mike in the head and then proceeded to punch him in the mouth. Bloodied, dazed, and unprotected, he was in the end rescued by his mother who served as his avenger by, of all things, besting the cocksure white man in a bout of fisticuffs (p. 31). Another incident that greatly angered Mike was when his father was being cheated out of his sharecropping wages. When Mike told his father what the boss, named Old Man Graves, was doing, the boss shouted, “You better get that sassy little nigger outta here, Jim [Daddy King’s father]…fore I kick his little butt!” (p. 41). Even more disturbing than this threat was Mike’s realizing that his father was so dependent on this boss that, rather than offer a scathing rebuttal to this statement, James Albert King assented to this request, commanding his son to keep quiet, so as to not offend this powerful (patriarchal) landowner. But it was too late. The son had pleaded his father’s case successfully. The landowner did pay Mike’s father his proper wage. His protestation had worked, but the landowner was so embarrassed at having his nefarious scheme exposed that he threw the King family off his land. James Albert King, in like manner, was not at all pleased with his son’s stepping out of place, that is, his going beyond his father and challenging Old Man Graves.
The relationship between Mike and his father deteriorated soon afterward. When speaking about his father’s increasingly unkind disposition toward him, Mike says, “[e]veryday, Papa found some reason to yell at me, get on me no matter how much I tried to help out” (p. 44). His father’s unpleasantness would soon be directed toward his mother as well. After a night of drinking at the local bar, James Albert came home and loosed his rage on his wife. Remembering how his mother had defended him in the past, Mike restrained his father from hitting his mother. The kitchen area of their small cabin was soon transformed into wrestling ring, as the two engaged in a rugged tussle. Though drunk, James Albert mustered enough coordination to become a formidable opponent. But Mike, coming into his own manly strength, soon wore him down, disposing of him handily. Defeated, all James could do was hurl threats at his son. “I’ll kill you, kill you, I’ll do it, damn you…!” he shouted. Mike did not take his father’s words lightly, however. He knew that his father’s ways, i.e., his failings as a father, were, indeed, killing him—albeit slowly. Moreover, he was convinced that, if he was to overcome the restraints of life in Stockbridge, he would have to surpass his father not only in a physical confrontation (a fait accompli) but even more so in his stature as a man.
Seeking out his own manhood, though, would prove difficult for Mike, who confessed that his father desired that “he be just like him in on almost every point” (p. 26). But Mike, whose heart was being drawn to the ministry, would leave Stockbridge to seek a better life in a land where a new black manhood was being born: Atlanta, Georgia.
In the years that marked the dawn of the twentieth century, Atlanta was a city attempting to reconcile its deep divisions. Much of the city’s inner discord had to do with the dramatic (and rather swift) demographic changes that occurred between 1890 and 1905. The most noticeable and troubling aspect of this change was the influx of black residents who migrated to the city from Georgia’s rural towns. These black men and women were quickly woven into Atlanta’s economic fabric by working in the city’s burgeoning commercial and manufacturing industries. It would not be long before these men and women, once regarded as absolute dependents, formed a viable middle-class, the black bourgeoisie, thus forcing the city’s white establishment to reconsider, if only slightly, racial identities and boundaries. Many white Atlantans, especially the city’s elite, were not conciliatory to such reconsiderations. Historian Godshalk (2005) underscores the anxiety many whites felt, when he says, “growing wage work among…dependents appeared to threaten white fathers’ and husbands’…social status and patriarchal authority” (p. 14). Fearing their position of authority was no longer on firm footing, the patriarchs created reactionary laws, such as Jim Crow, to keep things like they were during slavery. But this group of blacks had already tasted the honey of the Promised Land, and they were not going back to the bondage of Egypt.
And so, the two sides became more entrenched in their positions. On the one hand, the city’s white elites devised a number of machinations to maintain economic and political power over the city’s burgeoning black middle class. Conversely, the city’s black population was beginning to assert itself as a viable part of the Atlanta citizenry, particularly the cadre of black male citizens that had taken on the moniker “New Black Man.” The two sides would, in the end, engage in a clash that ensued on Saturday, 22 September 1906, beginning what would be referred to, thereafter, as the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906.
“We’re going to kill all the niggers tonight” (p. 85). A declaration such as this, though hyperbolic (i.e., all the niggers), certifies the perverse mindset of the men who descended on Atlanta’s downtown area, principally along Decatur and Marietta Streets, on the first night of the riot. Filled with unquenchable rage, a white mob began to attack blacks, using an array of weaponry that included everything from bricks to firearms. No black person was safe. From public transportation to makeshift sanctuaries (e.g., a local skating rink or barbershop), mobs broke down doors and proceeded to beat black victims, either to the point of unconsciousness or, in some cases, death. Blood would continue to flow until September 26, 3 days later, when the rioters had grown tired of this feast of violence. According to Godshalk, the “official” number of fatalities, ranging from three to 12, issued by city officials severely undercounted the amount of lives that were lost. Unofficially, however, the number of murders is believed to be in the hundreds; or, more accurately, as one white journalist contends, about 250 (p. 105). In truth, most historians hold the number to be about 25, with hundreds more wounded (Ferguson 2002, p. 21). It was not just the loss of life but the psychological wounds of the riot itself that greatly damaged Atlanta’s black community. Many black residents left the city, fearing that an aftershock of violence could break out without warning. For a time thereafter, the downtown area, Five Points, the scene where most of the mob violence occurred, was reterritorialzied as the white man’s land, the well-guarded terrain of the patriarch. Godshalk states,
Downtown Atlanta was simply the epicenter of a more expansive program instituted after the riot “to show black residents that they had no claim on public space and no legitimate place in the city’s economy except as the dependent employees of paternalistic and exploitive white employers” (p. 21). Blacks were disposed to the margins of Atlanta civic life, but this did not stop them from forming a vibrant sociocultural mode of being within this restricted space, which was often comparable to that found in white society. Thus one sees black men declaring that they, too, were to have their own authority, their own patriarchal status, and were eager to make sure that this desire was actualized.
