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Behind The Warrior’s Mask

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

Having to always navigate what it means to be a wounded healer and then stand up, often wearing a mask, to bring a word of hope will drive you to depression, other illnesses, family disruption, etc.
                         - Iva Carruthers


Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

Why would someone place the interests of others above their own self-interest? Why would a person put their life on the line to improve the lives of others? Yet, that is what those who fight for social change often do. And, like for cultural hero and political messiah Martin Luther King Jr., along with the external fight there also comes an accompanying internal struggle resulting from the experience of being a suffering servant, wounded healer or wounded warrior that requires one to deliver tangible hope to marginalized communities while attempting to mask the leaders’ own inner pain.

King’s experience is also informative for black religious and community leaders and those today who are attempting to “save America from America.”

I spoke with noted King biographer Stewart Burns, Ph.D. to get a sense of the inner anguish experienced by King and its implications for the social and political strategies of today’s leaders.

This is part one of our two-part discussion.

Perryman: Black History month or MLK celebrations are unlikely to talk about King’s personal spiritual journey. Please describe his spiritual struggles.

Burns: Well, most of us know that Dr. King was suffering from severe depression during the last few years of his life, but Birmingham Sunday, the destruction of Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robertson and Annie Mae Collins on September 15, 1963, was as significant a turning point for him as his initial so-called kitchen conversion in January 1956. King felt directly responsible, even though he was not, and was completely devastated by that tragedy and it triggered a full-scale depression.

 Perryman: What other issues did King wrestle with? 

Burns: So his depression accelerated after he came back from the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo and was also very evident to people during the Selma Campaign in the spring of 1965. People on the march from Selma to Montgomery talked about how King just seemed really depressed, really remote and not really engaged, which was so unusual for him. That all tied in with his struggle over the Vietnam War and his struggle over corporate capitalism and his belief that corporate capitalism had to be replaced. 

Perryman: Can you elaborate?

Burns: King was a Democratic socialist but was actually more to the left and ultimately more of an outright socialist than other allies such as Bayard Rustin or Philip Randolph. King, then, was somewhat alone in his opposition to corporate capitalism and US imperialism around the world, but also alone in his speaking out against the Vietnam War. So that was a huge emotional struggle for him, and then when he came out against the Vietnam War, in particular, to be lambasted - he expected the hostility from the White House and from some reporters, some of the media, but he did not expect that even his fraternity brothers and close friends would turn against him and Jackie Robinson, in particular, who had become a friend. It’s one thing to privately oppose you, but to publicly oppose you as Jackie Robinson did, that made King cry. 

So it was all of these things, and then it was just three months after the Riverside Church speech when the riots or uprisings broke out in Newark and Detroit and 160 other cities. King, again feeling responsible, because he felt that he hadn’t delivered, even though he had not really made promises about economic justice or ending poverty, but nevertheless, he felt that, by omission, he had neglected the inner cities and had neglected poverty as an overriding issue. 

Perryman: I am aware of some difficulties in the north where King was disillusioned by a lack of success as compared to what he was able to accomplish in the south.

Burns: In Chicago, the campaign was focused on opening up rental and home ownership for black people in the suburbs of Chicago, it didn’t really focus on the ghettos, the west side and the south side of Chicago as it originally had intended to. And so even with this major year-long campaign, they didn’t achieve…they achieved another half a loaf agreement with Mayor Daily this time, but King had a lot of reasons for feeling that he had failed in various ways. Even though they had achieved the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, he still felt this tremendous sense of failure.  And so there was one layer of guilt on top of another and then of course there was also the guilt of his being an absent father and an absent husband and marital infidelity, and all of that. 

The guilt feelings worsened the depression, but nevertheless, it pushed him forward as he came to see himself more and more as a martyr and that martyrdom would be his only redemption.  And so he increasingly felt determined to be a role model for everyone, a true suffering servant who would not give up, even though it looked like all the odds were against him. 

