Martin Luther King’s unfinished dream: the historians’ view

Has the world been too eager to sanctify Martin Luther King Jr? Did establishment figures want him dead? And what is his legacy? More than 50 years on from his death on 4 April 1968, five historians tackle the most pressing questions on the great civil rights activist known for his 'I have a dream' speech...

Martin Luther King waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington DC during the March on Washington, 28 August 1963. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

I have a dream,” are the famous words by which Martin Luther King Jr is remembered today. The baptist minister, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia on 15 January 1929, led the civil rights movement in the United States until he was killed by assassination on 4 April 1968 at the hands of James Earl Ray. 

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Every year on the third Monday in January, Martin Luther King day is celebrated around the world. But how much do you know about the civil rights activist? Here, five historians tackle some of the key questions about his life and legacy…


Our panel

Vicki Crawford is director of the Martin Luther King Jr Collection at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, United States

Clive Webb is professor of modern American history at the University of Sussex

Peter Ling is professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham

Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson is professor of transatlantic history and culture at the University of Augsburg

Zoe Colley is lecturer in history at the University of Dundee. She specialises in civil rights and the American South


What shaped Martin Luther King’s world view? Did he experience racism as a child?

Vicki Crawford: Although the King family were relatively economically privileged, this did not fully shield him from the experience of racial prejudice when he was young – he was, after all, born in 1929, during an era of legal segregation. A pivotal experience occurred in 1944 as he returned to Atlanta from an oratorical contest in Dublin, Georgia. He and his teacher were forced to stand on an overcrowded bus so whites could have the available seats. This left an indelible imprint on the young King, who had just delivered perhaps his first important public speech, on ‘The Negro and the Constitution’.

Clive Webb: King’s home city of Atlanta was racially progressive by the standards of the American South. He would have suffered less exposure to white racism than did many other black children, but that didn’t stop his experiences of discrimination informing his understanding of injustice. Losing his white playmates when he and they had to attend separate schools provided an early lesson in the inequities of institutionalised racism.

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King in Washington DC, where he delivered his famous 'I Have A Dream' speech to a quarter of a million civil rights supporters in Washington DC in August 1963. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

To what extent was King’s activism fired by his religious beliefs?

VC: King was greatly inspired by a confluence of factors, the foremost being the African-American church. His philosophy and practice of nonviolence was also influenced by his time as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta from 1944 to 1948. Its president delivered weekly chapel talks in which he often spoke about social justice issues and the world leaders who were addressing them, including Mohandas Gandhi. In 1959, King would travel to India with his wife, Coretta Scott King, to learn more about the Gandhian practice of nonviolence.

Finally, King’s study of the works of western philosophers and theologians framed his thinking about nonviolence. Ultimately, he synthesised these influences – the black church, Gandhi, western philosophy and theology – to create his own, unique expression of nonviolence as evidenced in the American civil rights movement.

Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson: King’s faith was at the very core of his commitment to the struggle for black equality. As he put it: “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

Zoe Colley: Nonviolent protest was undoubtedly connected to King’s Christian faith and a tradition of redemptive suffering. However, the use of nonviolence within the movement predates King’s rise to prominence: the boycott of segregated transport by black communities, for instance, can be dated back to the late 19th century. The 1955/56 Montgomery bus boycott [in which leading civil rights figures, including King, protested against the segregation of Alabama’s public transport] was part of a longer history of nonviolent protest in black communities.

Nonviolence also served a tactical role for the movement. By contrasting the nonviolence of protesters with the lawlessness and brutality of white supremacists, King was able to present an image of respectability and thereby secure support from white liberals.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela days after his release, 1990. (Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis)

How did the rise of the television age help King’s cause?

CW: King’s political career coincided with the communication revolution that occurred through the mass ownership of TVs. Suddenly, the black freedom struggle was being beamed right into people’s homes. News footage of racist police officers brutally assaulting peaceful black protesters mobilised public support for the civil rights cause. This in turn pressurised the federal government to take interventionist action.

Television also enabled King to reach an international audience. Thanks to a Telstar satellite, British audiences were able to watch live the end of the March on Washington in 1963 at which King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ oration.

BWN: While only 9 per cent of American households owned a TV in 1950, 93 per cent did so in 1966. This contributed significantly to the success of King’s movement. It also helped catapult the charismatic King into the spotlight of global attention.

