Time to recognize Dr. King as more than a `black leader'

November 20, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- Maybe, just maybe, the entire nation is finally ready to embrace a truth that has been clear for quite some time: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a black hero; he was an American hero. The movement that he led gave America the moral authority to present itself to the world as the standard-bearer for justice and human rights.

The civil rights leader, whose achievements are heralded around the world, is joining the ranks of American presidents and battlefield heroes on the National Mall in Washington. Decades after the idea was proposed by members of Dr. King's college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, a memorial saluting Dr. King's life and work will be built along the edge of the Tidal Basin, halfway between the memorials to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

As President Bush eloquently put it last week during the groundbreaking ceremony: "It will unite a man who declared the promise of America and the man who defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America."

Even as philanthropists continue to raise funds to build the monument in Washington, Atlanta has just begun planning for a museum that will highlight Dr. King's contributions to America and the world. With the purchase of a cache of Dr. King's papers this year, the city, at long last, has the momentum to raise funds for a first-class museum that could cost as much as $100 million.

In the decades since Dr. King's death, America has managed to segregate him and commemorations of his achievements. Even as the face of the nation's economic and political leadership changed, even as men and women such as Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey showed the power of the transformation Dr. King helped to bring about, many white Americans have refused to see Dr. King as anything other than a "black leader."

Now seems an excellent time for the entire nation - black, white, brown and all others - to claim Dr. King's legacy. We Americans have been only too happy to note our success in assimilating ethnic minority groups into the nation's economic, social and cultural mainstream, a record that stands apart from much of the rest of the world.

Some countries in Western Europe, especially France, struggle with an underclass composed disproportionately of darker-skinned immigrants who are barely represented in the professions. By contrast, the United States boasts a growing black middle class that includes not just entertainers and athletes but also college professors, physicians, attorneys and entrepreneurs.

But many Americans seem to forget that this transformation did not come about on its own. Someone had to fight for it. If Dr. King and his followers had not stood against the harsh tyranny of Jim Crow, it's quite unlikely that Ms. Rice, born in Birmingham, Ala., would be secretary of state. If not for all those forgotten folk who bravely faced dogs and fire hoses, it's quite unlikely that Mississippi State University, in the heart of the Old Confederacy, would have a black football coach, Sylvester Croom.

And if black Americans were still treated as second-class citizens, President Bush would hardly be in a position to denounce authoritarian states that limit the rights of their citizens.

Dr. King deserves to be remembered among those great Americans who helped us to become that "shining city on a hill." His work left this a better country for all its citizens - not just those who happen to be black.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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