In the Mirror of the Bible
KARL Marx once said that every great historical movement occurs in costume. Luther played Saint Paul, and the French Revolutionaries wore the Roman togas of the Republic and the Empire. The proletarian aside, of course, there has never been a revolution without borrowed imagery. From the beginning in 1955, King's leadership of the Movement was a calculated act of interpretation carried out in the mirror of the Bible's imagery, stories, and characters: the morning star of freedom illumined the darkness of an ordinary Southern city. Baptist and Methodist Rotarians were assigned and grudgingly assumed the role of "the pharaohs of the South." A festive parade of thousands along a state highway symbolized the Exodus from Egypt. Blood-spattered Negroes enacted the mystery of unmerited suffering. All of it was presided over by the black Moses who was willing to die for his people.
Some, like Ella Baker, assert, "The movement made Martin," alleging that the raw materials of this drama were there and available to the first opportunistic actor to come along. King's now-mythic stature, they imply, rests on a scaffolding of historical accidents. Even the most compelling rhetorical performance depends on the situation that evokes it, much in the way an answer is beholden to its question. Didn't King himself speak of being pursued by the furies of history?
But the Civil Rights Movement did not "make" King any more than the Civil War "made" Lincoln. Admittedly, like Lincoln, King was summoned by events he did not initiate and exposed to conditions he did not create, but his response was so powerful an interpretation of events that it reshaped the conditions in which they originated. His answer was so true that it reframed the question. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the