Friday April 4th marked the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s legacy and impact is greatest by far in the USA, but he has become known around the world as a voice for human rights and non-violence.
This piece by Joseph Palermo at The Huffington Post gives an interesting perspective on that legacy and on King’s final days. It is interesting to speculate on how King would be portrayed today had he not been killed. As Palermo notes,
Contrary to mainstream belief today, while King was alive he was never widely heralded in the media as a “savior” or a “great leader.” He was just as often denounced as a “polarizing” figure and his work was often denigrated in racist terms. As was the case with Robert F. Kennedy, the love affair with MLK only took off long after he had become a kind of martyr.
I have no doubt that the world would have gained a great deal and would be a better place had Martin Luther King (and Robert Kennedy for that matter) not been killed. But it is a shame that we so often need time and tragedy to be able to more clearly see or appreciate what it right before our eyes.
During the recent media firestorm in the US surrounding a few comments by Rev Jeremiah Wright, a preacher from Barack Obama’s church, that were deemed to be too unpatriotic, I saw a few people note that Martin Luther King had been also prepared at times to criticise his country in very strong terms. This interview with Michael Eric Dyson, the author of two books on King, gives the example where King preached in black churches saying that “America was founded on genocide, and a nation that is founded on genocide is destructive.” (Dyson also makes the point that ‘black churches’ would not have been established in the USA had black people not been prevented from worshipping in the same churches as the whites.)
King was regularly attacked in his time for being unpatriotic and un-American. I’m not suggesting Wright is a Martin Luther King figure, but rather that the depths of public debate and understanding can be greatly enhanced when we look beyond caricatures and soundbites to the full substance and context.
Barack Obama’s speech marking the fortieth anniversary is here. He spoke from Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was in Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, that Robert Kennedy spoke to a crowd of thousands of black Americans on the night of King’s killing. As Palermo’s piece (and Obama’s speech) notes, this short heartfelt speech calls for understanding and campassion and wisdom, and is credited with ensuring that while many other cities in the USA erupted in violence, Indianapolis did not. A testament to the power of words and the huge impact, for good or ill, that people in positions of leadership can have at crucial moments.
ALSO: A reader pointed to this thoughtful piece at Religion Dispatches – King as Inspiration, Not Guide. Well worth a read.