Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.
In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.
The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination. States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day. In that year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.
The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man. King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally. I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.
The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965. We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).
The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.
Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.
But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry. In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education. He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.
In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals. In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights. (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)
King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel. This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show. There were real costs and severe risks.
King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).
When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda. He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam. And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric. By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.
Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.
Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.