Remember the man and the hero, not just half the dream
Civil-rights activist and teacher
IN THE 25 YEARS SINCE HIS DEATH, Martin Luther King Jr. has become an American hero, joining a long list of others from the American past.
King's public career lasted from the Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott in 1955 to his murder in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. Today, this self-effacing, quiet man is memorialized by monuments, street names and a national holiday.
Our early national heroes were warriors and soldiers, whose acts expressed the pioneer spirit that defined the nation. George Washington, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were larger-than-life figures who captured the public imagination. They appeared when the American frontier was real, danger apparent everywhere, and physical heroism a proper response.
In modern times, our heroes have come to us through a popular press eager to manufacture and exaggerate. When an electrified press created a single America of instantaneous shared experience through radio and then television, our expectations of our heroes changed as well.
TODAY, THEY ARE NOT ONLY REQUIRED TO COMMIT heroic acts; we also demand that they sound and look heroic. The high-pitched voices of labor leader Eugene V. Debs and Theodore Roosevelt cause nervous laughter when we hear them now. George Bush could not escape the "wimp" label, despite being a World War II hero.
Instant communication now gives us heroes drawn at least as often from the playing field as from the battleground, and changes in our view of the national good also have changed our view of whom we think ought to be celebrated.
John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were despised as voracious and insatiable "special interests" by many members of my parents' generation; more recently, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky occupied hero status for many.
Having gone from the buckskin-clad backwoodsman to the expensive-suited Wall Streeter, from the white wigged founding fathers to the jerry-curled sports stars, we now draw our heroes from a larger, more diverse population, celebrating special achievements in sports or business as much as yesterday's heroics in nation building and in war.
While yesterday's heroes won freedom for the nation, King wrested freedom from the nation for the descendants of the nation's slaves.
We remember him from grainy black-and-white film taken at the 1963 March on Washington of an articulate preacher who had a dream.
We honor him because of what his memory summons: the stoic who faced injury and death before howling mobs, and the single figure of his period and ours able to articulate to whites what blacks wanted and to blacks what would be expected if freedom's prize was won.
That King is half a man, a blurred image of the King that was.
The annual reappraisals of his leadership, of the movement he helped make and that helped make him, and most recently of his personal character, have taken a familiar path.
These reappraisals are not peculiar to King; they shape the memory of all our heroes. From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy, those we enshrine are set in permanence in our national firmament; their glow may sparkle, then sometimes dim, but their reflective light shines on unchanged. King seems secure as the premier domestic fighter for freedom in the 20th century.
Few had heard of him when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat in 1955; by the boycott's end a year later, he had joined the small circle of older, nationally recognized black civil rights leaders as an equal. His courage, his dedication to nonviolence, his ability to articulate the longings of Southern blacks to free themselves from domestic apartheid, and his linking of that struggle to the American dream ensured his place in the national consciousness.
But he quickly separated himself from black America's recognized spokesmen. Almost alone among them, he argued for and organized militant, non-violent mass action as a substitute for, and a complement to, the slow and plodding legal strategies embraced by most, and he alone spoke of the power of non-violent resistance and redemptive suffering.
His dramatic 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech before the Lincoln Memorial cemented his place as first among equals in civil rights leadership; from this first televised mass meeting, an American audience saw and heard the unedited oratory of America's finest preacher, and for the first time, a mass white audience heard the undeniable justice of black demands.
WITH HIS 1964 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE AS JUSTIFICATION, King, a year later, attacked the war in Vietnam, alienating Lyndon Johnson, the most pro-civil rights president in American history. The civil rights movement, enjoying its widest national support at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, was actually preparing to self-destruct, its demands increasing and its public support diminishing.
"I'm much more than a civil rights leader," King said of himself that year. A year later he told his Atlanta congregation: "There must be a better distribution of wealth. . . . We can't have a system where some of the people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty."
His last years were marked by changes in black America's demands and white America's response. In 1955 in Montgomery, blacks had peacefully asked for seats at an abundant table; they could gain, and no one would lose. As the movement eliminated legal segregation and attacked segregation's legacy, demanding relief from the residual damage it continued to do, many whites began to believe blacks wanted the entire table for themselves.
The racial violence King had fought against in life erupted in the aftermath of his murder. The movement he had led disintegrated in ashes, torn apart by demands the nation would not meet.
Eighteen years later, President Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed the law that made King's birthday a national holiday, and today most schoolchildren know part of the story of Martin Luther King.
They know King fought for integration in Montgomery and spoke in Washington of his dream. They do not know that until his life's end he fought for economic justice and against the racism that survived the laws the movement won, or that he had challenged America's right to make war in Vietnam.
Today we do not honor the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself. We do not honor the man who linked apartheid in South Africa and Alabama; we honor an antiseptic hero.
We have stripped his life of controversy, and celebrate the conventional instead.
During his lifetime, many raised objections against his deification; these warnings bear repeating when imprecise memories are summoned today.
Americans long for single, heroic leadership, the lone figure delivering salvation. King became that figure, but he came from a movement that was group-centered, representing democracy at its best.
He did not march from Selma to Montgomery by himself. He did not speak to an empty field at the March on Washington. There were thousands marching with him and before him, and thousands more who one by one and two by two did the work that preceded the triumphal march.
Black Americans did not just march to freedom; we worked our way to civil rights through the difficult business of organizing. Registering voters one by one. Building a solid organization, block by block. Building interracial coalitions, state by state.
Today we yearn for another King-like figure, seemingly unable to build a movement by ourselves. King and the civil rights movement conquered legal racism. A quarter of a century after his death, extra-legal racism still cripples and crushes, but there is no King and little movement to fight it now.
Written on a plaque in the hotel room in which King was killed are these words:
"Behold here comes the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what becomes of his dream."
Today we remember and celebrate half of a man. We have realized only half of his dream.
When he wrote this, Julian Bond was teaching about the civil rights movement at the American University and the University of Virginia. He was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was a student in a philosophy class taught by Martin Luther King Jr., at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
This story originally ran in The Seattle Times, April 4, 1993.