Perryman: What lessons do you draw from King’s spiritual struggle that might inform other leaders?

Burns: Well, as I was saying before, for the last four and a half years of his life he was a wounded warrior. It does seem that from a psychological or emotional perspective, it is very often the case that activists or people who are leaders for social change find themselves, not only at on the edge of society in the sense that they’re really pushing for significant change in the society, but also that their minds and consciousness and spirits are somewhat on the edge of what’s considered normal.  So whether we’re talking about draft resisters who are willing to go to prison for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War or Civil Rights or SNCC activists who were riding the busses from Washington D.C. to, aiming for New Orleans, but ultimately getting as far as Jackson, Mississippi, who wrote wills before they took off on the busses because they expected that they would be killed. If you look at a lot of the most significant leaders, there was always an emotional…a lot of vulnerability and a lot of…in order to take risks like activists sometimes need to take,… and this is putting it in kind of an extreme way, but someone might wonder about their sanity sometimes.

Why would someone be willing to risk his or her life?  King stated as early as his first historic speech, I guess, the first night of the bus boycott, he said “if you’re not willing to sacrifice your life for a cause you believe in, you’re not fit to live.”  Now that’s a pretty extreme statement and I’m not sure that King then really meant it for himself, but it takes courage to be an activist taking risks and a lot of times it’s the warriors who have been wounded in one way or another, who are willing to take those risks. 

But one of the lessons that I think we need to learn is that just because we might feel wounded in our lives in certain ways for whatever reasons doesn’t mean that we should refrain from activism. It means that there’s all the more reason to take part in activism. I also think that we should not see people’s emotional and spiritual vulnerabilities or weaknesses, if you want to call them that, as something detrimental or as a liability…

Perryman: Is it possible for diverse individuals with diverse experiences to respond differently to the experiences that contribute to their “woundedness”? King had a relatively drama free childhood and experienced no personal trauma that I am aware of,  prior to the Birmingham tragedy.

Burns: I considered myself a wounded warrior coming out of my childhood and family alcoholism and all the rest. And, for me, getting involved in the new left, the anti-war movement and then other movements, subsequently was a healing experience.  Now on the other hand, a lot of people who got involved in the sort of armed struggle wing of the movement during the late 60’s, early 70’s, I think were also wounded warriors.  I think if they had not been wounded warriors they would not have got involved in such “crazy activities,” as The Weather Underground organization would say.  But the movement experience, for them, was not a healing experience.  If anything, it worsened their woundedness and ultimately kind of spiraled out of control to the bombings that they did and all that, and all the dehumanizing rhetoric too, including calling police “pigs” and all of that,  I feel was not helpful to them in terms of their mental or emotional health.

 Whereas in the nonviolent movement, we also were far from perfect and there were all kinds of personality conflicts, people with problems, and bad things that nonviolent activists did for sure. But overall, I think the experience of nonviolent activism was a healing experience for many of us, and I think for many in the Civil Rights Movement. 

And then when you’re feeling that you’re getting healed in terms of your emotional struggles, it can further encourage you to keep on keeping on and maybe continue to take risks because you have this healing experience, part of which is just simply, experiencing community, as I did for the first time, real community. And I really miss that from those days. 

Ed. Note: Highly regarded historian of the Civil Rights Movement, author or editor of eight books, Stewart Burns served as an editor of the King Papers at Stanford University, where he also taught U.S. History. His first book Social Movements of the 1960s (1990), still in print, has been the most widely used college text on the subject. His documentary history of the Montgomery bus boycott, Daybreak of Freedom (1997), was made into the HBO feature film Boycott (on which he consulted), winner of the NAACP Image Award in 2002. 

Burns has been a nonviolent activist for most of his life, for over a quarter century engaged in interracial healing in higher education. He remains committed to applying King’s legacy to our troubled world. 

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at drdlperryman@centerofhopebaptist.org



Copyright © 2019 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 02/08/19 00:30:01 -0500.



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