Peter Ling: King once declared that he would compel segregationists to do their evil in the spotlight of television and that this would make the world see their crimes. His protest campaigns in the Alabama towns of Birmingham in 1963 and Selma two years later were moral spectacles that made it hard for ordinary Americans to feel comfortable with what was happening.

What was his relationship like with US political leaders, particularly those in the White House?

PL: Race was a controversial issue that most leaders in the United States wanted to avoid, which meant that King was usually seen as a problem rather than an ally. He met three presidents during his lifetime. Dwight D Eisenhower largely ignored him; John F Kennedy, typically via his brother Bobby, tried to control him (the Kennedys believed that King should be grateful for their attempts to help him); and Lyndon B Johnson wanted King to act in ways that supported him, and felt betrayed by King’s outspoken stance on Vietnam. FBI director J Edgar Hoover also told Kennedy and Johnson that King was dangerous and probably controlled by the communists. So King was suspect.

CW: Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s authorisation of FBI wiretaps on King’s home and office in 1963 reveals how the White House mistrusted King and attempted to control and manipulate him. Federal authorities were also more reactive than proactive on civil rights, meaning that King had to force their hand – as was the case in 1963, when first his campaign in Birmingham, Alabama and then the March on Washington pressured the Kennedy administration into pushing for the enactment of what eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Similarly, without the demonstrations that King led in Selma, Alabama, Lyndon B Johnson would not have pushed so hard for passing the other outstanding legislative achievement of the civil rights movement – the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The White House, Washington DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

How much personal credit should we give King for the wider achievements of the civil rights movement?

BWN: While many other people deserve more credit than they are usually given for their role in the civil rights movement, King was and remains its most famous representative. When the Montgomery bus boycott started, King was the right man in the right place at the right time. His charisma and rhetorical brilliance, philosophy of nonviolent direct action, and ability to both forge coalitions of different groups of activists and obtain media attention were essential to the movement’s achievements. He also deserves credit for his amazing faith, courage and willingness for personal sacrifice, which inspired millions of people to fight for social and racial justice throughout the world.

ZC: There is no doubt that King played a crucial role in shaping the movement and its victories during the 1960s. By 1965, he had secured major federal legislation that ordered desegregation in the South and protected African-American voting rights. However, to paraphrase civil rights activist Ella Baker: “King did not make the movement; the movement made King.” His successes were built upon the work of earlier generations of activists: people such as Harry T Moore in Florida, who, along with his wife, was killed in 1951 when a bomb blew their house apart. These people created the foundation for King’s leadership of the 1960s, and the movement could not have happened without their sacrifices.

VC: While King was indisputably one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century, credit should be given to the many men and women who were the support behind his leadership. Local people were not small players, but important actors in bringing about change, and many have been forgotten or marginalised in the pages of history.

The civil rights movement was incredibly diverse – as the important role played by women and young people proves. A more accurate understanding of the 1950s and 1960s struggle for civil and human rights should reflect upon the fact that the movement was long, wide and deep.

Four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, hold the first sit-in (Corbis.)

What does King’s murder by the white supremacist James Earl Ray tell us about America in 1968?

PL: King’s life was threatened virtually daily throughout his public career. During the early 1960s, racist groups paid bounties for his murder, and by 1968 King was an outspoken radical whom the FBI and the Memphis Police Department did not really want to protect. So when he was murdered in Memphis on 4 April it was not unexpected – indeed, some believe there was a degree of official collusion.

ZC: You could argue that it was no coincidence that King was killed as he was developing a more radical critique of US racism. By the year of his death, he was calling for a major redistribution of America’s wealth as the only way that racism could be overcome. Popular memory presents an image of King as a national hero, but that was not the case in 1968. His move towards a socialist stance was perceived by many white people as unAmerican and a threat to traditional values.

CW: Whether you accept that Ray acted alone in assassinating King or wish to engage in any number of conspiracy theories, what is more important is what his death tells us about the state of American society. It may have been a fanatical white supremacist who pulled the trigger, but there were many others who welcomed his death. The FBI branded King the “most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation”. It also sent him a tape-recording supposedly of him having sex with a woman other than his wife. The tape was accompanied by a letter that King interpreted as encouraging him to kill himself.

In death, King has become a universal icon, but during his life he was hated and hounded by a large segment of white society. The nostalgic sheen that surrounds King obscures the opposition he faced and fought so hard to overcome.

