Reflecting on legacy of King
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jan. 21, provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as a 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.
Martin Luther King preached unity but during his life did not achieve that goal. As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, a once broadly unified 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 Dr. King endures from that era, so sharply defined, testifies to the value of his message and efforts. King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She and others built the foundation for King’s later efforts.
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. Many advised Humphrey against this step; he nonetheless persevered successfully. In the resulting emotional political maelstrom, the breakaway Dixiecrats bolted the party. Despite this, President Truman was re-elected.
Martin Luther King was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. His message and efforts were very congruent with our most fundamental national principles.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.