Separating Myth and Reality in the Legacy of Martin Luther King


January 15, 1991|By DENTON L. WATSON

FREEPORT, NEW YORK — The hand wringing caused by revelations that Martin Luther King Jr., plagiarized material in his doctoral dissertation results not only from his unacceptable violation of scholarly rules, but even more from the extent to which history has credited him for jTC much of the civil-rights accomplishments that was due to others. The result is that King has been mythicized to the point where he has hardly a blemish. Yet he himself would have been the first to acknowledge his weaknesses.

An open, gregarious man, King was neither devious nor Machiavellian. He sought to be an embodiment of the teachings of Christ and the great moral philosophers from whom he drew spiritual strength and lessons for the civil-rights struggle. As a Nobel Peace laureate he became an undisputed moral leader of great international standing in the struggle for human decency. His aura of greatness was waning in the later stages of the movement, but upon being martyred he became much more of an inspirational force than even he had envisioned.

King, however, was very human and quietly but intensely competitive -- a quality that, had it been widely examined, would have softened the shock over charges of his plagiarism.

Leaders like Roy Wilkins, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Clarence Mitchell Jr., director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, who had to contend with him, were fully aware that he could be less than fair.

One instance was the the Montgomery bus boycott that King led. That struggle was one of the most enduring displays of the dominance of the human spirit that America had ever witnessed. It represented the total involvement of a people determined to throw off the yoke of oppression.

Yet there are real limits to human endurance, as was evident shortly before the NAACP won a declaration from the Supreme Court that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional. Had the NAACP not stepped in with that case, the Montgomery bus boycott would have failed. Yet, in establishing his philosophy of nonviolent direct action, King downplays the extent to which the success of the bus boycott was dependent on the NAACP's legal machinery.

King provides another example of his egotistical weakness in his book ''Why We can't Wait,'' when he claims that the ''Negro Revolution'' ''struck'' in 1963. He triumphantly declared: ''Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro's cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it would win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.''

But a careful study of the modern civil-rights movement will show that 1963 was the climax of a long awakening of African-Americans that began in the closing days of the New Deal rather than as a sudden, explosive testament to King's nonviolent philosophy.

King similarly added salt to the NAACP's wounds when he claimed that the Birmingham demonstrations had forced the Kennedy administration to reorganize its priorities and place ''a strong civil-rights bill at the top of the congressional calendar.''

That statement was partly true. The cries of the nonviolent demonstrators reeling in Birmingham from Bull Connor's fire hoses, attacking police dogs and night sticks did pierce the ear drums of an obtuse Kennedy administration. But despite the crisis the demonstrations posed, it required the combination of another barbarous act to move President Kennedy to submit to Congress the type of strong civil-rights legislation that was obviously needed. That was the assassination shortly afterward of Medgar Evers, the NAACP Mississippi field secretary, which actually forced President Kennedy to act in addition to expressing his anger.

King was indeed a catalyst and will always remain a monumental figure in civil-rights history. His greatest contributions were his ability to arouse the human spirit to unparalleled heights and to burden the consciences of white liberals. But, as Mitchell said, success in the struggle for constitutional justice depended on the application of reason over emotion. Success required the NAACP's practical application of the type of legalistic and political strategies that King and the student demonstrators never ceased to disparage as too slow and ineffective.

To be fair to King, therefore, it is time to separate the myth from reality.

Mr. Watson is author of ''Lion in the Lobby, Clarence Mitchell, Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws.''

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