[T]he violence in Five Points was partly an attempt by whites to cordon off the center of the city as their own….This display of white men’s power represented the imposition of utter white male supremacy….And it constituted an attempt among white men to claim the physical territory of downtown Atlanta as their own space. (p. 108)
And so, the discourse of the New Black Man began to become more vociferous “behind the veil” of racial oppression. W. E. B. Du Bois, a onetime accomodationist, had changed into a revolutionary who demanded that black men be vested with all of the powers of a self-assertive manhood. In fact, in 1906, at a meeting convened in Macon, Georgia, called the Georgia Equal Rights Convention, Du Bois was one of the seventeen signees of a document that highlighted the manner in which black men were being denied their manhood rights. A few months later, the need for the procurement of such rights became ever more pressing as Du Bois returned to Atlanta in the midst of the riot. He was so dismayed by what he saw that he penned the haunting poem “Litany of Atlanta,” which is now recognized as a jeremiad on racial injustice. Du Bois, however, did more than express his militancy through his writing—he enacted the manliest Constitutional Amendment, the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, as he “bought a Winchester double-barreled shotgun and two dozen rounds of shells filled with buckshot” (Godshalk 2005, p. 110). As Godshalk observes, it was because “white rioters’ attacks had targeted both the bodies and the masculine identities of black men” that Du Bois, along with countless other black men, began to use more potent measures to reaffirm their manhood (p. 111). Ultimately, Du Bois spearheaded a movement to inculcate within the minds of black men that they “must refuse to bend to white injustice and intimidation, even if such resistance meant certain death, [it] exemplified black manliness and prompted long term racial progress” (p. 64). Unfortunately, Du Bois, comparable to those white men who had marked their territory during and after the 1906 riot, replicated a paternalistic manhood that was the exclusive preserve of a chosen few.
In his essay “The Talented Tenth: Memorial Address,” Du Bois remarks that the moniker “The Talented Tenth [means the] leadership of the Negro race in America by a trained few” (Lewis 1995, p. 347). During the restructuring of the black populace after the race riot, the men who most represented this “trained few” were found mostly among the city’s black clergy. Black pastors were held in such high regard because they were the leaders of the black community’s most cherished institution, the Black church. Ferguson (2002) notes, “almost every black Atlantan had some kind of connection at some point to the most important institution in black Atlanta and black America—the Black church” (p. 28). It was the church that served as the community’s primary social gathering place, and it was also the institution that either galvanized or withheld the black citizenry’s desire for political empowerment. The black church, supported by other groups like social clubs and fraternity organizations, was the principal grassroots organization that helped to establish the “schools and businesses that made Atlanta’s black community one of the most prosperous in the South” (p. 28). Therefore, to be a pastor of one of the more esteemed churches in Atlanta, such as Friendship Baptist Church, Big Bethel AME, or Ebenezer Baptist, meant to be an influential figure not only in matters of church polity and liturgy, but to have a voice of authority in matters of local commerce and politics as well. The position made a black man a person of authority, a true patriarchal figure, both within and outside of the black community. Power like this is what Mike King, still in his teenage years, thirsted for as he left Stockbridge and headed for Atlanta to cement himself as one of God’s chosen men.
Mike soon discovered, though, that he would have to refine his ministerial skills if he wanted to be a successful preacher in Atlanta, Georgia. His first experience with the black church in Atlanta came through a courtship that he had started with a woman named Bertha Chaney, who was the daughter of a Methodist minister, a Reverend Wilson Chaney. Needless to say, Reverend Chaney was not at all pleased that his daughter had taken a liking to a Baptist preacher, who was still enrapt in his “country bumbkin” ways, foremost of which was his poor grammar. Bertha, however, was infatuated with the young Mike King. She began to talk about getting married, having kids, and living a long life together, but Mike was not as fervent about their relationship. Rather, he was focused on making his way in the ministry, becoming a man of God like Reverend Chaney, whom he described as an “educated, very stately man” (King 1980, p. 55). Mike began to sit at the feet, so to speak, of Reverend Chaney, taking in all that he had to say about life and, more important, the ministry. After a while, the reverend’s icy deportment toward the young man, Bertha’s beloved, began to thaw, so much so that he had offered him an invitation to preach a sermon at a Saturday night Methodist retreat. Surprised by this sign of affection, Mike hastily assented to an opportunity for which he was ill-prepared. And Reverend Chaney knew this. His magnanimous gesture was a ruse, used to shame his daughter’s love interest. His “smirking triumphantly” during King’s homiletic fiasco signaled his true intent (p. 56).
