Thousands gathered in Memphis today for a rainy tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated 40 years ago today. But the King the country largely remembers—the one revered by Americans of all political stripes and honored by a national holiday—is from not 1968 but 1963.
Writing for Religion Dispatches, Jonathan L. Walton observes that our cultural memory tends to put us retroactively on the right side of things, to assert that “we were on [King’s] side. We shared his Dream”—the refrain of his most beloved speech from 1963. But, by the time he was killed, King had in fact fallen out of favor with most Americans. His increasingly broad activism and sharp rhetoric “undermined his reputation as a moderate Negro ‘voice of reason,’” costing him a great deal in terms of financial donations and general popularity, writes Walton.
Our cultural memory of King also de-radicalizes the man himself, as Kai Wright argues in the American Prospect. “Our efforts to look back on [King’s] life too often say more about our own racial fantasies and avoidances than they do about his much-discussed dream,” says Wright. “And they obscure a deeply radical worldview that remains urgently important to Americans' lives.”
The point is not to downplay the consensus we’ve at some level reached around “I Have a Dream”—itself no small feat. But King himself ultimately chose truth-telling over popularity. When, anxious to praise him, we sanitize his later years and gloss over the difficult truth he told—about economic inequality, about our destructive foreign policy, about the fact that white racism is not just a phenomenon of the South—we do little to honor him. Instead, we reveal that, 40 years later, we still don’t want to hear everything King has to say.
World-Telegram photo by Walter Albertin.