The Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited me. Decades after his death, he remains amused and yet humbled by all the fanfare of a national MLK holiday. At the time of his death in 1968, he was deeply unpopular. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director, considered him the most dangerous man in America. Many whites opposed his campaign to obtain more rights and opportunities for Blacks. Most Americans viewed him negatively for one reason or another. On the one hand, his opposition to the Vietnam War and socialist proclivities – namely that the government should take care of those unable to fend for themselves — unsettled the populous. On the other hand, Blacks either questioned the legitimacy of his leadership as the principal voice for the Black community or they disapproved King’s nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience strategy.
Dr. King felt compelled to visit because he realized that dead people make great heroes. Because they can’t speak for themselves one can project on them whatever they want. Each year as the MLK Holiday approaches the perennial question becomes: What would Martin say if he were alive today? So, this year he decided to speak, no, more aptly, in classic Martin voice — he wanted to “leave the word with us.”
We had a freewheeling conversation — one “characterized by a disregard for rules or conventions; unconstrained and uninhibited”; one replete with revisits, reminiscing, and reaffirmations. Surprisingly, he spoke less about civil rights and more globally about human suffering, the underlying causes of poverty, unemployment, wealth inequality, and criminal justice reform.
Of course he mentioned: the current political climate; the rise of white supremacy; and the stark legislative and judicial retrenchment from protecting civil liberties. He stated, although, the rise of far right regression has been fomented by, crystalized and personified in Donald Trump, it is largely driven by those who believe that they are in danger of losing their economic, political, and societal status if other cultures and races achieve equal access to the opportunities long deprived.
Dr. King became most engaged as we attempted to interpret the import of the recent Georgia Senate race. He anticipates that the election will foster a renewed Black/Jewish collaboration. Then with a particular urgency he began to speak about mental health.
The Georgia Senate Race
Dr. King was elated and proud of his home state’s election of the first Black and Jewish senators: Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff, respectively. The coincidences and the multi-layered historical connections surrounding the parties are astonishing.
Senator Warnock is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same church that Dr. King and his father once pastored. After graduating from high school, Warnock followed King’s footsteps, and thus attended Morehouse College. In the 1990s Warnock served as the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Interestingly, while he was pastor at Abyssinian, the church refused to hire workfare recipients as part of an organized opposition to then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s workfare program.
Senator Jon Ossoff, at age 33, is the youngest person ever to be elected to the United States Senate. Ossoff is not only the first Jewish senator from Georgia he is the first from the deep south since Benjamin F. Jonas who was elected 1879.
Dr. King noted that he is connected vicariously with Ossoff through the late Congressman John L. Lewis, one of King’s lieutenants in the Civil Rights Movement. When Ossoff was 16 years old he read Lewis’ memoir about the civil rights movement, “Walking with the Wind.” Inspired by Lewis’ story, he wrote him a letter. Lewis, in turn offered him an internship.
The Ossoff-King connection goes further. Ossoff had bar mitzvah and attends the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, also known as the Temple. It is Atlanta’s “oldest and most prominent Jewish Synagogue.” Under the leadership of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild (1911- 1973), the Temple played a major role in the Atlanta civil rights struggle. As a result, Dr. King and Rabbi Rothschild developed a close relationship.
Because of its the civil rights activism, under Rabbi Rothschild, the Temple was bombed. However, this did not deter the organization from further activism. To the contrary, the Temple’s members took up leadership positions in political and civic organizations that would ultimately lead to the peaceful integration of Atlanta’s schools in the 1960s. In 1964, it was Rothschild who helped organize a banquet in Kings’ honor after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. After King’s assassination, it was again Rabbi Rothschild who delivered the eulogy at the memorial service organized by the combined clergy of Atlanta.
King reminisced fondly about the how the collective efforts of Blacks, Jews, and progressive white Christians assisted the civil rights struggle. He noted the Blacks and Jews had interacted, collaborated throughout much of the 20th century in various progressive movements. He reminded me of the significant role that exiled Jewish scholars, unable to secure position at most “mainstream” played at Historical Black Colleges after World War ll.
He lamented the deterioration of the partnership. Over the decades it had become strained because of conflict and controversy related to such topics as the Black Power movement, Zionism, affirmative action, and anti-Semitic canard concerning alleged role of American and Caribbean based Jews in the Atlantic slave trade.
Mental Health Stigma
I was surprised when Dr. King began to speak about his struggles with depression. Unbeknown to most, he suffered severe depression throughout most of his 13-year professional tenure. By some accounts, he may have attempted suicide twice as a child. Later, as an adult his bouts of depression became so severe that his staff tried to get him into psychiatric treatment.
Biographers and commentators have given scant attention to King’s mental illness. Diane McWhorter is one of the writers to broach the subject. She did so in her Pulitzer Prize winning book “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”
One wonders how King, given his mental illness, managed to achieve so greatly despite all the challenges concomitant to that leadership. He had to navigate assaults from the FBI as they tried to discredit his agenda and scandalize his personal life. Physical violence and death threats against his life were common place. And perhaps most taxing, he had to contend with intense criticism and ostracism on multiple fronts.
Curiously, some mental health professionals posit that his illness may have contributed to his greatness and despair: Depression enhances empathy and Dr. King’s politics can be seen as that of radical empathy, even toward one’s enemies and a wish not just to end segregation alone, but rather to end racism by changing the mind of a racist culture. King’s non-violent resistance can be understood as politics of radical empathy, accepting one’s enemies as part and parcel of advancing one’s own agenda.
While speaking with me, King chose not to entertain the premise that his illness fueled or necessarily informed his achievements. He did hint, as he had in sermons while alive, that each of us is maladjusted to some extent but should strive to transform that maladjustment into creative energy. Perhaps that is how he reconciles his achievements with his depression.
Some professionals argue that racism impacts mental health. Dr. King concurred by stating that personal, interpersonal, and systemic racism undermine mental health. He wished to underscore the crisis of mental health among the general public and particularly the rising incidence suicide among Black youth; and encourages measures to eradicate the accompanying stigma.
Dr. King believes there is crisis in recognition and treatment. The prevalence of mental health issues is similar between Black and white communities, but the suicide rates have greatly increased among Black youth over the past 20 years. He cites this as one the many indicia of an impending mental health crisis amongst Black and Brown people. Dr. King posits that Blacks people develop different symptoms of depression and require treatment which diverges from conventional protocol. He notes that Blacks are less likely to pursue or remain in treatment because of myth and the fear stigma. For example, Black Americans and depression often respond: Why are you depressed? If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything… Real men don’t get depressed, man up brother… You should take your troubles to Jesus, not some stranger/psychiatrist… King, of course acknowledged that spiritual support can be an important part of healing, but the stressed that the intervention qualified professional is essential.
Before departing, he confided that he regrets not seeking treatment.
I thanked Dr. King for his visit and promises to relate more of our conversation over time.
Written by W. Ray Kwame Williams, graduate of Eastside High School Class of 1971, an assistant professor at the Rutgers Business School.