Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Understanding America: The Martin Luther King Myth

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Understanding America: The Martin Luther King Myth

Article excerpt

More than forty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. King has long-since become enshrined within America's conventional wisdom as one of the preeminent leaders in the country's history. To understand America's idealization of King, a numher of questions are worth exploring about this consensus, now that several years have passed. Is the consensus voluntarily undertaken by the American public? Is the myth based on an accurate depiction of the man and his actions? And what does the existence of the King myth and its powerful hold on American life tell us about American society and the workings of democracy?

Key Words: Martin Luther King, Jr; Nonviolence; Civil disobedience; Racial relations in America; King's plagiarism; King's adultery; New Politics Convention (1967); Affirmative action; Race in American history; Myth and American racial issues.

Today's Image of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Peggy Noonan, the superbly talented speech writer for President Ronald Reagan, wrote a column a few years ago for The Wall Street Journal about "the seven unifying myths" that bind Americans together. She feels they should be taught to the children of all new immigrants. In this, she uses "myth" in its favorable connotation, not as a word of disparagement. One of the seven gives an enthusiastic picture of "the civil rights struggle." She describes that struggle as "a massive peaceful resistance to a tradition that was a sin... - and all because America had a conscience to which an appeal could be made."2

King's image is a major part of the myth to which she refers. There is no greater personification of the civil rights struggle as seen today than King. M. Stanton Evans is no doubt accurate in saying that during the years since King's death in 1968 he has been elevated to "secular sainthood." seeking something of a sainthood for him beyond even the "secular," American Catholic bishops in January 2000 asked the Vatican to name King (though a Baptist) a "martyr for the Christian faith."

Everywhere there are streets, boulevards and highways named after him; his picture hangs on the walls of countless classrooms and university offices across the United States; and since Congress declared the holiday in 1983, Americans have celebrated "Martin Luther King Day" on January 15 to commemorate his birthday, even as the traditional holidays marking the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln have been compressed into one considerably lesser observance. Time magazine named King the "Person of the Year" in 1963, five years before he was killed. In 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. President Jimmy Carter presented him posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom on July 4, 1977. Each year, King's birthday is ubiquitously noted with banquets and speakers, documentaries, marches and parades, and memorial services.

Components of the Myth

Today's image of Martin Luther King, Jr., consists of several discrete ideas:

That King was a man of superb qualities: high-minded, given to love and nonviolence, eloquently expressing dreams of equality and justice.

That his actions as the principal leader of the civil rights movement involved a whirlwind of activity that used "nonviolent direct action" and "massive civil disobedience" as levers to move American society.

That until acted upon by the civil rights movement, and to a considerable degree even today, the American people and their institutions were unresponsive, racist and fundamentally unjust.

That massive civil disobedience is a legitimate and sometimes necessary part of democratic process.

That, accordingly, King stood at the forefront of a progressive movement that has led America toward its truest ideals. The citation for the Presidential Medal of Freedom says that King "was the conscience of his generation. A southerner, a hlack man, he gazed on the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. …

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