The Power Of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Anger : Code Switch Martin Luther King Jr. dealt with anger in both his personal life and life's work. He often tried to turn his anger into constructive action, but he did occasionally struggle with that balance.

The Power Of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Anger

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Martin Luther King Jr. came to embody the ideal of peaceful, nonviolent protest. So how did he handle his anger? All this month, NPR has been examining anger to see what we can learn from this powerful emotion. Today NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce looks at the anger of someone who showed a kind of genius for turning that emotion into positive action.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: In 1963, 34-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail in Birmingham, Ala. His attorney Clarence Jones wanted to talk about bail, but King was preoccupied.

CLARENCE JONES: And I said, Martin, did you hear what I said? He said, but have you seen this? And I said, what's this? And he picked up the Birmingham Herald and showed me a copy of a full-page ad.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was an open letter written by the local white clergymen saying King should leave the city. It didn't have a word about the injustice of segregation.

JONES: So he was very angry.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: My dear fellow clergymen, while confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities unwise and untimely.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is King reading the response he scribbled on scraps of paper - the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in which he said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.


KING JR: There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Growing up, King felt that despair and anger. When he was in high school, he won an oratorical contest. He and a beloved teacher were coming home on a bus. The white driver told them to give up their seats to white passengers and cursed them. They stood in the aisle for the 90 miles back to Atlanta. Decades later, King said that was the angriest he had ever been in his life. His daughter Bernice King runs The King Center in Atlanta.

BERNICE KING: My father was extremely angry from that incident. So much so that he expressed it later on by saying that he came very, dangerously close at that particular time to hating all white people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In college and theological school, her father learned about nonviolent resistance. He realized it offered a productive way to channel anger that could otherwise destroy someone.

KING: That's why when daddy reiterated hate is too great a burden to bear, he knew that it was corrosive and erosive.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old when he was thrust into a leadership role in civil rights. Rosa Parks had just been arrested in Montgomery, Ala., where he was working as a preacher. King spoke before huge crowds appealing to people's emotions so that they'd rise up and boycott public buses while simultaneously not letting all the anger get out of control.


KING JR: Today I'm not here advocating violence.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: Instead of using violence like the Ku Klux Klan, they would follow the teachings of Jesus. During the year-long boycott, someone threw dynamite at his house. He rushed home to find a crowd of his supporters who were almost ready to riot. He calmly stood on his porch and spoke about loving your enemies.

DAVID GARROW: And it was a really noble moment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: David Garrow is a historian who wrote a biography of King.

GARROW: Most people would be, you know, expressing very intense anger. And he was, utterly, to the contrary.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In private, he struggled. King later recalled that, that night, he lay awake in bed thinking that his wife and baby could have been killed. He wrote, quote, "I could feel the anger rising." Clarence Jones says, for King, anger was always part of a process that ended in forgiveness.

JONES: He deeply believed in something that almost sounds silly - that almost sounds trite. But he really believed in the power of redemptive love.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's not to say he never showed irritation or snapped at people, especially in the last months of his life. After years of nonstop tension and work, his close companion, Ralph Abernathy, has written that on the day he was assassinated, King argued with a female friend and even shoved her across a hotel room bed. Abernathy was criticized for saying that. But in an interview with C-SPAN before he died, Abernathy said, look, Jesus was nonviolent.


RALPH ABERNATHY: But Jesus became violent on one occasion when he ran the people out of the temple.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked Clayborne Carson if he believed this story about King. He's director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: You know, I wasn't there, so I can't judge. But I do recognize that a Martin Luther King can be angry. It would surprise me if that were not the case.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: King once told his congregation that people will inevitably fail to perfectly live out all of their ideals, but what mattered was the effort.


KING JR: Get somebody to be able to say about you, he may not have reached the highest height; he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For a while, King had an advice column in Ebony magazine. Someone once asked, how can I overcome my bad temper; when I'm angry, I say things to those I love that hurt them terribly. King replied, quote, "a destructive passion is harnessed by directing that same passion into constructive channels." Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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