Simply put, the sermon was an all out failure. To quote King directly, “It turned out to be the most disastrous [sermon] I’d ever had” (p. 56). Everyone within earshot was ashamed to hear him use such primitive language to describe the Via Dolorosa—e.g., “Caintcha see him totin’ it [the cross]?”—which Mike believed only served to remind his audience of the country life they had left behind, and wished to forget. Mike’s own analysis of the crowd’s reception (or rejection) of him, their disquieting gaze, is quite telling.
It was mentioned earlier that Mike believed that his father wanted his son “to follow [him] in all of his footsteps,” which, in all likeliness, meant his being conscripted to a life of dependency as a sharecropper (p. 26). Mike rejected this wholeheartedly, not just the poverty of sharecropping but even more so what this livelihood most represented: a weak manhood. Therefore, in an attempt to distance himself from this impotent masculinity, he left the restrictive environs of Stockbridge, after a victorious clash with his father no less, which was to signal that he had overcome his father’s dominion, and was independent enough to pursue his own manhood in Atlanta. But, instead, he finds that the city’s elite, those who would have to recognize and affirm his manhood status, forced him back into his father’s patrimony. That is, their ocular (i.e., his “dusty and uncreased clothes) and aural (i.e., words like “totin’”) appraisal placed him in a continuum of primitive black manhood wherein he and his father were one and the same. Mike’s greatest fear therefore was coming to fruition: if things didn’t change, and fast, he would “be just like him [James Albert King] on almost every point” (p. 26).
They must have considered me a clown, a comical country bumpkin. Words like “totin’” didn’t fit in an Atlanta vocabulary, not among the Methodists, anyway, among those who’d escaped the country life I was just emerging from. They didn’t need any reminders from preachers or anybody else, of what they’d left behind. I was that kind of reminder, with my dusty, uncreased clothes, my rough country style of speaking, my whole uneducated, green, farm boy personality. I was nothing to them, almost the way I’d been nothing to the white men back in the country, when I’d just been just another one of somebody’s niggers. (p. 57)
Things would not change, unfortunately, until several years later, after returning to Stockbridge and then back to Atlanta, when Mike began a relationship with Alberta Williams, the daughter of a prominent local pastor, Rev. A. D. Williams. From this relationship, and the marriage that soon followed, Mike was granted access into the Williams family, and, because of this access, he would finally see his ministerial career improve, drastically. Reverend Williams saw to it that his son-in-law was well acquainted with Atlanta’s black ecclesial elite, and in doing so, assured that, upon his retirement, Mike would ascend to the Ebeneezer throne. The newlywed couple resided with the Williams family, and it was during this time that Reverend Williams prevailed upon his son-in-law the intricacies of the ministry. And his preparation would soon prove necessary. Reverend Williams died of a heart attack in the spring of 1931. Soon after, Mike King was called to the pastorate of Ebenezer. The new appointment marked King’s coronation, which also granted him membership to Atlanta’s black aristocracy. His dream had come true. He was now the leader of one of the city’s most recognized congregations. He was a black man who had real power. And he let everyone know it. Branch (1988), a historian, says of King’s self-promotion, “[h]e boasted openly of the number of loans he had secured, the number of votes he controlled, the amount of money he had brought into the church building fund… He was simply Mike King…making himself the center of attention in any room” (p. 43).
A couple of years after the death of Reverend Williams, Mike would have to endure the loss of his biological father. Before transitioning, however, James King requested that his son change his name to Martin Luther, each part of name coming from one of James’ brothers. Seeing his father’s rapidly deteriorating condition, Mike believed this last sign of filial piety a doable parting gift. And so he agreed to his father’s deathbed-wish. Maybe he felt guilty for how much he had rejected his father (his ways, his manhood) in the past? As his father lay their slowly passing away, the younger King was surreptitiously performing the funerary rights for himself, Mike King, the son. He was now ready to assume the role of the patriarch, and the birth of his first child cemented his status as such. Willie Christine would be the first child born to Mike and Alberta, but she would escape much of Mike’s overly domineering ways. His sons, however, faced a different fate. Martin, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, and Alfred Daniel was born on July 30, 1930, both would be vulnerable to their father’s delirium of power, which increased as Ebenezer’s congregation grew in number and influence, all under the senior King’s stewardship.
Daddy King, Reverend King’s nickname, admits that parenthood proved challenging for him. He had to change in order to be a father: “I remained accustomed to thinking of myself as a son long after I’d left my father’s house. And as my children grew, I became more familiar with what Mama and Papa had been talking about when they’d seemed a little harsh with us” (p. 95, emphasis added). For Daddy King, then, being a son was incongruent with and even damaging to his self-identity as a man. Sonship, he thought, had to be abandoned so that he could be the patriarch he believed his children needed, particularly his two sons. Being so disposed to this unilateral, avowedly patriarchal, mode of parenting, Daddy King became terribly rigid and authoritarian in his interactions with his children. It is evident that the power he exhibited in the pulpit began to contaminate the King household, in that his every word was to be obeyed as if spoken ex cathedra, and his punishment was to be endured without protest. Unfortunately, Daddy King was constructing a paradigm of black manhood that his sons would come to abhor. For now, Daddy King, like his father, demanded that his sons “follow in all of his footsteps, be like him on almost every point” (King 1980, p. 26). But was it a manhood that would satisfy his most peculiar son, Martin Luther King, Jr.?
