Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Haunted by King
January 20, 2022
I remember when the new books arrived. My parents had purchased the “Ebony Pictorial History of Black America.” It came in a three-volume set, and each book was wrapped in cellophane. I suppose the wrappers were meant to protect the books from moisture and possibly to prevent other kinds of damage. Each book’s spine was exposed, and we gripped it to remove the books from the box. I can still see the books’ brown covers, trimmed in gold letters. The pages were stiff, and therefore, I concluded, they had remained untouched until we opened our box set.
The books also came with a familiar antiseptic smell that I still associate with dreaded visits to our family physician, the gray-haired, tobacco-chewing Dr. Wolfe. However, that distinct smell added to my excitement and anticipation. I could not wait to see what the books were about. I suppose that special smell made me feel special too. By that time, I began to understand that our family did not have disposable income. We wasted nothing. Everything we had was used until its usefulness had expired. Thus, I knew we would not waste our means on frivolous things. The books would become a special family heirloom.
So, I sat quietly for hours reading the content of the volumes. From the brown books trimmed with gold letters, I learned more about African American culture, traditions, values, and contributions to our black community and the larger society than I did throughout my elementary and secondary educations combined. I suppose this was the primary reason the books were published. The Johnson family, publishers of both Ebony magazine and this box set, knew that black children and adults across the country were languishing and uninformed, which left us feeling bereft, and incapable of self-rule and self-determinism.
What added to the purpose for publishing these special books was African Americans’ ongoing need to be made self-aware. It is black awareness that provides the courage and righteous indignation to fight and resist the hegemonic and supremacist propaganda that underscores white mythologies. So, because of the new books with the antiseptic smell, I gradually developed a new confidence and sense of identity. I learned not to believe what the white schoolteachers said about me because I knew something about myself that they did not. I began to know that, someday and in some way, I would walk in the Du Boisian prophetic tradition. The same tradition that informed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s living words.
Once, while reading one of the volumes, I was startled by a particular photograph. In grainy black and white, it captured the polished King dressed in what appeared to be a tan-colored suit, white shirt, and striped black and white tie. Atop King’s head was a white Fedora hat with a neat black satin band. The graphic photo was an image of the helpless King, who had been pushed into an uncomfortable and compromised position. His arms were forced behind his back, and his hands were trapped in handcuffs. King was made to appear, at least to me, like one of those criminals or gangsters I had seen in numerous movies on television.
From the day I first saw that black-and-white photograph until now, I continue to be haunted. Each visit from the ghost of King in handcuffs has made me feel uncomfortable about our current and unresolved human condition.
I called to my mother. I needed an explanation and, I suppose, comfort. I could not understand why King was going to jail. The photo was taken in 1958 when he was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for a violation of local segregation laws. He was fined fourteen dollars but refused to pay, so he was sentenced to fourteen days in jail. At that time, in 1971, I knew nothing about King being an unlawful man. I knew he was a Baptist preacher. I knew his image was on our church walls, and also on the hand fans, provided by a local funeral home, that were behind our pew Bibles and Baptist hymnals in the pews’ missalette boxes.
I knew that King’s image was positioned in prominent spaces on the walls of every other church I had ever visited and, indeed, nearly everywhere in the black community. In our homes, his photograph was placed alongside a blonde-haired, blue-eyed image of Jesus. What I saw inside my new book was inconsistent with what I had been told—and taught. If King could be incarcerated, then every black boy I knew, good or bad, could and would be incarcerated.
My mother struggled to find the words to simplify what had happened to King. It was like what she said could happen to me. If I were believed to be a bad boy downtown, I could be arrested and go to jail. In fact, I am not sure her answer was adequate for a precocious ten-year-old boy. But now I know why King went to jail. He did so for justice—and for the sake of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.
I learned later that, on Good Friday in 1963, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy were arrested, charged, and incarcerated for their peaceful protest against unjust segregation laws. The two men were leaders in the Birmingham bus boycott, demanding that action be taken against Jim and Jane Crow laws. Traditionally, on Good Friday many black churches are full of congregants attending worship services to affirm our faith and process our anguish that Jesus was lynched on a rugged cross, sanctioned by Roman law.
While black congregants in Birmingham affirmed their faith and purged their anguish on that Good Friday, King and Abernathy went to jail. Learning this helped me reach an understanding of how the cross and Jesus’ thirst for righteousness intersects with the socio-human justice movement that King became a part of. And I have come to recognize, understand, and accept that I am part of the same movement.
From the day I first saw that black-and-white photograph until now, I continue to be haunted. Each visit from the ghost of King in handcuffs has made me feel uncomfortable about our current and unresolved human condition. I can neither escape those visitations nor remove the lingering antiseptic smell of those three brown books trimmed in gold letters. But engaging with King’s living words helps me cope.
Dr. Joseph Evans is the Dean of the Morehouse School of Religion and author of The Polished King: Living Words of Martin Luther King Jr. from which this article is adapted. Copyright © 2022 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4-JUDSON, www.judsonpress.com.