Read an Excerpt
An example of the richness and complexity of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was on display August 28, 2010, at the National Mall on the forty-seventh anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck held a controversial “Restoring America” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, an event at which the great civil rights leader’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, was a featured speaker who emphasized the importance of traditional American values. At the same time, the Reverend Al Sharpton organized a counter-rally called “Reclaiming the Dream” just a few miles away in Washington’s black Shaw neighborhood, where Martin Luther King III decried economic inequality and protestors marched to the future site of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial. In those two events we saw a nation divided. And a family divided. Yet both rallies expressed the views of Martin Luther King, Jr. How could one man’s legacy be so capacious, and his life such a cornucopia of ideas, that forty-two years after his death they produce dueling events in his name?
The answer to that question can be found in the fact that during his thirteen-year public ministry and world-transforming journey from Montgomery to Memphis, Dr. King was not only a powerful agent for change but always changing himself, ever seeking to improve and refine his vision, though people have a tendency to freeze the process of his journey into a single conceptual frame, or to cherry-pick whatever they prefer to highlight about his life. Liberals and conservatives alike, Democrats and Republicans, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, and even pro-gun advocates in Washington State cite his words to support their vastly differing political agendas. To be sure, this is often the case with “world-historical” men and women who transformed the way we live and see the world. For example, Beck’s rally was held in the shadow of a White House occupied by Barack Obama, this country’s first black president, whose victory in
2008 is unthinkable without the impact King had on America.
What we must remember is that while there is unity, coherence, and consistency in King’s vision, his social philosophy evolved through three stages during his political and spiritual odyssey.
As the dramatic and now iconic images in this book by esteemed civil rights photographer Bob Adelman and others demonstrate, King in that first stage is a newly minted PhD, a twenty-six-year-old idealist, a husband and father holding down his first job as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church when he is thrust into leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by the courageous refusal of Rosa Parks to acquiesce to segregation.
In that battle, and in so many others that followed, culminating in the electrifying Birmingham campaign and legislative triumph of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he places his unique stamp on black America’s 336-year-old liberation struggle by emphasizing, in Gandhi-esque fashion, the importance of nonviolent civil disobedience and that our ultimate goal should not be desegregation of lunch counters but instead the realization of a “beloved community.” Equally important as nonviolence and integration for King is the idea of agape, our strength to love. In this period, he emerges as that rarest kind of revolutionary, one demanding that whites live up to the ideals proclaimed in their most sacred, secular documents (the Declaration of Independence and Constitution) and that black people lift themselves to new levels of excellence in character and moral perfection.
Despite violent attacks from whites and blacks, despite the days he spent in jail, where he composed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the most important political documents in American history, King’s sacrifices and leadership hastened the end of this country’s version of apartheid. Some felt he should stop at this stage, after his soaring “I Have a Dream” speech, and quietly return to his life as co-pastor in his father’s church in Atlanta, or perhaps accept a position as a college president.
But when King received the Nobel Peace Prize, he was thrust onto the world stage, and entered a second phase in his development. He reflected deeply upon, and then fully embraced, the implications of nonviolence as a way of life for both individuals and nations, and upon his own new role as a global ambassador for peace. Logically and inevitably, his commitment to the “beloved community” encompassed the entire planet, transcending national boundaries.