In the Presence of a King
Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.? Many have tried to find out. Reporters interviewed him, FBI officials spied on him, paramours seduced him—each using a specific skill set to discover not just the secret of his strength but that of his weakness as well. Even now, almost 50 years after being felled by an assassin’s bullet, he remains a mysterious figure. If biographers have rightly observed something about him, it is this: just as there was much that even those closest to him did not know, so too were there things about himself that he was unaware of. He was an enigma unto himself. Knowing his deep divisions, King engaged in what he referred to as “self-analyzation” (Carson 2007, p. 96). This was the thesis of “Mastering Our Evil Selves, Mastering Ourselves,” a sermon he delivered on June 5, 1949. An excerpt of the sermon’s manuscript reads as follows:
Though M. L. knew that inner conflict was a “paradigm of life,” he was well aware that there were many, especially within his ecclesial milieu, who held a more conservative view of man’s existential constitution. Leery of being outed as a charlatan, King erected a façade of panache that hid what sociologist Rieder (2008) calls the “chameleon King” (p. 2). His feeling of being “watched” began long before the era of FBI activity noted earlier; and it was not their wiretapping that he believed would catch him in the act, so to speak. Rather, the watchful eye that caused him the greatest dread, the one that had perused his consciousness since youth, was that of Daddy King.
Plato…speaking figuratively, described the personality as a charioteer driving two head-strong steeds, each wanting to in different directions. Listen to Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life but the evil things I follow.” Goethe once said there was enough material in him to make both a rogue and a gentleman….“The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do.” This is Apostle Paul writing in his epistle to the Romans. Whether Paul was speaking here of a conflict that had [come] in his personal experience we do not know. But we do know that this is a paradigm of life. (p. 95)
Evidence of this is provided in a letter that M. L. wrote to his father in the summer of 1944. It is worth quoting the letter in its entirety.
King, Jr. wrote three other letters—dated June 18, August 5 and 30—to his mother, none of which, however, included a guarantee of moral rectitude like we have in the closing remarks of this letter to his father. Notice, he even starts the letter in a penitential tone: “I am very sorry I am so long about writing…” (p. 112). And yes, King asserts that he is at work “most of the time,” keeping him away from temptation, one would assume. But could this be true? What was he doing the rest of the time? Had his freedom that summer in Connecticut led him to engage in certain activities that, if discovered, his father would denounce? Evidence has yet to surface to quench our inquisitiveness about such things. What is known, though, is that King greatly feared his father’s retribution. He was well aware that his summer trip would come to an end, and that, eventually, he would have to go back home, of course, to the South, to “the omnipresent, routine inhumanity of Southern segregation” (Lewis 1978, p. 17). There was also the anxiety of his returning home to another omnipresent and, at times, inhumane entity that greatly restricted his freedom. And it was not the white Southerner. Rather, it was Daddy King and his kingdom, the King household.
I am very sorry I am so long about writing but I have been working most of the time. We are really having a fine time here and the work is very easy. We have to get up every day at 6:00. We have very good food. And I am working kitchen so you see I get better food.
We have service here every Sunday about 8:00 and I am the religious leader we have a Boys choir here and we are going to sing on the air soon. Sunday I went to church in Simsbury it was a white church. I could not go to Hartford [to church] but I am going next week. On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see. After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all the white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to.
Tell everybody I said hello and I am still thinking if the church and reading my bible. And I am not doing anything that I would not do in front of you.
[signed] M. L. Jr. (Carson 1992, p. 112, emphasis added)
In his autobiography, Martin Luther King, Jr. describes the early years of his life as “very comfortable years” (Carson 1998, p. 5). Theologian Cone (1992) has it that, during the nadir of the Great Depression, the King’s enjoyed a life style that differed greatly from that of many black Atlantans. Cone says, [y]oung Martin grew up in a community during the 1930s in which nearly 65 percent of African Americans were on public relief, but not the King family. They always had plenty of food and suitable attire” (p. 23). The King’s were blessed, as it were, with these material advantages because Daddy King took full advantage of his position as the “central leader” of Ebenezer Baptist Church (Branch 1988, p. 43). His power was due in large measure to the manner in which he himself had rescued Ebenezer from fiscal calamity. While other black churches anxiously watched their membership numbers decline, Ebenezer’s grew at a rapid pace, from two hundred to four thousand, to be exact (p. 43). According to Taylor Branch, King was so beloved by the members of Ebenezer that they made him “the highest-paid Negro minister in Atlanta at the end of his first year” (p. 43). The ultimate sign of the church’s appreciation came when, in the summer of 1934, in the midst of the Depression, they sent him on a summer-long tour of Europe, Africa, and the Holy Land. “It was at trip,” Branch says, “that the richest of people might have envied in those hard times” (p. 44). Historian Stephen B. Oates relates that Daddy King also became director of a Negro bank and was involved in other business dealings, demonstrating, in Oates’s opinion, that he was “attracted to wealth and power” (Oates 1994, p. 7). These reported extravagances very much contradict the picture painted by his eldest son, M. L., who says of his father, “[he] never made more than an ordinary salary” (Carson 1998, p. 5). Similar to the members of Ebenezer, the residents of the King household were expected to coddle Daddy King with gifts as well. And he was especially desirous that his sons develop a disposition of filial piety, something that he recognized was absent within his own character.
