Models Monday: Trembling Heroes

For a while I have been wanting to watch Of Gods and Men and this weekend finally presented me with the opportunity. The film offers a cinematic interpretation of the actual events surrounding the fact of French Trappist monks living in the mountains of Algeria whose commitment to cooperation between Christians and Moslems obligates them to remain in their community despite the very real threat from the lethal hands of Islamic Fundamentalists. While some of the monks were clear early on that they would not leave their home, others wanted to flee. Ultimately, those set on fleeing decided there was no where  else to go. Though these men discussed their family lives outside of the ministry, they mostly felt themselves more at home with those they had created family with through their common faith. As different and perhaps even strange as their lives might have appeared to others, the men all searched within themselves and affirmed the authenticity of their fashioned ties.

The film was interesting because of its attention to the trembling fear of death for even those who appeared the most resolute about remaining in their besieged monastery. It was a compelling emphasis because fretting heroes aren’t readily apparent in American cinema…or American culture for that matter; in life though, this just isn’t true. Take Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. Scholars who write about King agree that he was disquieted by the persistent threats to his life. For instance, in his Pulitzer Prize winning work Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow offers the perspectives of King’s close friends and relatives on his anxiety regarding the violence he perceived in American culture and thus the violent end he expected to meet. Despite King’s public claims that he had made peace with the threats made against his life, privately he trembled. On one of these occasions, Garrow writes:

“The constant death threats and the reminders of Malcolm’s and [Jimmie Lee] Jackson’s violent ends, had put King in a morbid state of mind. As the March started out for the cemetery, King beckoned SCLC board member Joseph Lowery to come with him. ‘Come on, walk with me, Joe, this may be my last walk,’ King remarked in a bantering tone that did not conceal the serious concern underlying it” (394).

By 1967, King’s deep depression and melancholy worsened. Quoting his friends and longtime aides, Garrow noted the following:

“‘In the later years he was given to a kind of depression that he had not had earlier,’ Andrew Young recalled. ‘He talked about death all the time….He couldn’t relax, he couldn’t sleep….Even when we were away on trips, he’d want to talk all night long….And just physically, I was afraid,’ Young said, of how worn down King was. ‘He was spiritually exhausted.’ Longtime Birmingham friend Deenie Drew noticed the same changes. ‘In his last year or so, I had a feeling that [he] had a death wish….I had a feeling that he didn’t know which way to turn.’ Bayard Rustin, despite his public break with King, had a similar worry, and discussed it with Levison. ‘Both Stanley and I had some very serious talks because we thought Martin was becoming a little too concerned about the possibility of death.’ On one occasion, Rustin suggested that misgiving to King, only to be brushed off. ‘You think I’m paranoid, don’t you?’ Sometimes I do, Martin,’ Rustin responded. Young had tried to counsel King, but had met the same reception. ‘If you said anything, he’d brush you off.’ (602).

Michael Eric Dyson has dedicated an entire book, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, to death as a bio-critical consideration of King. As he writes in the opening pages of this work:

“You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., and not think of death. You might hear the words ‘I have a dream,’ but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life it is, and was, death that ultimately defined him.”

I actually read these works in the reverse order of how I have presented them here, but until I encountered Dyson, I had not really thought about King in relationship to the possibility of his own mortality. Though I agree with Dyson’s point about how death defines King’s public narrative, I think I understood it more as a fact than as a haunting element of King’s daily life that plagued or even consumed him. Perhaps I didn’t think about it because the culture doesn’t encourage the association between heroes and trembling; instead they’re marked by fearlessness…but it’s important to remember that human beings are afraid. What I liked about Of Gods and Men is that it underscored this fact: fear greats even faithful men.

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