Monday, January 15, 2007

King's Legacy

The article below is from The Washington Post, and it offers a sobering portrait of the last days of radical preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of its questions on King's legacy and the current generation's relationship to it were probably truer in 1998 when this piece was written than they are now, nine years later.

The war in Iraq, a criminal presidential administration and global injustice offer more reasons for Americans today to take up the mantle that King laid down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. For those who wish to remember King only as a warrior for integration, these thoughts will be unsettling. The heart of the good doctor's mission was a battle for justice and equality for all people. This is the war that we must wage today.

The following is my favorite quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. I used it in the introduction to my album, Distorted Soul 2.0, and the words are as true today as they were when King uttered them 40 years ago.

"And I say that there is a great need now for a radical reordering of priorities in America, and there is a great need for a revolution of values." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The War Over King's Legacy
by Vern E. Smith and Jon Meacham

On the eve of his murder, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream was turning dark. Worried about poverty and Vietnam, he was growing more radical--and that, his family says, is why he was killed. Was the real King a saint, a subversive--or both?

The sun was about to set.

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had retreated to room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, worrying about a sanitation strike in Memphis and working on his sermon for Sunday.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits in a jail cell in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Ala. on November 3, 1967. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann)
Its title: "Why America May Go to Hell." For King, whose focus had shifted from civil rights to antiwar agitation and populist economics, the Dream was turning dark. He had been depressed, sleeping little and suffering from migraines. In Washington, his plans for a massive Poor People's Campaign were in disarray. In Memphis, King's first march with striking garbage men had degenerated into riot when young black radicals--not, as in the glory days, angry state troopers--broke King's nonviolent ranks. By 5 p.m. he was hungry and looked forward to a soul-food supper. Always fastidious-a prince of the church--King shaved, splashed on cologne and stepped onto the balcony. He paused; a .30-06 rifle shot slammed King back against the wall, his arms stretched out to his sides as if he were being crucified.

The Passion was complete. As he lay dying, the popular beatification was already underway: Martin Luther King Jr., general and martyr to the greatest moral crusade on the nation's racial battlefield. For most Americans the story seems so straightforward. He was a prophet, our own Gandhi, who led the nation out of the darkness of Jim Crow. His Promised Land was the one he conjured on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, a place where his "four little children... will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Now, 30 years after his assassination, that legend is under fresh assault--from King's own family and many of his aging lieutenants. His widow, Coretta, and his heirs are on the front lines of a quiet but pitched battle over the manner of his death and the meaning of his life. They believe James Earl Ray, King's convicted assassin, is innocent and that history has forgotten the real Martin Luther King.

To his family, King was murdered because he was no longer the King of the March on Washington, simply asking for the whites only signs to come down. He had grown radical: the King of 1968 was trying to build an interracial coalition to end the war in Vietnam and force major economic reforms--starting with guaranteed annual incomes for all. They charge that the government, probably with Lyndon Johnson's knowledge, feared King might topple the "power structure" and had him assassinated. "The economic movement was why he was killed, frankly," Martin Luther King III told NEWSWEEK. "That was frightening to the powers that be." They allege there were political reasons, too. "RFK was considering him as a vice presidential candidate," says Dexter, King's third child. "It's not widely known or discussed, [but] obviously those watching him knew of it. They [Kennedy and King] were both considered powerful and influential in terms of bringing together a multiracial coalition."

So who was the real Martin Luther King Jr.--the integrationist preacher of the summer of 1963 or the leftist activist of the spring of 1968? The question is not just academic.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, and Bishop Julian Smith flank Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a civil rights march in Memphis on March 28, 1968. (AP Photo)
Its competing answers shed light on enduring--and urgent--tensions between white and black America over race, class and conspiracy. Most whites want King to be a warm civic memory, an example of the triumph of good over evil. For many African-Americans, however, the sanitizing of King's legacy, and suspicions about a plot to kill him, are yet another example of how larger forces--including the government that so long enslaved them-hijack their history and conspire against them. In a strange way, the war over King's legacy is a sepia-toned O.J. trial, and what you believe depends on who you are.

The Kings, a family still struggling to find its footing personally and politically, are understandably attracted to the grander theories about King's life and death. A government conspiracy to kill a revolutionary on the rise is more commensurate with the greatness of the target than a hater hitting a leader who may have been on the cool side of the mountain. The truth, as always, is more complicated than legend. People who were around Robert Kennedy say it is highly unlikely that there was serious consideration of an RFK-King ticket. "I never heard Kennedy talk about any vice presidential possibilities," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedy aide. And though there was almost certainly some kind of small-time plot to kill King, 30 years of speculation and investigation has produced no convincing proof that James Earl Ray was part of a government-led conspiracy.

The real King was in fact both radical and pragmatist, prophet and pol. He understood that the clarity of Birmingham and Selma was gone forever, and sensed the tricky racial and political terrain ahead. He knew the country was embarking on a long twilight struggle against poverty and violence--necessarily more diffuse, and more arduous, than the fight against Jim Crow. Jealousies among reformers, always high, would grow even worse; once the target shifted to poverty, it would be tough to replicate the drama that had led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and '65. "We've got some difficult days ahead," he preached the night before he died.

