THE first sentence of the New York Times editorial on April 7, 1968, began "Martin Luther King was a preacher, a man from Georgia ..." The editorial was, of course, an epitaph, as is any book on King written in these days. Dead for more than a quarter century, King and his achievement demand a summing up, and several recent biographies have done just that. But no appraisal will be completely accurate that does not begin where the Times's began. No portrait of King that neglects his ministerial identity and commitments will do justice to the true character of his achievement. What might be assumed of any Baptist preacher may legitimately be said of King: that he discovered his identity and calling in the church, fashioned his world in the image of the Bible, trusted the power of the spoken Word, endeavored to practice Christian love at all times, and couldn't shake the preacher's chronic infatuation with conversion. When such unexceptional observations are applied to King's public career, they illumine its fundamentally Christian character. Reckonings of Martin Luther King, Jr. will be made by church historians and theologians as well as political scientists.
What is not so easily determined is the full measure of his contribution. No epitaph can be comprehensive, especially that of a preacher. Preachers live by the open-endedness of the Word of God, which, like a metaphor or a promise, possesses meanings and levels of fulfillment far beyond the preacher's ken. Whenever he was asked about the gains that had come about as a result of his activity, King answered with a metaphor rather than hard data. He would smile his tired smile and say that the black man had straightened his back, and that you can't ride a man whose back isn't bent. Although the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights