On MLK Day, Go and Do Likewise…

The entire “Epilogue” from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), pg. 625:

“By idolizing those whom we honor,” writes black educator Charles Willie, one of King’s Morehouse classmates, “we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity–his personal and public struggles–that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”

“You have a tendency to romanticize,” Yolanda King notes, “when you’re looking back on it.” Andrew Young states that “I think it’s time to tell it all now,” and Christine Farris, King’s sister, says she wants to “help to demythologize one of our heroes.” “My brother,” she emphasizes, “was no saint,” but “an average and ordinary man.” Indeed, many of King’s colleagues worry, as Vincent Harding puts it, that people today are turning King into a “rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero” whose comfortable, present-day image bears little resemblance to the human King or to the political King of 1965-1968. Hosea Williams says is bluntly: “There is a definite effort on the part of America to change Martin Luther King, Jr., from what he really was all about–to make him the Uncle Tom of the century. In my mind, he was the militant of the century.”

Ella Baker aptly articulates the most crucial point, the central fact of his life which Martin King realized from December 5 in Montgomery until April 4 in Memphis: “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.” As Diane Nash says, “If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they–young people–are more likely to say, ‘gosh, I wish I had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’…If people knew how the movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?'”

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