King in Time; King in time

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., was Time’s “Man of the Year.” Oddly enough, as I re-read that year’s cover story recently, Dick van Dyke’s lively song and dance routine in “Mary Poppins” ran in my head.

Step in time, step in time 
Step in time, step in time 
Never need a reason, 
Never need a rhyme, 
Step in time, step in time 
We step in time.

“Mary Poppins” premiered in 1964, but that’s not why I thought of it in connection with Time’s story about King. Its cover story of the year reminded me just how deeply flawed, short-sighted and time-bound that story really was.

Surely, 1963 was the single most important year in post-World War II America. It was the most significant in African Americans’ 20th-century struggle for civil rights. Beginning with the dramatic and extended stand-off in Birmingham, Ala., it continued in brutal confrontations throughout the South, the momentous March on Washington, the tragic bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It challenged King more deeply than ever before. Yet Time utterly failed to capture the ways in which the times and the man had met.

Time’s coverage of King as its “Man of the Year” played off the perspective of forty years earlier. When King was born, said Time, someone like the 1920s sage, H. L. Mencken, could still write: “The educated Negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a Negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of a clown.”

Step ‘n fetch it, step in time 
Step ‘n fetch it, step in time 
Never need a reason, 
Never need a rhyme, 
Step ‘n fetch it, step in time 
Step ‘n fetch it, step in time.

If a white world’s image of African America’s possibility starts with Mencken’s views, the road to recovery is a long one. That is a clue to the limitations of Time’s image of its “Man of the Year” in January 1964.

Martin Luther King’s recent biographers tell us far more about him than reporters in 1963 could have known. Yet some of the flaws in Time’s report would have been clear to those close to King. He “dresses with funereal conservatism (five of six suits are black, as are most of his neckties). He has very little sense of humor,” said Time. “He never heard of Y. A. Tittle or George Shearing, but he can discourse by the hour about Thoreau, Hegel, Kant and Gandhi.”

Where do you begin to unpack such images of King? With the fact that a black suit and tie — not his childhood tweeds or late zoot suit fashion — were appropriate ministerial dress? Or with the fact that he preferred them to be of silk? “He has very little sense of humor.”

Clearly, the reporter fell victim to some of King’s masking, a distancing mechanism. Friends knew that, at ease, he had a robust, earthy sense of humor. “Y. A. Tittle or George Shearing”? Time dims the importance of knowing who some white athletes and musicians were. Discoursing “by the hour about Thoreau, Hegel, Kant and Gandhi”? Well, yes, he could do that. It was news to some readers of Time that an African American might do that, but a part of King’s discoursing was an image King was creating of himself. In letters, he thanked friends for “a work of supererogation” so he could explain to the less well educated friend what “a work of supererogation” was.

Time’s reporter didn’t understand that Martin Luther King also knew about Stepin Fetchit. By 1964, he had spent two decades cultivating an image that distinguished who he was from a white world’s limited view of what he could be. Black suits and a sober public demeanor helped to clarify things.

Surprisingly, Time’s coverage of King as “Man of the Year” in January 1964 refers to neither his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” nor his “I Have a Dream” speech. Had you mentioned their now time-worn phrases forty years ago, few people would have known what you were talking about. Both of them took form in 1963 and only subsequently became his most familiar texts. “Letter” was scrabbled together by King’s lieutenants from notes he sent to them from jail. It wasn’t published until well after his release and only slowly won the attention it now holds. “I Have a Dream” was a classic example of King’s oratory, mixing new rhetoric with fixed pieces which had long played in his repertoire.

Time’s attention to King’s oratory is also surprising in another way. Subsequent writers have focused on how it worked by mixing the familiar and the poetic to build an audience’s affirming response. The “Man of the Year” cover story drew attention to King’s rhetorical failures. “For a man who earned fame with speeches, his metaphors can be downright embarrassing,” said Time. Indeed, sometimes they were.

“For Negroes, he says, ‘the word “wait” has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide,’ giving ‘birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.’ Only by ‘following the cause of tender-heartedness’ can man ‘matriculate into the university of eternal life.’ Segregation is ‘the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality,’ and it ‘cannot be cured by the Vaseline of gradualism.'”

But metaphors that don’t work on paper often do work orally and subsequent examinations of King’s speech rightly focus on his rhetoric’s successes rather than its failures.

Time’s “Man of the Year” coverage of King tells us as much about white American attitudes in race relations as it did about King himself. Of them, he would tell us, “They’re not what they ought to be, they’re not what they’re going to be, but thank God Almighty, they’re not what they were.” Forty years later, Martin Luther King’s step in time was clearly larger than even Time imagined.

King in Time, King in Time, 
King in time, King in time; 
As for the reason and the rhyme, 
His was the reason, his the rhyme. 
Thank God Almighty, 
M. L. King did step in time.

Ralph E. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.