The Long Shadow of America’s Greatest King

When your birth date falls on the same day as the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday observance you accept the fact that you’re going to have to settle for second billing and like it.   Fortunately, Dr. King is one of my few heroes and sharing my day with him honors and humbles me.

As I have said in the past, King was far more than an action figure with a string in the back that says “I Have A Dream”  when pulled.   That’s too simple and King was far too complicated to be reduced down to a catchphrase.

King was not a popular man at the time of his assassination.   Breaking with President Johnson over the Vietnam War had done more than cost King the best friend the movement ever had in the White House.  He was vilified by the Left and the Right.  Black revolutionaries sneered at his message of non-violence.

But most of all,  King was tired.  Tired of marching. Tired of re-fighting battles that should have already been won.   Tired of being away from his wife and children so much.   Tired of the death threats on his life.

Michael Eric Dyson, scholar and author of I May Not Get There With You,  the account of King’s later years says we should note King cut less than an iconic figure at the time of his death.

[King] was at the low point of his popularity at the time of his death. When Martin Luther King Jr. met his end on that balcony in Memphis, he was indeed at the low point of his popularity for the first time in nearly a decade. He didn’t make the most admired list for the Gallup poll. Very few universities wanted to hear from him. No American publishers wanted to publish a book by him. And he was being questioned, even in African-American culture, for the relevancy of his non-violent approach. Dr. King was facing tremendous odds. His back was against the wall. His resources were drying up within his own organization. He was fighting with a prominent northern board member about whether or not he should speak out against the war in Vietnam and paid the price for it. So, he was facing opposition from within his organization and more broadly from the civil rights movement, and even more broadly from the mainstream American press as well as from public policymakers and politicians in America. He was quite on the outside and outskirts of popularity and acceptance in America. This notion that Dr. King was widely praised is one of nostalgia and of amnesia, and it should be combated.

Some might think it audacious and brazen to call King the greatest American ever.   Shouldn’t that sort of accolade be reserved for presidents and statesmen, not a Baptist preacher?

It is neither audacious or brazen to tell the truth and I have no problem defending Dr. King as a greater transformative figure than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt.   A listing of the Greatest Americans places King at third, ahead of Washington and just behind Lincoln.  Ronald Reagan was named Number One, so take that as you will (I take it as patently ridiculous).

It is expected that presidents will be–for better or for worse–transformative figures.   For a private citizen to do so the unmeasurable help of millions of dollars backing them up and effecting their change by way of non-violent resistance against the evil of state-sanctioned racial discrimination is almost impossible to fathom.   Bill Gates with all his billions could not have done what King did with shoe leather and faith.

By no means was King the only one marching.   It took the commitment of thousands of like-minded souls willing to be spat upon, beaten, bitten by dogs, and in some cases murdered for their courage to be the change they sought to bring to the world.

Without them and the leadership and inspiration of a Dr. King, the part of the Dream that was realized with the election of Barack Obama does not happen.   Without Dr King there is no President Obama.

There is an urge by some to see Obama as the realization of King’s dream.  I  understand this urge, but it should be resisted. Obama is not so much the manifestation of the Dream as he is the greatest beneficiary of The Dream.   King’s mark on the world is established beyond dispute.   Obama is still attempting to make good on his and like any politician it’s a mixed bag.  “Change We Can Believe In” is hard to bring about when there is a rigid status quo resistant to changing a thing just as Dr King’s dream seemed like a waking nightmare to his opponents.

On MLK Day the man who would be Obama’s replacement praises the preacher man.  Writing on his Facebook page, Mitt Romney says,  “Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an occasion to reflect on the legacy of an outstanding American. Dr. King not only believed in the fundamental truth that we are all made in God’s image, he fought for that truth in a campaign that brought our country closer to fulfilling its historic promise of liberty and justice for all. The United States has made enormous strides toward racial equality in the decades since Dr. King’s death, but we must never rest until all people are judged, in his immortal words, not ‘by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

On the Today Show,  Romney, who got wealthy by shutting down companies and putting workers on the street said all this talk about income inequality was simply “envy.”

“You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus one percent — and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent — you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”

A clueless plutocrat like Mitt Romney could never understand a humble man like King who was motivated by a fierce sense of justice, not personal wealth.  If King were doing in 2012 what he was doing in 1968  Romney would not be mumbling empty platitudes he neither wrote nor believes.   He’d be condemning King as a dangerous radical who wanted to take from the 1 percent and give to the 99 percent.

I Mittens ever read King’s A Proper Sense of Priorities speech he would have ample reason to be scared right down to his silk skivvies.

Someone said to me not long ago, it was a member of the press, ‘Dr. King, since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy. Aren’t you hurting the civil rights movement and people who once respected you may lose respect for you because you’re involved in this controversial issue in taking the stand against the war.’ And I had to look with a deep understanding of why he raised the question and with no bitterness in my heart and say to that man, “I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader.  I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.  On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.

Mitt wouldn’t know a thing about that.  That’s why he isn’t a leader and should never be president.

Dr. King had so much more to say than just “I Have A Dream.” Take two minutes out of your day and get hip to a King many Americans do not know.   The radical Dr. King.  The threat to both racists and reactionaries Dr. King.  The Dr, King that was too dangerous to live.

I could not love Martin more if he were my father.  He inspires me and guides me as much as a father ever has a son or daughter.   This is his day and the legacy of America’s greatest King is far richer and more complex and enduring than a fading memory of a distant figure whose legacy has been watered down to four words.

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2 thoughts on “The Long Shadow of America’s Greatest King

  1. First of all: Happy Birthday!

    Now to your article:

    There is no doubt in my mind that King does deserve to be counted among the greatest Americans of all time. That league cannot be reserved exclusively for presidents.

    History is a complex minefield and the more you study it, the more you find things are not as simple as the history books tells us. Historians like to simplify history because as humans we like simple things. Complex explanations just confuse us. We like things to be divided into clear categories of cause and effect. The Civil Rights movement was not a monolothic structure. Different people and groups came from different backgrounds and had a broad range of different ideas both concerning the means and the ultimate objectives. But the important thing was that despite differences, they were all moving in the same direction and that is what made their strength. What King did was put a face to that movement. Maybe not everybody was in his boat. Maybe many didn’t like what he said. But that didn’t deter him. His own integrity and beiefs were more important than approval ratings. That is what sets great visionaries apart from scheming politicians.

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