The Martin Luther King We Remember

By Wolfson, Adam | The Public Interest, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Martin Luther King We Remember


Wolfson, Adam, The Public Interest


A day committed to the honor of Dr. Martin Luther King is a day committed to the celebration and honor of the American Constitution and those who believed in it and lived by it.

--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

IT now seems like ancient history. Forty years ago this summer, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his "I Have a Dream" oration. Jim Crow still reigned supreme, the country was seething with racial tensions, and it was not yet clear whether the federal government would act. Into this morass stepped King, who pointed a way toward racial equality and national unity. Twenty years later, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation naming a federal holiday for King. But despite the holiday and the passage of time, King's significance remains a point of contention. Do we really know what we are celebrating on the third Monday of every January?

During the congressional debates in 1983 over the proposed holiday, a strange convergence in opinion occurred between liberals and conservatives. Democrats extolled King for his commitment to "social justice" and "applied equality," and for his condemnation of the war in Vietnam. One Democrat called him "a native Gandhi" while another praised him for giving us "a new understanding of equality and justice." They portrayed him more as a New Age guru than the Baptist preacher that he was. Many Republicans seemed to share this image of King as countercultural rebel, but in turn condemned him for it. They recalled his opposition to the Vietnam War and his alleged ties to communists, and accused him of espousing "action-oriented Marxism" and preaching radical liberation theology. Could this be the man we celebrate on Martin Luther King Day?

King and the historians

We are fortunate to have many extraordinary biographies and scholarly studies of King, but these have also contributed to the confusion over King's significance. Unlike most other great public figures, King never enjoyed a period of grace. Instead, his biographers almost from the start decried his canonization and warned against hagiography. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross, for example, David J. Garrow criticizes the popular image of King as amiable national hero--an image that he believes "bears little resemblance to the human King or to the political King of 1965-1968." Similarly, in the Penguin Lives series of biographies of famous historical figures, Marshall Frady complains that King "has been abstracted out of his swelteringly convoluted actuality into a kind of weightless and reverently laminated effigy of who he was." Though the search for the "real," flesh-and-blood King is well-intentioned and has added immensely to our knowledge of King and his times, it has also paradoxically obscu red the King who mattered to us. In the recounting of his marital infidelities, acts of plagiarism, and ties to (former) members of the American Communist Party, we have lost sight of why he was lionized in his own day and is still remembered in our own--for his political achievements and rhetorical gifts.

Scholars can hardly be expected to skip over their subject's complexities and foibles. Nor can these matters be entirely avoided in the case of King, for they are part of the historical record. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover's direction, and with the official authorization of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, wiretapped King's phones. Some of these records are still under government seal, but we already know a great deal about what the FBI unearthed, since the agency at the time shared its findings with journalists and congressmen. In its campaign against King, the FBI went so far as to send King a tape recording of one of his supposed trysts and a letter encouraging him to take his own life.

However, little of the damaging information was revealed publicly. In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists operated under certain unstated rules of decorum as well as a general sense of the inviolability of the private lives of public figures. …

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