"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:
Pursuit of Equality
Voice of Inspiration