On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the now famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.
King had arrived in Memphis to help lead a sanitation worker’s strike. His message was that in a violent and unjust age, he was seeking to do God’s will: showing the city’s whites that God’s black children were suffering and must be helped. As King said,
The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.
Today is the 40th anniversary of King’s death. Unfortunately, the press has not changed much since his day. Reporters in general continue to focus on the window breaking itself rather than the Christian context in which King understood that it occurred. The result is stories that not only commit the sin of presentism, but also are largely secularized.
To The Washington Post, King was a tragic leader of the Left. Reporter Kevin Merida focuses on King’s career from 1966 to 1968, the time when King had helped eliminate legal discrimination but struggled to achieve economic and social equality, especially for striking sanitation workers in Memphis:
Forty years after King was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, it is this sharper-edged figure who has come into focus again. To mark today’s anniversary, several scholarly reports have been released charting the nation’s uneven social and economic progress during the past 40 years. Some scholars and former King associates are using the occasion to zero in on the two issues — war and poverty — that were consuming him at the time of his death.
Both have particular resonance now: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that has grown increasingly unpopular, and the poor — despite the concerns highlighted by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis — are as voiceless as they were in King’s day, advocates contend.
Merida’s focus on politics unmoored from religion is misplaced. In his mountain-top speech, King explicitly identified himself with Moses, the religious leader who is allowed to peer the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. Instead, Merida portrays King as the political leader of a line that runs from George McGovern to Barack Obama.
To The Washington Times, King was a tragic leader in another sense: His black followers rioted and pillaged Washington and left a legacy of crime and poverty. As Timothy Warren writes,
Beginning in the early evening on April 4, 1968, upon learning of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., angry blacks throughout the city took their frustration and mourning to the streets. They began fire-bombing and looting businesses.
“We saw crowds beginning to form around 7:30 near 14th and U,” said Mr. Barry. “I tried to get them to calm down. That’s when the riot started to break out. Firetrucks couldn’t even get down there till 3 or 4 in the morning.”
“We could see the fires early on April 5,” said Jim McNeece, a Columbia Heights native and volunteer fireman for Prince George’s County at the time, who was brought in to help fight the fires in the District. “About 24 hours later, they called us because the D.C. fire crews were overwhelmed. Rioters pelted us with rocks and bottles as we put out the fires.”
In the end, the riots led to 10 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and 7,600 arrests and damage of $13 million, according to the Washington Star. The aftermath of the riots have had an unfortunate lasting effect on the city, stunting what many think could have been major economic and cultural development for the District.
It’s possible to interpret Warren’s story as the conservative rejoinder to Merida’s: While King fought for equal rights and practiced non-violence, his secular followers lay waste to the nation’s capital. This is an interesting and important angle, but also a flawed one. It focuses, literally, on broken windows rather than King’s prophetic role.
To The Los Angeles Times, King was not only a leader of the New Left, but also a man of God. As John L. Mitchell writes, King focused on political issues, while those who heard him give a sermon at a local church remember him as a holy man:
While he was in Los Angeles, King was contacted by the Rev. James Lawson, who urged him to fly to Memphis, where garbage workers were protesting low wages and poor working conditions after two workers were accidentally killed in a trash compactor. That Monday, March 18, King flew to Memphis and delivered a speech to more than 15,000 people.
“He was the Moses of our movement, the major spokesperson and symbol for black people and lots of people around the world,” said Lawson, who chaired the strike committee and later was pastor at Holman for 25 years before retiring and teaching nonviolence.
Mitchell’s story had the advantage of focusing on one incident (check out the images and audio recording of the speech; they’re excellent). This allowed him to tell readers about the historical context in which King gave his speech as well as the reactions of those who saw him deliver it. But Mitchell failed to note that King’s sermon had as much a religious element as a political one.
To its credit, The New York Times conveyed King’s Christian character and mindset well. Shaila Dewan wrote an interesting story about a vacation home that King never got to use. In the story, she told this illuminating anecdote:
Ms. Mitchell, a pioneer in early childhood education and one of the first black school board members in Beaufort County (the other was also a Penn staff member), said she was determined to ask Dr. King one question: “How can you tell me to love people who treat me as if I were not human?”
“I will never forget” his response, she said. “He said we are created in God’s image. So you love the image of God in that person.” She added: “I don’t know if I was able to use that, to apply that, in all different situations. But I always remembered it.”
By using this anecdote, Dewan gave readers a sense of King’s spiritual force. Here was a man interested not just in material bounty and equality for his fellow blacks, but rather in doing God’s will through social protest.
It’s tempting to write about historical figures by focusing on their legacy. But if reporters don’t convey to readers the figures’ perception of themselves, especially their religious perception, they will get only half the story.