Today, on what should have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday, it’s time to reflect on his legacy and reimagine the significance of commemorations attached to his name.
King’s outsized iconography towers over contemporary American race relations. Through a hard-won national holiday, hundreds of books, an endowed lecture series and, most recently, a memorial dedicated in 2012 in the nation’s capitol, King’s image has become a permanent fixture in public memory.
King’s prophetic vision of American democracy, heroic efforts to mobilize black Americans for justice and brief, sacrificial time on the public stage have become part of a national mythology of the civil rights era. In this telling, King emerges as a talented individual whose rhetorical genius at the March on Washington helped elevate an entire nation through his moral power and sheer force of will. Like the Old Testament prophet Moses, King was allowed to see but not cross over into the Promised Land.
President Barack Obama hailed King’s legacy as offering inspiration for his own presidential run in 2008, and he characterized himself as part of a “Joshua Generation,” whose ability to achieve professional and political success derived from the sacrifices made by King and earlier generations.
Yet missing from many of the annual King celebrations is the portrait of a political revolutionary who, over time, evolved into a radical warrior for peace, justice and the eradication of poverty. During his last three years, King the “Dreamer” turned into one of the most eloquent, powerful and scathing critics of American society. King lent his moral force and power to antipoverty crusades that questioned the economic system of capitalism and called for an end to the Vietnam War.
King’s friendship with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Stokely Carmichael also impacted his political outlook. Although he disagreed with the term “black power,” he refused to criticize Carmichael or the movement he gave name to. Carmichael’s vociferous human rights declarations touched King and helped inspire his own more celebrated antiwar stance. On April 15, 1967, Carmichael served as a powerful warm-up act to King’s keynote at a massive peace demonstration that began in New York’s Central Park and ended at the United Nations.
Conservatives, liberals and moderate civil rights leaders claimed that King was in over his head, suggesting that he had been mesmerized by black power militants, and discrediting his foreign affairs expertise in a manner that sought to undermine his legitimacy as a Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist.
To King’s credit, though, the more denunciation he received, the further he pressed on. By 1968 he was in the middle of organizing the ambitious Poor People’s Campaign, designed to bring together a multicultural sampling of the nation’s poor to camp in a tent city on the Washington Mall until Congress passed significant antipoverty legislation. According to King, the war on poverty had been sacrificed by expenditures spent in Vietnam.
In an unwitting testament to his commitment to the struggle of working Americans, King was assassinated amid a campaign to rally sanitation workers on strike for decent wages and better working conditions in Memphis, Tenn.