Resurrecting the real Dr. King

By making him into everybody's hero, "Martin Luther King Jr. Day" robs the civil rights leader of the traits that made him truly radical.

Published January 15, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

at noon today, five days before most of America observes the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the congregants of Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn gathered for a memorial service to the civil rights leader assassinated a generation ago.

The church's timing seemed, on first inspection, not only odd and contrary, but self-defeating. Saint Paul's worshipers are working people, many of them employed in the public sector, and instead of being able to honor Dr. King on a paid day off from work, they had to spend precious vacation time on the effort.

It happens, however, that January 15 is the actual birthday of Dr. King. And in summoning the faithful on this day, the pastor of Saint Paul, Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, is trying to rescue the real man from the increasingly inaccurate facsimile.

Marking Dr. King's birthday on the third Monday in January, rather than on its true date, is the least of the revisionism. Both the left and the right in America have misrepresented Dr. King for their own purposes -- liberals by ignoring the centrality of religion in his civil rights crusade, and conservatives by portraying a political radical as an apologist for racial inequality.

"There's an overarching issue of whether enactment of the national holiday in and of itself weakened the substance and challenge of King's legacy," says David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Dr. King. "The holiday itself encourages an all-things-to-all-people approach."

"The nation," Rev. Youngblood adds, "has sanitized Dr. King to the point that someday he may show up as a white man."

Opponents of affirmative action have seized upon Dr. King as the champion of a color-blind America. They have reiterated a single phrase from the "I Have A Dream" speech -- his wish that his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character" -- until it has become a sound bite utterly divorced from context. Now, any conservative who quotes Dr. King or adorns his office with a portrait, as Speaker Newt Gingrich does, can consider himself officially immune from racism. (In the old days, you just had to like the Supremes.)

The black essayist Shelby Steele, Jr. probably started the trend when he entitled his influential 1990 book "The Content of Our Character." But Steele was making a far more nuanced argument than do many other foes of affirmative action. Yes, Steele maintained that such preferences mistakenly rewarded blacks for adopting the role of victim. But his solution, one decidedly not shared by Gingrich (or the Democratic Leadership Council), is to change the legal designation of discrimination from a civil tort to a criminal felony.

In his famous speech to the March on Washington in 1963, King spoke of an unbiased America as a "dream" for the future, not a present reality. Elsewhere in the oration, he declared, "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" Nothing else in the voluminous record of King's speeches and writings suggests he would agree with conservatives who contend that it is affirmative action, not the legacy of slavery and segregation, that mars the meritocratic ideal, or that civil rights legislation balanced the scales 30 years ago.

As the journalist Ellis Cose points out in his new book, "Color Blind," quite the opposite was true. Asked in a Playboy magazine interview in 1965 whether it was fair "to request a multi-billion dollar program of preferential treatment for Negroes or any other minority group," Dr. King responded:

"I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages -- potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for centuries of exploitation and humiliation."

Dr. King was not calling for purely racial reparations. Later in the same interview, he endorsed "a federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all" based on the poverty rather than the race of the citizen. Far from representing anything conservative, such a socialistic plan was consistent with Dr. King's leftism on non-racial issues, whether economic inequality or the Vietnam War.

Contemporary liberals, however, lack the moral authority to correct the record, for they, too, have airbrushed the historical King. For the left, King's spirituality fits uneasily with their own roots in the secular, scientific reason of the Enlightenment. Moreover, many liberals seem to fear that granting the religious nature of Dr. King himself and the civil rights movement in general would give aid and comfort to their enemies in the Christian right, who propound a conservative agenda in God's name.

"King's religiosity tends to be pushed into the background," says Stephen Carter, a Yale Law School professor and the author of "The Culture of Disbelief." "And that's part of a larger issue of pushing into the background the religious commitment of the black community. That is an aspect of black America that white liberals try to ignore. One reason is that religion itself is seen as a less-than-rational basis for constructing policy. The other reason is religion is to some extent conservative. And when you get away from social issues, the black community is as conservative as most other evangelical communities."

So the left has chosen the ahistorical over the inconvenient. A preacher's son, Martin Luther King Jr. was reared in the theological and political traditions of black Christianity. "In song, word and deed, freedom," C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya wrote in their authoritative book "The Black Church in the African American Experience," "freedom has always been the superlative value of the black sacred cosmos."

Dr. King's words leave no doubt that he saw himself as divinely inspired, called to a life of mission and sacrifice. Shaken by repeated death threats during the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s, the young minister prayed in his kitchen for divine guidance. "Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice," he later recalled. "'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.'"

Thus sanctioned, King organized his crusade in churches and espoused its goals through the Biblical examples of Jesus, the Exodus narrative, and the Old Testament prophets. Fusing the secular and sacred concepts of justice, he told an audience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

"We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth."

It would be unfair to ascribe the distorting of King's life solely to the paradoxical effects of a national holiday. The years since his death in April 1968 have seen revelations of King's sexual peccadilloes and his plagiarism as a graduate student. In the black community, the posthumous popularity of Malcolm X has threatened to crowd King out of the pantheon.

Still, if blacks or any other Americans mistakenly view King as merely a moderate political figure -- not the Christian radical he was -- then the fault must lie extensively with an official hero-making process. Everyone's hero is no one's; true universality can arise only from unyielding particularity.

Quote of the day


Hebron is a cork in the bottle. Once you take the cork out, hopefully other things will start to flow. Then again, you are likely to get more corks.

Unnamed U.S. official commenting on the accord to pull Israeli troops out of Hebron. (From "A Hawk Makes His Nest in a Prickly Peace," in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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