Daddy King forcefully inculcated the lessons of filial piety within his sons at a very early age. Oates provides a rather unflattering depiction of Daddy King’s persona within the King home, when he remarks, “Reverend King ruled his home like a fierce Old Testament patriarch, certain that he alone knew what was best for them [his children]” (Oates 1994, p. 8). If one of his children dare contradict him in some manner—e.g., sassiness or a similar offense—their disobedience was met with swift physical punishment. “When the children broke a rule…Daddy King took a strap to them,” says Oates (p. 8). But there was something different about M. L. when his father struck him with the rod: he refused to voice his agony. He just stood there, silent. Oates refers to this as M. L.’s “mute suffering” (p. 8). Even Daddy King marveled at his son’s remarkable self-control. But M. L.’s stoic disposition belied the torrent of emotions that swelled within him. “M. L. was an extremely sensitive boy,” Oates points out, “and it hurt him deeply to be whipped by his awesome father” (p. 8). It was the 1930s, mind you, a time when those in authority, such as parents and teachers, upheld the value of physical punishment as a matter of course in shaping a child’s character. And yet, Daddy King’s beatings seemed excessive, to the extent that they began to have an effect on M. L.’s psychological development as well. An aptitude for self-recrimination soon followed. And this became problematic as it was becoming apparent that he would not be allowed to have any dreams of his own but was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the ministry.
The pressure to join the ministry was great. For one, there was Daddy King, who believed that it was befitting of a preacher’s son to want to follow in his father’s footsteps, which meant, essentially, for his son to be heir to the Ebenezer throne (or pulpit), or what Lewis calls “dynastic succession” (Lewis 1978, p. 15). Unfortunately, M. L. was not attracted to his father’s style of preaching: he found it uncivilized, the lack of grammatical elocution; he believed it demonstrated a lack of self-control, the whooping and hollering, foot-stomping and fist-pounding; he deemed it devoid of theological–philosophical depth, the dogmatism corroborated by repetitive proof texting. The primitiveness that his father displayed in the pulpit reminded M. L. of his father’s lack of sophistication in their home. For instance, at home, he provided no rationale as to why his children should be obedient to his every command. It was all too autocratic: Daddy said it…so it must be done. Daddy King’s imposing presence also played a great role in M. L.’s call to the ministry. According to Branch, the younger King’s call to the ministry appears more a matter of M. L.’s own volition than of inspiration—particularly as it became a means of appeasing his father. And such a claim is plausible. M. L. himself mentions his father’s role in his calling when he confesses, “I guess the influence of my father had a great deal to do with my going into the ministry” (Carson 1998, p. 16). In his joining ministry, whether by the bidding of his earthly father or his heavenly Father, M. L. assured Daddy King that his son would remain with him for some time. However, he soon came to feel that following in his father’s footsteps was not enough. He wanted something more.
M. L. had to get away from it all. And in an attempt to separate himself from his father’s overwhelming influence, King would leave it all behind—the South, Atlanta, Ebenezer, and, most of all, Daddy King—to further his education, and cement his status as a well-cultured man.
The maturation and transformation of M. L. during his time at Crozer Seminary and, afterward, Boston University, where he did his doctoral studies, was due in large part to his learning the language of the Western intelligentsia. These years of rigorous academic studies equipped him to speak on a host of learned issues because he had read and, more important, understood the works by prominent figures in a wide array of fields. He knew the ancient philosophers, Plato and Aristotle; he knew the German idealists, Kant and Hegel; he knew modern existentialist theorists, Heidegger and Camus; he knew Christian ethicists, Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr; he knew theologians, Barth and Tillich; he knew economists, Marx and (Adam) Smith; and, most influential of all, he knew the central proponents of nonviolent resistance, Tolstoy and Gandhi. After leaving Boston University, he was not at all willing, certainly after being a part of a group like the “Dialectical Society” (or in Kings manner of speaking, extending a word almost to its breaking point: Di-aaah-lec-teeee-caaahl…[pause]…Sooo-si-eeeh-teeeaah), to return to Ebenezer where he would be part of a immature ecclesial environment that had “too much religion in its feet” (Rieder 2008, p. 93). It is not surprising, then, that Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a church known for being snooty and a “big shots church,” whose members were restrained, attentive listeners, desirous of well-thought out exhortation, was to be Martin’s first full-time pastorate (Garrow 1986, p. 48).
Martin felt a great sense of independence while at Dexter. Physically, he was miles away from the direct influence of Daddy King. But even more important, he had overcome many of his father’s primitive ways, developing a preaching style that captivated his congregation, not with emotional showmanship, however, but with academic pyrotechnics. His longtime friend Joseph Lowery rather lightheartedly recalls that King’s syncretic homiletic style was unique in that “he was a preacher who could whoop Kierkegaard” (Rieder 2008, p. 88). Sure many of his sermons sometimes seemed more like professorial perorations, but that didn’t matter; he was making a name for himself in Montgomery, Alabama. No longer would he be known only as the son of a prominent pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, he was now becoming his own man.
