Last Wednesday, 4 April, the world commemorated the assassination fifty years earlier of a man widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures. Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for having played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. federal government, and for doing so through an unwavering commitment to non-violence and interracial cooperation. Accordingly, the shooting of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is seen to epitomize the tumultuous year of 1968 in U.S. history, during which opposition to the Vietnam War and ongoing racial antagonism saw American society turn from peace to violence, and from consensus to division.
While the anniversary of King’s death provided an obvious opportunity to rehearse this narrative and to celebrate King’s life and legacy in familiar terms, Gary Younge in The Guardian paused to ask some questions which historians of the civil rights movement have also been posing for some time: have we remembered Martin Luther King correctly and, if not, how did our prevailing conceptions of him come about? Younge argues that we have come to ‘selectively misrepresent’ King, remembering him as though he only ever made one speech, in Washington, DC in August 1963, where he declared that he had a ‘dream’. From this perspective, we view King as a figure who essentially underscored the greatness of the American nation, a society in which one could dare to dream of true equality, harmony, and freedom. We meanwhile lose sight of the King who declared that racial injustice was a national (and not just a Southern) problem, who was an outspoken critic of American capitalism and militarism, and who was a pariah by the end of his life, branded ‘the most notorious liar in the country’ by F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover.
In an influential 2005 article, the historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall emphasized the dangers posed by the selective reading of King’s philosophy. The lionization of the moderate King goes hand-in-hand with a narrow conception of the civil rights movement as a period of great change at the federal level between the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision of 1954 which declared racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The idea that this period was decisive, and that it was characterized by the non-violent activism and interracial consensus embodied by King, is one which has allowed conservative political elements in America to discredit more radical agendas. In this version of events, a ‘colour-blind’ society was achieved through an intensive period of top-down transformation. As such, the ongoing calls for socioeconomic redress made by the subsequent Black Power movement could be dismissed as unnecessary and violent extremism, off-putting even to those who had offered their full-throated support to King’s broad vision of civil rights in the first half of the 1960s.
According to Hall, this interpretation of the civil rights movement, palatable to conservatives of the Reagan era and beyond, dilutes the story in two ways. Firstly, as Younge also says, it waters down the radical message of King himself throughout his career. Secondly, it decontextualizes the 1954-1965 ‘classical phase’ of the civil rights movement, removing it from a broader story of activism between the 1930s and the 1970s, in which campaigns for civil rights were deeply intertwined with a radical politics concerned with class and gender. In other words, civil rights activists recognized that the kind of legislative change achieved in the mid-1960s was just one brick in the wall when building a society free from prejudice and marked by true equality of socioeconomic opportunity. Even if we flesh him out more and acknowledge his radicalism, therefore, we should not treat King in isolation. Indeed, his setting on a pedestal has long frustrated some of his contemporaries; in the words of civil rights activist Ella Baker, the ‘movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement’.
We can continue to point to many things which were remarkable about Martin Luther King. His strategy of non-violence, his willingness to build a broad coalition, and his exploitation of television as a medium by which images of Southern brutality against peaceful protesters could be beamed into American homes, were all timely and successful in securing a particular form of change. However, to suggest either that this change represented the totality of King’s aims, or that he was a wholly exceptional figure, is to accept the pernicious appropriation of an assassinated man’s legacy. The struggle for equality goes on, and attitudes towards it continue to be shaped by the extent to which we are prepared to accept that the purpose of history is not simply to remind us of what has been done, but to show us what has yet to be achieved.
 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, ‘The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past’, Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4 (March 2005), pp. 1233-1263.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC-09611.jpg)