David Olusoga

By portraying him as a modern saint, have we lost sight of the real man?

ZC: Yes. The idea that King was somehow preordained to lead the movement ignores the extent to which he relied upon other activists to support his campaigns, and how much he struggled to secure change in the South. He made mistakes along the way, and continually faced criticism from within the movement. By presenting King as a saintly figure, we lose sight of his humanity and how horrendous the situation was in the South in the 1950s and 60s.

CW: Stand outside the west entrance of Westminster Abbey and you will see how King has been elevated to the status of sainthood. Carved into the niches are statues of 10 great Christian martyrs of the 20th century, including one of King with a child at his feet looking reverently up towards him.

The real King was nonetheless made of flesh and blood rather than carved from stone. He had many personal flaws, including extramarital affairs and excessive drinking and smoking fuelled by doubt and depression. Yet his achievements seem all the greater when we recognise how he succeeded, despite his frailties, in withstanding enormous political pressures – continued threats on his life, surveillance by the FBI, governmental resistance, media criticism – to lead the greatest grassroots revolution in the 20th-century United States.

VC: In recent times, and despite the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr Day on the third Monday of January each year, we have somehow lost the great significance of what King stood for and the causes he championed. In far too many instances, media and popular culture have narrowed his life and legacy and reduced his many speeches down to short takes and soundbites, freezing King in time.

PL: I’d agree that, ironically, securing the national holiday has been damaging to King’s legacy. It has strengthened the tendency to see him as the hero in a Hollywood-style narrative that has a happy ending. Seen as subversive in his lifetime, he is now put on a pedestal and made safe.

Photograph showing civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr delivering his famous 'I Have A Dream' speech

Is it fair to say that his legacy has been distorted?

CW: Competing political factions in the present-day US have attempted to mould King’s legacy to further their own agenda. Conservatives, for instance, have claimed that King’s vision of a colour-blind society would have made him a staunch opponent of programmes such as affirmative action which, they argue, provide preferential treatment for minorities.

Conversely, some liberals evoke King in support of causes such as gay rights and environmentalism, about which he offered little opinion. In attempting to remake him in their own image, these political activists and ideologues obscure our understanding of King’s actual life and legacy.

Why is King’s story particularly important today?

BWN: King called for social justice and full inclusion of African-Americans, and there has been much progress in black political representation, education, income and social acceptance. Yet 50 years after his death, his hope for racial harmony in the US remains unfulfilled. Despite some progress, including successes of the Black Lives Matter movement in raising awareness of racial discrimination, and the removal of statues honouring Confederate Civil War heroes, deep-rooted racism continues to exist.

Indeed, brutal hate crimes, KKK rallies and anti-black demonstrations seem to suggest that white supremacists may be more emboldened, better organised and more active since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency than they have been for decades. The need to keep the memory and spirit of King and his movement alive is therefore particularly important.

VC: During the final five years of his life, King’s human rights agenda stretched to include more emphasis on the structural aspects of injustice and the eradication of what he called the ‘triple evils’ of racism, poverty and militarism. He argued that unless we tackle these, humanity will be unable to live together in worldwide fellowship. We must engage with King’s unfinished work around the world, and delve deeper into his thought and action, far beyond media portrayals of King and simplistic notions about who he was and his role in the civil rights movement.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC in 1925. The Klan of this era was a terrorist group in the precise meaning of that term, says Linda Gordon. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

King’s life and legacy is complex: he was a minister of the social gospel, a global leader for civil and human rights, a scholar and thinker who read and wrote extensively, and a husband and father. The vast corpus of sermons, speeches and writings that King left behind are a gift to us. Many of these materials are contained in Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King Jr Collection, which is freely available for people to come and study as we wrestle with continuing injustices in our 21st-century world.

PL: In our age of war, terror and ecological destruction, King’s denunciation of militarism, materialism, and what he sometimes referred to as ‘thingification’ (the treatment of people as things), needs hearing.

CW: Race remains one of the most serious faultlines in American society. The police shootings and racial profiling of African-American citizens that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, the disproportionately large number of black prison inmates and the persistence of economic inequality all point to a country still far from fulfilling King’s dream. In these racially fraught times, his untimely death is a potent symbol of the United States’ failure to ensure equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens, but his inspirational life still shows the way to achieving a better future.

Interviews by Matt Elton.

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This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine