The legacy of MLK, who was assassinated 50 years ago, lives, but his dreams remain unfulfilled
By Cary Clack,
For the Express-News
Published 12:00 am, Saturday, March 31, 2018
By the time the trigger was pulled at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, fulfilling his prophecy from the night before, Martin Luther King Jr. was already slipping into history. The 39-year-old man dying on a balcony in Memphis no longer attracted the same rapt attention as the 26-year-old phenomenon who was delivered to the world stage by a bus boycott in Montgomery.
King was less than five years removed from his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington and little more than three years from winning the Nobel Peace Prize, yet to many of his detractors and admirers he was becoming irrelevant. A 1966 Gallup poll on his popularity gave him a positive rating of 32 percent and a negative Trump-like rating of 63 percent.
His frequent and impassioned critiques of the Vietnam War and poverty drew wide scorn, including from allies in the civil rights movement. Younger black activists were impatient with King’s nonviolence and fame, and their voices were rising in louder and greater numbers to challenge his. The Poor People’s Campaign he was planning for Washington, D.C., and his detour to Memphis to support striking black garbage workers weren’t popular even among his staff.
When he walked out onto the balcony of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, King wasn’t the icon whose birthday was a national holiday. He was an exhausted, beleaguered and polarizing figure.
If King was slipping into history at the time of his murder, 50 years later he’s now one of history’s favored children. Denied longevity in this life, he’s now preserved as a world historical figure, the lodestar for movements seeking justice, freedom and equality through nonviolence.
That a man who nearly two-thirds of his fellow countrymen and women viewed negatively would have a national holiday less than 20 years after his death speaks to his singular stature and legacy.
King occupied a special time and place in history—circumstances and his extraordinary gifts met in a perfect union of purpose and need. Thousands of courageous women and men created the modern civil rights movement, but King emerged as its embodiment—becoming, as A. Philip Randolph introduced him at the March on Washington, “the moral voice of the nation.”
If, in the 18th century, the Founding Fathers gave life to the nation and if in the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln fought to keep the body politic together, it was King in the 20th century who led the struggle to redeem America’s soul.
King was rooted in the African-American experience, found his voice in the black church, waded in the nonviolent spiritual waters of Christ and Gandhi, and devoted his life to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
King’s idealism made him seek to transform hearts and minds away from bigotry, injustice and suffering. King’s pragmatism made him understand that of more immediate importance was to change the country’s unjust laws, that regardless of how people thought and felt, their behavior must align with the Constitution.
Besides King himself, the person most responsible for how we view him and honor his legacy was his remarkable wife, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006. She created the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and advocated for the national holiday, not as static memorials but living testimonials to the philosophy of nonviolence that animated and defined his work. Her purpose was to extend King’s legacy and continue his work by teaching nonviolence as a way of life, as well as a strategy for social change.
That’s how the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination should be commemorated: through living testimonials of nonviolence against the problems afflicting us. And we should pay a little less attention to the “I Have a Dream” King and a little more to the “Where Do We Go from Here?” King.
“I Have a Dream” is a masterpiece of oratory that is a gift to humanity. His riff on his dream is as thrilling a public performance as ever delivered.
But he said it was a dream. Like the Promised Land, we’re not there yet. Yet many cling to the dream motif and what they perceive as the comfortable King who doesn’t challenge them. Prophets are less troublesome after they’ve become martyrs.
King was unpopular when he died because he made people uncomfortable and because the marches, boycotts and other acts of direct action he led were inconvenient. He was a Christian minister who took seriously Christ’s teachings to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. He was a Nobel Peace laureate who believed he was charged to speak out against war.
His last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” challenged America to be honest about its crippling legacy of racism; to stop its senseless violence; to ease the suffering of its poor; and to make better the lives of all its people. Through nonviolence. Through love.
“When I speak of love,” King wrote, “I am speaking of that love which all great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life … . Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.”
Hatred and retaliation pulled the trigger that took Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. His place in history is assured. The redemption of this nation’s soul, if those beasts continue to roam, is not.
Cary Clack is a former San Antonio Express-News columnist.
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