David J. Garrow
I think it is particularly apt to reflect on King's message and the lessons we can draw from his life in light of how the organizers of this conference have used the "Dream and Reality" title. There is nothing that Dr. King himself would want us to appreciate more, after his death, than the fact that many of the goals that he struggled for, in fact most of the goals that he talked about following 1965, have not been achieved and, indeed, in sane respects, have not even been advanced.
Reflecting on Dr. King and his legacy, I wish to stress two points. First, I want to examine briefly Dr. King's emotional evolution and his own understanding of the role he played during the years between 1955 and 1968 when he devoted his life to the Civil Rights Movement. Second, I want to address his political evolution, the increasingly radical evolution in his views and hopes for American society that Dr. King underwent in the final years of his life.
To grasp Dr. King's understanding of his own life is to appreciate that King thought of himself as first and foremost a minister, a pastor. Younger people today, in particular, only see images of King from television news clips that show him as a person giving speeches and leading marches, which do not highlight his fundamental attachment to the ministry and his fundamental roots in the church. Appreciating the centrality of religion and the church for Dr. King is crucial if we are to make sense of the very selfless way, the very humble way, he devoted himself and made himself of service to the movement.
Almost without exception, the people closest to Dr. King always want to point out to those of us who are younger that he was very self effacing, nonegotistical, and at times even shy. Dr. King was someone who had no desire, no need, to be a public figure or a celebrity. He was not someone who enjoyed being in the limelight. Especially when one looks back at the beginning in Montgomery, the start of the boycott there, and the very crucial role that women--the black professional women's group in Montgomery--actually played in getting the boycott under way, one can appreciate even better how King was chosen as the spokesperson, as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, not through any initiative, or desire or self-promoting on his own part; he was very much drafted for that job and drafted in part because his colleagues recognized, even then, what a very special speaking ability, what a special ability to articulate the cause of black freedom Dr. King possessed. We must keep in mind as well with reference to Montgomery just how young Dr. King was at that time--he was only twenty-six--when he was drafted for that position; he was only thirty-nine at the time he was killed.
What one particularly sees in that early part of the Montgomery boycott is Dr. King somewhat painfully making a commitment of service to