Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as catalyst for the civil rights revolution.
Initially he was reluctant to assume leadership beyond his local community, concerned as well as insightful in seeing that might ultimately cost his life. He was perceptive but took on the job nonetheless, and persevered continuously until his assassination in the spring of 1968.
King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd politician.
In reflecting on King’s legacy, accurate understanding of his life is essential. Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, there is a very human tendency to idealize and therefore ultimately distort history. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying the complexity of the human spirit can easily diminish the person described. The leader actually seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased. Second, oversimplifying the past limits our own capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future.
King preached unity but during his life did not achieve that goal. As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, the civil rights effort became fractured.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which preached racial integration and nonviolent tactics, was to some extent overshadowed by other organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe faction, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.
The fact that King endures from that era, so sharply defined, testifies to the value of his message and also efforts. The ecumenical March on Washington in 1963 continues to be visibly remembered because of the enormous scale of the pilgrimage, and also the timing. Immediately thereafter, President John F. Kennedy moved from caution to active support of major civil rights legislation.
As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations.
Fully making this point requires including noteworthy white political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Less visible today, but just as important, is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
Also in 1948, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey proposed a civil rights plank for the party platform. In the resulting emotional political maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led southern delegates out of the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, Truman was re-elected.
Martin Luther King was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. Both his message and efforts were very congruent with our most fundamental national principles.