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Judging Joshua : AND THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN by Ralph David Abernathy (Harper & Row: $22.50; 640 pp., illustrated)

November 12, 1989|Mary King | King's book on her experience as a white woman working in the civil rights movement, "Freedom Song" (William Morrow), was awarded a 1988 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

This story alone--of friendship, devotion, commitment, loyalty--would have made a profound contribution to our fathoming of King and thus to our understanding of an epoch. There are glimpses of a complementary relationship between the erudite, polished King and Abernathy, a former Army sergeant who was close to the people. (Even at night there was contrast between them, King needing "a certain amount of comfort in order to sleep well" while Abernathy was "able to go to sleep anywhere and in any position.")

The book sounds a somber note as it moves into King's later years. Abernathy recalls that in Selma, in 1965, following a meeting with President Johnson, King "suddenly collapsed under the pressure and had to be hospitalized with the same mysterious ailment that always plagued him during these rugged campaigns." In locale after locale, Abernathy describes King's bouts with a recurring "stomach virus," a physical manifestation of psychological vulnerability that is paradoxically appealing when viewed against the awesome and unassailable stature that a guilty nation has posthumously bestowed on King over the last 20 years.

King's sexual behavior is given new detail by Abernathy's account and has generated controversy. The question will be why this account was written. On the night before he was killed in Memphis, according to Abernathy, King stepped out of a bedroom with one woman after 1 a.m. and spent time with another between 3 and dawn. A third woman with whom he was involved came to their hotel room in early morning and left upset at having found his bed empty. When the third woman returned after 8 a.m., a tiff ensued in which, according to Abernathy, King "shouted and knocked her across the bed" when she criticized Abernathy for covering up for King.

The portrait of King is thus kaleidoscopic. The irony is that "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" may be the most intimate personal view of Martin Luther King we shall ever have: He was both fun-loving and deeply serious, on the one hand, a cosmopolite, and, on the other, a private man who asked his pal Abernathy never to disagree with him in public. According to this account, King had a gift for mimicry, was always interested in what was being prepared for dinner and fantasized about retirement to a south Georgia farm when the pressures became extreme. Unable to use a razor because of tender skin, he used a depilatory, which "was one reason he was always late."

Forever studying leather-bound and gilt-edged tomes of 18th- and 19th-Century sermons to inspire his own preaching, by Abernathy's account, King frequently lifted textual material from others' sermons and from famed educator Dr. Benjamin Mays. Toward the end, King was preoccupied, lost in "melancholy moodiness," and possessed of an ominous foreboding about the imminence of his death.

The reader must struggle to discern the true portrait, however, through an account that is sometimes out to settle old scores, often self-serving, and at times factually inaccurate.

Why did Abernathy write "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down"? It is clear that he did so neither to impart the truths of a great political upheaval nor to share the agonies and responsibilities of having been a great man's confessor. The inescapable conclusion is that the book was contrived to place its author at the center of the historic maelstrom of the civil-rights movement and that, by creating controversy, the book would be given importance it might otherwise lack.

Even the author's assertion that he was King's choice as successor is weakly self-justifying. Nothing in the book suggests that King's desire could have been based on anything other than comradeship because, despite his self-proclaimed role as tactician, Abernathy never explains decisions as if he were involved in their making or shows how a campaign was different because of his involvement.

"I was designated as his automatic successor," Abernathy writes, "in the event he were to die or be incapacitated; and when he was shot down in Memphis, I took over the direction of the organization as soon as I left the hospital. . . . But I had no part in devising or promoting this scheme, and it was only later that it occurred to me how resentful the others might have been . . . I'm sure it seemed to them that I was no more than an appendage to Martin. . . . What they didn't realize was the degree to which Martin depended on me for counsel when we were alone and how many of his ideas originated with me."

In describing how he was ultimately asked to leave the presidency of the SCLC, Abernathy chooses a face-saving run for Congress, but he does not tell us that even then the contest was divisive. He criticizes neither himself nor the SCLC. Such criticism as he offers is of personalities such as Stokely Carmichael or Jesse Jackson rather than of strategies.

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