King was an unlikely martyr to begin with. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. King was not quite 27; Coretta had just given birth to their first child, Yolanda. E. D. Nixon, another Montgomery pastor, wanted to host a boycott meeting at King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--not because of King but because the church was closest to downtown. When the session ran long, a frustrated minister got up to leave, whispering to King, "This is going to fizzle out. I'm going." King replied, "I would like to go, too, but it's in my church."

He took up the burden, however, and his greatness emerged. He led waves of courageous ordinary people on the streets of the South, from the bus boycott to the Freedom Rides. Behind his public dignity, King was roiled by contradictions and self-doubts. He wasn't interested in money, yet favored silk suits; he summoned a nation to moral reckoning, yet had a weakness for women. He made powerful enemies: J. Edgar Hoover obsessed over King. The FBI, worried that he was under communist influence, wiretapped and harassed the preacher from 1962 until his death.

Hoover may have been overestimating his foe, particularly after 1965. On the streets, the black-power movement thought King's philosophy of nonviolence was out of date. Within the system King fared little better. "The years before '68 were a time when people in Detroit would call us to march for civil rights--come to Chicago, come to L.A.," Jesse Jackson says. "But by the '70s, you had mayors who were doing the work every day." King felt this chill wind in Cleveland, when he campaigned for Carl Stokes, the city's first successful black mayoral candidate. The night Stokes won, King waited in a hotel room for the invitation to join the celebrations. The call never came.

Andrew Young
The Diplomat
After the demonstrations were over, King would send Young in to negotiate with city leaders. He has continued to work within the system, first as Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, later as mayor of Atlanta. (Andrew Innerarity/AP)
King took the change in climate hard. He told his congregation that "life is a continual story of shattered dreams." "Dr. King kept saying," John Lewis recalls, " 'Where do we go? How do we get there?' " According to David J. Garrow's Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography, "Bearing the Cross," he had found one answer while reading Ramparts magazine at lunch one day in 1967. Coming across photos of napalmed Vietnamese kids, King pushed away his plate of food: "Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war."

Look at this from the eyes of King's family. He is attacking the war and poverty. He is planning to "dislocate" daily life in the capital by bringing the nation's impoverished to camp out in Washington. "He was about to wreck this country," says Hosea Williams, "and they realized they couldn't stop him, and they killed him." But it did not seem that way to Williams--or to King--in real time. The Poor People's Campaign was having so much trouble turning out marchers that one organizer, James Gibson, wrote Williams a terse memo just two weeks before King was to die. "If this is to be a progress report," Gibson told Williams, "I can stop now; there has been none!" The march was to be a model for multiethnic protest--a forerunner to the Rainbow Coalition. The early returns--and King knew this--were not good. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was riven as the calculus changed. "I do not think I am at the point where a Mexican can sit in and call strategy on a Steering Committee," one SCLC aide said.

John Lewis
The True Believer
In 1965 Lewis crossed Selma's Pettus Bridge into "a sea of blue" – and Alabama troopers viciously beat him. Now known as "the conscience of the House," the Atlantan has served in Congress since 1986. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)
What would have become of King? His lieutenants do not believe he could have kept up the emotional and physical pace of the previous 13 years. They doubt he would have run for office despite speculation about RFK or a presidential bid with Benjamin Spock. Nor do they think he would have pulled a Gandhi and gone to live with the poor. ("Martin would give you anything, but he liked nice things," says one King hand. "He would not have put on sackcloth.")

A more likely fate: pastoring Ebenezer Baptist Church and using his Nobel platform to speak out--on war and peace, the inner cities, apartheid. King would have stood by liberalism: conservatives who use his words to fight affirmative action are almost certainly wrong. "At the end of his life," says Julian Bond, "King was saying that a nation that has done something to the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something for him." Had he lived, King might have been the only man with the standing to frame the issue of the ghettos in moral terms. On the other hand, he might have become a man out of time, frustrated by preaching about poverty to a prosperous country.

Jesse Jackson
The Brand Name
As counselor, candidate and crusader, Jackson has forded the mainstream. Would King have embarked on a similar campaign of passionate – but sometimes unfocused – global good works? (David Longstreath/AP)
The fight over King's legacy resonates beyond the small circles of family and historians. To the Malcolm X-saturated hip-hop generation, "by any means necessary" is a better rap beat than "I have a dream." "For kids outside the system, King has no relevancy," says Andre Green, a freshman at Simon's Rock College in Massachusetts. "But for the upwardly mobile, assimilated black youth, King is a hero because he opened the doors." That is true of older African-Americans as well, though there is a rethinking of integration, too. Some black mayors now oppose busing even if it means largely all-African-American schools.

On the last Saturday of his life, sitting in his study at Ebenezer, King fretted and contemplated a fast--a genuine sacrifice for a man who joked about how his collars were growing tighter. He mused about getting out of the full-time movement, maybe becoming president of Morehouse College. Then his spirits started to rise. "He preached himself out of the gloom," says Jackson. "We must turn a minus into a plus," King said, "a stumbling block into a steppingstone--we must go on anyhow." Three decades later, he would want all of us to do the same.

With Veronica Chambers


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