However, he still emulated some of his father’s authoritarian ways, especially in terms of church leadership. For instance, upon his arrival at Dexter, M.L. crafted a document in which he admonished his congregation to accept that he was to be “respected and accepted as the central figure around which programs and policies of the church revolved” (Garrow 1986, p. 50). King wanted to ensure that he would be able to steer the church in whichever direction he deemed appropriate. The timing of his arrival and his decision to become politically active seemed providential in that the winds of change were about to gust through Montgomery. December 1, 1955, marked the first salvo indicating that the city’s black citizens would no longer accept second-class citizenship. In an act of defiance that was humble yet strident, Rosa Parks, a secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, refused to give up her seat, just a row behind the “official” white section of the bus, to a white passenger. News of Parks’s arrest swept through the community. Many black Montgomerians could not believe that Parks would be the one to cross the line, as it were, and challenge Jim Crow. “This is the case,” shouted E.D. Nixon, the former head of the Montgomery’s NAACP chapter, believing this could change the tides of race relations in Montgomery and maybe—with God’s help—the country (Garrow 1987, p. 14). And so plans were put in place to start a movement. Taylor Branch notes that the exact origins of the Montgomery boycott are still debated to this day, but he believes credit should be given, equally, to E.D. Nixon and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) (Branch 1988, p. 133). A group of local black political leaders gathered in the basement of King’s church to devise a plan as to how they would cripple the Montgomery Bus Line. Initially, the plan of attack was that none of the city’s black residents would ride the bus on the coming Monday. All attendants were agreeable to this. Just a few hours later, the group reconvened to discuss the formation of a political action organization during which the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed. And Martin Luther King, Jr. was chosen as its leader.
Preaching at Dexter for the past several months had allowed King to hone both his intellectual and rhetorical skills. While captivating his congregation with sermons such as “The Three Dimensions of Complete Life” and “Religion of Doing,” King was also solidifying himself as a preacher who was committed to the social gospel. All of this training would come to the fore “as the white community focused upon King as the effort’s principal spokesman” (Garrow 1986, p. 51). As the face of the movement, King was the one whose voice was most prominent whenever a group of MIA officials met with city and Montgomery Bus Line officials. But it was not enough that King’s public addresses displayed his rhetorical skill or that he confounded the locales whites with his erudition—no, as the leader he had to be a real man, tough and unflappable. It is well-known that a “tough masculine culture flourished” within the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), founded in 1957 by Ella Baker and Baynard Rustin. Though the SCLC would become the organization that King would be most associated with, the one that most represented God’s manly army of freedom fighters, this focus on manliness started with the MIA’s call to manhood. At a MIA meeting during the bus boycott, E.D. Nixon chastised some of the local black ministers for not supporting the group’s efforts; he said,
Whether or not King was present for Nixon’s call to manhood is unknown, but he was certainly aware of such sentiments. In fact, he had wrestled with his own feelings of masculine inadequacy since childhood. Physically, he was slight of stature; emotionally, he was terribly sensitive. Moreover, he still had childhood memories of the way Daddy King would affirm his own manhood status by undervaluing that of his son. Such was the case when a white police officer pulled Daddy King over and called him a “boy,” to which Daddy King snapped, “Do you see this child here?” pointing to M. L., “That’s a boy. I’m a man” (p. 138, emphasis added). But this was not the time for M. L.’s insecurities to surface, because the movement needed him to be strong. His strength and, by extension, his manhood would soon be put to the test, though, as he was viewed by the white community as “the chief stumbling block to a real solution to the protest” (Carson 1998, p. 70). Thus, in the eyes of Montgomery’s racist white citizens, King was public enemy number one. Dexter’s new pastor was the most visible and, yes, the most hated black man in town.
We are acting like little boys…and if we’re afraid, we might as well just fold up right now. We must be man enough to discuss this in the open….We’d better decide if we’re going to be fearless men or scared boys. (Estes 2005, p. 7)
Recognizing the Son’s Fault
Rrriiiiiiiiiinng! Rrriiiiiiiiiinng! Rrriiiiiiiiiinng!
On the night of January 27, 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. received an alarming phone call. When he picked up the phone, he was immediately threatened by the voice of a white male, who warned, “Listen nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery” (p. 77). King hung up the phone and returned to bed, but he could not go to sleep. What if something happens to me? What if something happens to either Coretta or Yolanda (their first child)? Why did I decide to pastor a church in Montgomery, Alabama? Why did I agree to lead this movement? These insolvable questions reverberated within his mind.
