Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2004 / 22 Teves 5764
If MLK lived, would he still be a hero?
As Americans prepare once again to
take a day off to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,
I wonder whether America would be as eager to honor
him if he were still around. I'm not alone in my
"Somebody wrote a poem, which said now that he is
safely dead, let us praise him," recalled the Rev. Joseph
Lowery, one of the leaders who succeeded King as head
of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "For
dead men make such convenient heroes. They cannot
rise up to challenge the images we fashion for them.
Besides it is easier to build a monument than it is to
build a movement."
That line comes from "Citizen King," a new documentary
that premiers on public broadcast TV stations on Jan. 19
and focuses on his last five years before his assassination in 1968.
Those are what I call King's "forgotten years." They tend
to receive short mention in most accounts of King's life,
since they lack the inspiring, unifying drama of his triumphant trifecta: the 1963 March
on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Produced by director Orlando Bagwell, a veteran of PBS' award-winning "Eyes on the
Prize" documentaries about the civil rights years, "Citizen King" focuses on King the
man and the many headaches he encountered later.
"If America really saw the whole person of King, it would be very difficult for America to
embrace him the way America does," according to the Rev. James H. Cone of the
Union Theological Seminary. Cone's excellent 1992 book "Martin and Malcolm and
America: A Dream or a Nightmare" described how, just as Malcolm X became more
moderate in his final years, King grew more militant as he expanded his struggle for
equal rights in the South, to demands for open housing, desegregated schools and
economic opportunities for poor blacks in the North.
"Citizen King" shows the Georgia minister pursuing those crusades after 1964, but
winning fewer victories. King's open-housing marches in Chicago ran up against
larger mobs of angry whites than he ever faced in the South. He also runs up against
recalcitrant black leaders in Chicago and Los Angeles and young blacks who are
skeptical of his non-violent strategies.
He runs up against constant death threats and the treachery of FBI director J. Edgar
Hoover, whose agents recorded sounds of King cheating on his wife and then sent
her copies of the tapes.
King's opposition to the Vietnam War on principle sparked a heated backlash from
President Lyndon B. Johnson and other liberals, blacks and whites, who chastise
King for meddling in affairs beyond his expertise.
Yet he and his family persevered, even while his broad multiracial and multireligious
coalition splintered around divisive questions of political, social and economic justice.
Opposition to racial segregation was an easy argument compared to King's more
ambitious and controversial goal of eradicating poverty.
The documentary follows King through the eyes of those who knew him, including
activists, journalists and the late "black-power" pioneer Stokely Carmichael, later
known as Kwame Toure, who worked more closely with the more moderate King in
the civil rights leader's later years than most accounts reveal.
Were King around today, it is easy to imagine him preaching, as President Bill Clinton
once told a black audience, against the rise of drugs, crime and out-of-wedlock births
in black America. It is also easy to imagine him trying to relate to idealistic youths in
the hip-hop generation the way he tried to lead the young black-power militants of my
generation in the late 1960s.
And, in an era of conservative dominance in Washington, I am certain that he would be
creating even more opponents of all races on the right and the left. It's hard to make
any progress, he might have said, without making some critics.
King Day has become a holiday like others named after heroic individuals, for young
people to learn who the honored hero was without learning much about what he did.
Indeed, King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech is worth repeating, even if people did
not hear much else. It properly ranks with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in
the canon of this nation's most inspiring oratory. But King had a lot more to offer in his
defense of human dignity. Much more.
As we wonder today what happened to the clear and easy-to-defend agenda of the civil
rights years, those forgotten years between King's landmark speech and his death
show us how difficult it was even for the great dreamer himself to turn dreams into
reality. "We all have a task and let us do it with a sense of divine dissatisfaction," King
said in one of his final speeches. "Let us be divinely dissatisfied as long as we have a
wealth of creeds and poverty of deeds." That's his legacy. We may never achieve a
perfect world, he told us, but we must never stop trying.
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