Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which we’ll celebrate Monday, provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as catalyst for the civil rights revolution. As a Baptist minister in Atlanta, he initially was reluctant to assume leadership beyond his local community, concerned that it might ultimately cost his life. He was perceptive but took on the job nonetheless, and persevered until his assassination April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd politician.
In reflecting on King’s legacy, accurate understanding of his life is essential. Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, there is a very human tendency to idealize and therefore ultimately distort history. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying the complexity of the human spirit can easily diminish the person described. The leader actually seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased. Second, oversimplifying past times limits our own capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future.
King preached unity but during his life did not achieve that goal. As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, a once broadly unified civil rights effort became fractured.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which preached racial integration and nonviolent tactics, was to some extent overshadowed by other organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a small fringe faction, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.
The fact that King endures from that era, so sharply defined, testifies to the value of his message and of his efforts. The ecumenical 1963 March on Washington continues to be remembered because of the pilgrimage’s enormous scale — an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 participants — and the timing. Immediately thereafter, President John F. Kennedy moved from caution to active support of major civil rights legislation.
As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She and others built the foundation for King’s later efforts.
Fully making this point requires including noteworthy white political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen.
Less visible today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
Also that year, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully. In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (who was, at the time, a Democrat) and Southern delegates bolted the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, Truman was re-elected.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. Both his message and efforts were congruent with our most fundamental national principles.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and author of “After the Cold War.”