He needed to clear his head. So he went into the kitchen and made a cup of coffee. While sitting at the table, a plan of retreat was beginning to take form. He would leave the movement alone. Yes, that’s it, focus on being a pastor, and leave all this political stuff alone. But he needed to do so while saving face. By no means could he give rise to the idea that he was a coward, that is, unmanly. But at this moment, at the kitchen table, he was faltering. He was not feeling like the strong leader, a modern-day Moses, who was guiding Montgomery’s black citizens to the Promised Land, and its men, particularly, to the attainment of their manhood rights. His fear had pushed him to the point where he was in need of inner succor. He needed real help. He thought about contacting the most powerful man he had known throughout his life, Daddy King. In the early pages of his autobiography, King says, “[i]f I had a problem I could always call Daddy….Things were solved” (p. 5). Much of what was discussed in the previous section contradicts this claim, however. Would Daddy King empathize with his sons’s suffering, especially in this time of emotional crisis? More to the point, did this man of strength possess the emotional acuity to understand his son’s weakness? By his own admission, Daddy King revealed that it was his wife, Alberta, who had “respect for [the children’s] feelings” (King 1980, p. 130). And so M. L. finally had to admit to himself that this was not a battle in which his father’s forcefulness would have any efficacy. “You can’t call on Daddy now,” he thought to himself (Carson 1998, p. 77). He needed someone—RIGHT NOW—who could deal with what psychoanalyst Balint (1968) calls the basic fault.
The weakness that King speaks of on the night of the “kitchen table experience” was something he had experienced, from time to time, throughout his life. The accounts given of the childhood interactions between him and Daddy King illustrate that the father’s physical and psychological maltreatment aroused a great deal of fear and anger within M. L. For Balint, this would indicate that there was an incongruous emotional relationship between M. L. and Daddy King, in that the latter was insensitive to how his abuse was damaging his son’s self-identity. Balint explains,
This early incongruity—i.e., the weak son in relation to the strong father—fixed within M. L.’s psyche the distorted ideation that he, the son, was weak in the presence of the powerful Other. Conversely, Daddy King, the father, was everywhere and always strong. Hence, we have at King’s kitchen table, via the threatening phone call, an episode wherein he was made to feel vulnerable in the face of a threatening Other, a reenactment, a re-presenting, if you will, of the interactions between M. L. and his father that occurred in the King household—maybe, at times, in the kitchen?—during his childhood. According to Balint’s theory, the kitchen table event, and Kings retelling of it, suggests an episode of psychological regression.
In my view the origin of the basic fault may be traced back to a considerable discrepancy in the early formative phases of the individual between his bio-psychological needs and the material and psychological care, attention, and affection available during the relevant time. This creates a state of deficiency whose consequences and after-effects appear to be only partly reversible. (p. 22)
Regression is a term that that has become the more accepted nomenclature for identifying one’s returning to an earlier phase of psychological development. According to psychoanalysts Laplanche and Pontalis (1973), the term means “the bringing back into play of what has been ‘inscribed’” within the psyche (p. 388). These endopsychic inscriptions, or traces, within the psyche become something of a palimpsest in that they remain legible to the superego, the fatherliest (i.e., judgmental and censorial) agency of the psychical apparatus. Unfortunately, the inscription itself is not effaceable, because it is the basic fault, which means it is a fixed part of the person’s identity. But what, exactly, is the basic fault? First, the basic fault is something that one feels is an inner problematic that must be corrected; and second, the basic fault is believed to be the result of one’s being failed by a person in one’s primary environment. All of this is of great importance in terms of the objective of regression, for Balint believes that there is a regression that is aimed at recognition. He says of this “regression for the sake of recognition” that it “presupposes an environment that accepts and consents to sustain and carry the patient…” (Balint 1968, p. 145). Because he believes this reparation takes place in the patient-analyst dyad, Balint says that what the patient, who has regressed because of the basic fault, is seeking from the analyst is not action (that is, to fix the basic fault) but rather understanding and tolerance of the patient’s weakness. There is much insight to be gained from Balint’s basic fault hypothesis, for it does seem that King’s appeals for help were an attempt to call attention to a “fault” (i.e., his weakness) that needed to be understood and tolerated. Nevertheless, as noted, Balint reserves the “regression for the sake of recognition” for the clinical environment, that is, to be enacted between a patient and an analyst. But no such environment was available to King. He was at the kitchen table alone. Who, then, would recognize his basic fault?
King’s lamentation persisted. “With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud,” he recalls in his autobiography (Carson 1998, p. 77). The words of anguish, however, kept pouring out: “I am afraid”…“I can’t let the people see me like this”…“I have nothing left”…“I’m weak now”… (p. 77).
King soon heard what he describes as the “quiet assurance of an inner voice” that neither overlooked nor rebuked his weakness but rather recognized and affirmed it, letting him know that he was not alone in his moment of anguish. Raboteau (1995), scholar of African-American religion, avers that it was at this moment that King encountered le pointe vierge or “the point of origin,” the place where one encounters the Holy (p. 176). The phrase le pointe vierge is taken from the renowned Trappist monk Merton (1965), who in his book Conjectures, says of this place of inner sustenance,
Merton’s description almost seems to belittle this grand Being who offers such ameliorative assistance. “Little point of nothingness” and “absolute poverty”— these words contradict the awesomeness of a God who can swoop in and rescue his people from harm. This certainly is not the God depicted in philosopher Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy (1923), the One who evinces the sheer power, the very awfulness, of the mysterium tremendum (p. 12). It fails to call to mind the prowess of God the Father, who is swift in His wrath and instruction. Such a God, however, would not be able to commiserate, authentically, with the weakness of our humanity. This also goes against the hypotheses put forth by Sigmund Freud on the origins of religious experiences. For Freud, as explicated in texts like Future of an Illusion (1928) and Moses and Monotheism (1939), we are drawn to entreaty the Divine for assistance because our “infantile helplessness arouse[s] the need for protection” by a powerful paternal figure (Freud 1928, p. 52). King’s kitchen table experience, however, undermines Freud’s theory in that it is not protection from but an abiding with that one needs “in the face of life’s dangers” (p. 52). This is not the expected role of the Father. Rather, the descriptives employed for the le pointe vierge remind one of the characteristics of the Son, the humble servant, who hung on the cross, the ultimate sign of disrepute. It is the very weakness of the le pointe vierge (i.e., the Son) that gives it the strength to recognize, sustain and tolerate, “our sonship” (Merton 1965, p. 155).
