Got MLK?


"Every hero becomes a bore at last," Ralph "Where's" Waldo Emerson told us. Too bad he wasn't around to see the struggle over Martin Luther King's legacy. Taylor Branch is working on the last volume of his King biographical trilogy, and if his comments are any indication, this book will continue the dynamic of I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Eric Dyson's 2001 "biocriticism" of King's more radical efforts.

Following this line of reasoning, streets and schools all over the country bear his name, and his birthday, celebrated today, is a national holiday.

It's a lot. Is it enough?

"No," said Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who is working on the final volume of his trilogy on the life of King. To be titled "At Canaan's Edge," it will cover the last two years of King's life, 1966 to 1968.

"King is presented as goody-goody," said Branch. "His call to non-violence is seen as nothing but a form of good manners. Just be nice. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Proving there's no legitimate point that can't be instantly hyperbolized into an absurdity, Elbert Reed, retiring director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association, told a crowd in San Francisco yesterday, "We're further from the dream than we were in 1968."

The beauty of "complex figure" revisionism in King's case is that it serves nobody's purpose. Affirmative action opponents couldn't continue to invoke King if his very clear and repeatedly stated support for "special compensatory programs" were better known, and conservatives generally would be more cautious about taking King's name in vain if the "Poor People's Campaign" were as well known as the "I have a dream" speech. On the other hand, it's hard if not impossible to square King's color-blind ideas with any version of racial preferences—a paradox King was already struggling to work out by the end of his life, and would have had to defend more and more if he had lived. Progressives can gripe about the whitewashing of King's legacy, but should admit that without the whitewashing it wouldn't be so easy to invoke the legacy in the first place.

In the end, a King demystification would not only make King a more interesting historical figure, but force both sides to argue their positions on the merits, rather than on a vague notion that Dr. King would have wanted it this way. Whether this demystification will actually happen is another story: AOL's user poll for yesterday asked "What does Martin Luther King represent to you?" and offered three possible replies:

Peaceful Activism
Pursuit of Equality
Voice of Inspiration

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  1. The poll question “What does Martin Luther King represent to you?” lacked the most popular answer of all: another legal day off. That’s pretty much it, for good or ill.

  2. As a former combat soldier, I can never forgive King for advocating the defeat of U.S. troops.

  3. Steve,

    I think a rather undiscussed (or unrecognized) benefit of our oft-maligned ‘no-limits’ media is that nobody really ever gets ‘mystified’ anymore – the search for dirt on people in power prevents us from ever seeing people as saintlike.

    Much has been made of Bill Clinton’s womanizing ways, but from what I understand he was a prude compared to Kennedy. Kennedy is still considered to be a ‘great’ president, while Clinton is somewhat of an embarrasment, even amongst his supporters.

    I know the search for scandal often prevents people from debating arguments on their own merits, but the ‘cult of personality’ hasn’t exactly been good for life on earth either – would Hitler or Stalin (or even Saddam Hussein) have been able to do what they did without it? I think not…..

  4. That’s kind of my point. Everyone gets demystified eventually. some sooner, others later. But because of his race, MLK is not demystified. He is held up (it seems to me anyway) as some kind of diety to be worshipped at the alter of race and political corectness. To indicate he was anything less appears to be some type of racist heresy. And just so I don’t hear about it from my more politically correct friends out there, I believe he was a man who did great things. But he was also just a man.

  5. Isn’t the “black & white cookie” an integral part of a Seinfeld episode? (Jerry says: “Look to the cookie!”)

  6. King’s dream was realized when I walked into my local Starbucks and ordered a Black and White cookie.
    Think of it.
    On a cookie from a national retailer. Were such things available in the late ’60s? Don’t really know actually. I wasn’t born. Still though, this diversity, our tolerance and acceptance of these things in our cookies are surely a sign that our nation has taken great steps forward.
    Thank you Dr. King.
    Thank you for dreaming of a day when a upper middle-class white guy can walk into a store and buy a cookie that has vanilla and chocolate frosting.

  7. Jeremy: One word….”Oreos”.

    MLK will eventually be demystified and shown to be a man with human flaws to go along with the good he did. It happened to Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, even Kennedy. I may not see it in my lifetime, but it will happen.

  8. That title – Got MLK – is very clever indeed.

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