Each year in January, I feel obligated to write about Martin Luther King Jr. in advance of Monday’s annual day of commemoration. And although he is one of the most important figures in American history, I usually sit and stare at a blank screen wondering what more anyone could possibly say.
Rather than the usual litany of praise, I would prefer to offer something that might perhaps add to my readers’ knowledge of the man, as by now, the “real” King is fading from memory in favor of the “constructed” King.
This year I thought it might be of interest to some to recall how King was not a static figure, that he did not become the person we may remember when he started his public ministry in the 1950s. Rather, his ideas as well as his actions changed over time.
I would like to look at just a few of those changes.
We might begin in 1954, which marks not only the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which signaled, but only began, desegregation efforts in the United States, but also the year King accepted the position of pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Although as a doctoral student at Boston University, King had resolved that his Christianity would be a force for social change, little would he know that the next year, when Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat to a white person on a public bus, he would be swept up – somewhat reluctantly – in the still nascent civil rights movement and soon become its national recognized leader. But so it was.
Five years later, King reflected on the position he had assumed and what he had learned in an article for The Christian Century titled “How My Mind Has Changed.”
In that article, he acknowledged that he had been a “thoroughgoing liberal,” but that he had come to realize that “liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism” when it came to man’s true sinfulness.
King went on to say that he had grown skeptical concerning the power of love, alone, if not included in the Mahatma Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance.
King moved one step closer to realizing that method in 1963 when he led a campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, with the expressed purpose of bringing about a confrontation large enough to capture the national spotlight and take the Civil Rights Movement to the next level. And so it came to pass.
And within months, King was able to lead his march on Washington, where he delivered his most commonly quoted speech, “I Have a Dream.”
King would have only five more years to live, and in that time, his prominence would be challenged by more radical figures such as Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael and others, but yet one more change was in the offing.
The most significant rival for the public attention among all of the reform efforts of the 1960s was the anti-Vietnam War movement. King, however, like most Civil Rights leaders, chose to distance himself from that effort for fear it would not only dilute his efforts but also alienate those who might be sympathetic to his cause but not opposed to the war.
That changed in 1967, when, at a rally at New York’s Riverside Church, the Nobel Peace Prize winner came out against the war, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” King accused the United States of becoming “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world … (and) if America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.” And so it would be.
A year later, the “real” King was assassinated.
Bryan Le Beau is an historian and provost at the University of Saint Mary.