Five years from now, Martin Luther King Jr. will have been dead longer than he lived. In the decades since his assassination, his life and words have become a touchstone for interpreters of America’s long struggle for racial justice. Children all over this country are raised now with his name on their lips; almost everyone will recognize the sonorous phrases of the speech he made at the March on Washington in 1963. For many around the world, “I have a dream” means Martin Luther King, and his dream is the American dream.
Of course, a hero is always a man mythologized. And always, too, there are contests over the myth. In Dr. King’s case, these contests began early. There was Martin Luther King as prophetic leader, Moses “parting the waters,” as the title of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography had it1—an identification encouraged by King’s own references to his having “been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.” Then there was King as Christ, suffering imprisonment and assault to redeem his people, “bearing the cross,” as the title of David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize– winning biography had it2—an image that was also endorsed by King’s own preaching, in which his personal suffering emerged as a kind of imitatio Christi. Others, in the liberal Protestant tradition, saw Martin Luther King less grandly as the heir to the social gospel of the Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch. But not all the religious images of King come from this Christian repertoire: many in the far-flung network of pacifists saw King as an American Mahatma. These visions—as liberal theologian and as philosopher of nonviolence—he sometimes encouraged as well.
Needless to say, there were many less flattering images of him. Some Southern segregationists placed him at the other end, so to speak, of the theological spectrum, dubbing him “Martin Lucifer Coon.” Malcolm X and many in the Black Power movement saw Dr. King as an effeminate Uncle Tom: a real man, they thought, would respond to force in kind. And J. Edgar Hoover apparently believed the leading American campaigner for civil rights was a sexually depraved Soviet cat’s paw, and spent a good deal of US taxpayers’ money on surveillance, bugging King’s telephones and many of the hotel rooms in which he stayed, in order to provide material to support his view, material that was then leaked to politicians and the press.
One might propose a reconciliation of these visions of King (leaving aside the accusation that he was a Soviet agent), for the fact is that these different stories are not as inconsistent as they might seem. He did lead black America, for a while, speaking to it and for it. He did suffer for his people, as did thousands of others in the movement; and the force of his acceptance of that suffering was part of what made possible the legislative reforms—the Civil Rights and Voting Rights
Acts—that provided legal recourse to blacks in the American South. And so he…
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