In the shadow of Dr. King

No American has equaled the martyred civil rights leader in reputation -- or the legend enveloping him.

January 19, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

It is an accepted axiom that the reason the civil rights movement and the African-American community have never produced another leader like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is that there has never been another person like Martin Luther King him - unsullied in motivation, unparalleled in oratory, unchallenged in leadership.

In the 34 years since his martyr's death in Memphis, King has been granted the power of pure moral authority - if he said it, it was right; if he asked for it, it was done. How could any of his contemporaries - Ralph David Abernathy, Roger Wilkins or Jesse Jackson - expect to fill such shoes?

Of course they couldn't, but that wasn't just because of King's greatness; it was in large part because those were not the shoes King was wearing, particularly near the end of his life. King's accomplishments were monumental, but some argue that the legendary status he attained in death made it impossible for any African-American leader ever to live up to that ideal, while others contend that turning King into a beatific icon robs him of the strength of his humanity that was so crucial to his success.

For starters, the civil rights movement that King led to revolutionary victories in the mid-1960s was not as unified as it was depicted. By the time of King's assassination in 1968 it was fracturing into often-bickering components. The issues of war and poverty that King and others were beginning to confront did not come with the same moral clarity - or widespread support - as the fight against Jim Crow.

"In April 1968, King was not the leader of the civil rights movement," says Melinda Chateauvert, undergraduate studies director in the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. "His credibility and standing in the civil rights community had seriously deteriorated. ... By embracing the anti-war movement, he caused many in the civil rights movement to disavow his statements."

John Dittmer, a professor of history at DePauw University in Indiana, notes that most narratives of King's life seen at this time of year - his birthday is celebrated as a national holiday tomorrow - follow the civil rights movement from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1954 to the march from Selma, Ala., in 1965 and then skip to his death in 1968 without chronicling the splintering of the movement in King's last years.

"Things go off in a lot of different directions after 1965 and King had much less control that he did before," says Dittmer.

If King had been alive to celebrate his 74th birthday last Wednesday, few think he would have the same legendary status that his legacy has today - exactly what many say about John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. That is not to minimize in any way what this Nobel Peace Prize winner accomplished; it is to say that he accomplished so much, so quickly, that there is no way he could have done more so fast. Dittmer quotes African-American intellectual Vincent Harding: "Martin Luther King made all the history he could."

King biographer Taylor Branch says that despite King's commitment to nonviolence, the kindly, saintly image that has become his aura since his death is not appropriate. "He never had the status we put on him of being someone that most people were comfortable with. ... He was a fighter. He was scary."

This legendary status, Branch argues, does damage to King's reality. "It tames him by concealing the degree to which his challenge hit people in the gut and still would today."

Few find it surprising that no one has come along to take his place. "You have to remember that it wasn't Martin Luther King who created the civil rights movement, it was the civil rights movement that created Martin Luther King," Dittmer says. "I think the reason we haven't produced another leader is because we haven't produced another movement."

Branch says, "I don't think the conditions have been right for another King figure, someone black or white to set forward a new democratizing agenda of that breadth."

Branch, who is working on the third volume of his King trilogy, points out that when King died, the people in the movement were leaderless and exhausted.

"One of the great things about King was that he was comfortable with a wide array of big egos in his circle fighting to influence him. As soon as he wasn't there anymore, it basically imploded," Branch said. "Plus, they were tired. These guys were essentially in a war. They had been going to jail for decades. Even the relatively new ones like Jesse Jackson were somewhat tired and disoriented."

Ronald Walters, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that Jackson "came as close as anybody could have to being King's successor," but could not compete with the King legend.

"The legacy and mythology we have given him he only obtained in the aftermath" of his assassination, Walters says. "Nobody could measure up to that."

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