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. (p. 155, emphasis added)
Let us return to the kitchen table for a moment.
Following his experience with this “quiet…inner voice” (i.e., le pointe vierge), King said he had the (inner) strength to lead the movement’s fight for equality, because he was assured this presence “would not leave [him] alone” (Carson 1998, p. 78). Cone (1992) rightly observes that the kitchen table experience made King realize that the cross, a symbol of weakness, was a source of strength (p. 124). More than that, though, the cross helped to affirm the value of something that he was denied in his childhood: the true value of his sonship. Let us recall that M. L. endured what Oates referred to as “mute suffering” while he was a child. He felt he could not express his weakness in the presence of his domineering father, choosing instead to remain silent in the face of his threatening power. The fear and trembling induced by these encounters led him to conclude that his dependency as a son was a mode of manhood that was to be forsworn. However, it is plausible to conclude that at his weakest moment, it was his sonship (i.e., vulnerability) that most attracted the validating presence of le pointe vierge. Martin now knew, firsthand, what (Divine) love really is, the kind of love that accepts one in all of one’s inconsistencies and frailties. How different Daddy King would have been if he knew there was nothing wrong with being vulnerable? How different would the racist white Southerner act towards blacks if they knew the dependence and weakness they saw in the other resided, selfsame, within themselves? With this knowledge, Martin could begin to love his enemies through the strength of his weakness, that is, his sonship. This was the love that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of for the rest of his life.
Conclusion: An Uncanny Friendship
Donald Capps and I had little in common. Age, race, class, to name just a few—all of these, it would appear, were stark differences between us. Nevertheless, after our first meeting, in the months and years that followed, something began to happen. There was a strange bond that developed between myself and the wise professor, something that, upon reflection, I now describe as an uncanny friendship. It would be dishonest for me to state that this friendship involved frequent talks on the phone, a steady exchange of emails, or a constant flow of letters (the latter of which, at least in my experience, was Capps’s preferred medium of communication). Nevertheless, from time to time, such as our encounters at the Group for New Directions in Pastoral Theology conferences, I found myself feeling an authentic bond with him that, to be honest, confounded me for quite some time. What was it, exactly, that drew me to Don Capps? In “Close Friendships” (2012), Capps shares that “one of the friends to whom we may turn is an earlier version of oneself” (p. 93). However, I believe that this earlier version of one’s self must want (or need) to be recognized by someone else, a friend with whom, perhaps, he or she can rebel against the shame and guilt brought on by dominative adulthood. If this is true, then Capps the boy, not the man, was the one with whom I was forming a friendship.
In remembering my time with him, I like to think that those precious encounters, though few in number, were times when the two earlier versions of ourselves—the boy Capps and the boy Hinds—had the opportunity to come out and play with each other, unashamed. I can attest that this playfulness provided me with great confidence in my early years as a scholar. There were many times that I felt an idea of mine was too out-of-the-box, such as, for example, my offering a Freudian interpretation of King’s dream. But Capps would always reply “Why not?” as a way of approving of my playful approach to research. Maybe he knew that this was my way of giving voice to and, by extension, having a relationship with the earlier version of myself. Certainly, his own playful (and, at times, rebellious) approach to research evinced his need to give voice to and come in contact with the child within. This desire to have the earlier version of our selves heard and recognized characterized the uncanny nature of our friendship. Sigmund Freud (1919) has it that one of the definitions for the word uncanny (unheimlich in German) indicates “everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open” (p. 132). Capps, I am sure, was careful not to expose this earlier version of himself to everyone. In my own experiences in seeking to share this earlier version of myself with others, I have found that many possess neither the truthfulness nor tenderness to handle this sort of self-exposure with authentic care. It is for this reason that, throughout one’s life, the earlier version of one’s self, if it is to remain unharmed, must often remain concealed. But there are moments, whether it be King’s encounter at the kitchen table or my moments with Capps, when this vulnerable self can safely come out in the open, make itself known, and revel in all of its childishness, with a trusted friend.
In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I call you not servants…I have called you friends.” Though Capps’s death was tragic and a shock to all of us that knew him, it gives me some comfort to know that he is with a real friend now. The younger version of himself, the boy Capps, has found what he was searching for and doesn’t have to hide anymore.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
The author declares that he has no conflict of interests.
Human Participants or Animals
This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals.
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