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Martin Luther King: how a rebel leader was lost to history

by Gary Younge, the Guardian.

On 15 January 1998, what would have been Martin Luther King’s 69th birthday, James Farmer was awarded the presidential medal of freedom in the White House’s East Room. “He has never sought the limelight,” said the then president, Bill Clinton. “And until today, I frankly think he’s never got the credit he deserves. His long overdue recognition has come to pass.”

Farmer, who ran the Congress of Racial Equality and led the Freedom Rides through the segregated south in 1961, was by that time blind, diabetic and a double amputee. He died the following year. When I spoke to him a few months after the ceremony, he said it was the best day of his life. “It was just like the old days. But this time, I felt like I was finally being vindicated; that the years of invisibility were over.”

And what, I asked, had rendered him invisible? Having a white wife, he said, had been an issue. But the main reason, he believed, was that the US had only enough room to remember one civil rights leader. “I was in the shadow of Martin Luther King,” he told me. “And that was quite a big shadow. It was King who made the ‘I have a dream’ speech. And King was assassinated – and that always enlarges a person’s image.”

Half a century after King’s assassination, there is value in reflecting on that shadow. The angle at which King’s body of work caught the light after he was killed tells us a great deal about how a black radical preacher came to be so big and what else may be hidden in the darkness.

This week, the US will indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation, selectively misrepresenting King’s life and work, as if rebelling against the American establishment was, in fact, what the establishment has always encouraged. They will cite the “dream” speech as if it were his only one – and the line about wanting his children to be “judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character” as if it were the only line in it.

In so doing they will wilfully and brazenly omit the fact that before his death in 1968, King was well on the way to becoming a pariah. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavourable opinion of him as a favourable one. Life magazine branded his anti-Vietnam war speech at the Riverside church, delivered exactly a year before his assassination, as “demagogic slander”, and “a script for Radio Hanoi”. Just a week before he was killed, he attended a demonstration in Memphis in support of striking garbage workers. The protest turned violent and police responded with batons and teargas, shooting a 16-year-old boy dead. The press and the political class rounded on King. The New York Times said the events were “a powerful embarrassment” to him. A column in the Dallas Morning News called King “the headline-hunting high priest of nonviolent violence” whose “road show” in Memphis was “like a torchbearer sprinting into a powder-house”. The Providence Sunday Journal called him “reckless and irresponsible”. He was back in Memphis supporting the strike when he was killed.

This was the last time King received national coverage when he was alive, and so he died a polarising and increasingly isolated figure. Just six days after his death, the Virginia congressman William Tuck blamed King for his own murder, telling the House of Representatives that King “fomented discord and strife between the races … He who sows the seed of sin shall reap and harvest a whirlwind of evil.”

But in the intervening decades, the mud slung at him has been cleaned off and his legacy shined to make him resemble a national treasure. In the two years before his death, he did not appear in the Top 10 of Gallup’s poll of most admired men of the year. In 1999, a Gallup poll of the most admired people of the century placed him second behind Mother Teresa. In 2011, King’s memorial was opened on the National Mall in Washington DC, with a 30ft statue sitting on four acres of prime historic real estate: 91% of Americans (including 89% of white people) approved. Even Donald Trump has thus far refrained from besmirching his legacy, hailing just a few months ago King’s “legacy of equality, justice and freedom”.

The process by which King went from ignominy to icon was not simply a matter of time and tide eroding ill feelings and painful memories. “History” does not objectively sift through radical leaders, pick out the best on their merits and then dedicate them faithfully to public memory. It commits itself to the task with great prejudice and fickle appreciation in a manner that tells us as much about historians and their times as the leaders themselves.

“The facts of history never come to us pure,” wrote EH Carr in his seminal essay The Historian and His Facts. “Since they do not and cannot exist in pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder … History means interpretation … It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all.”

Today’s understanding of King is the result of a protracted struggle and strategic reckoning involving an ongoing national negotiation about how to understand the country’s racial narrative. White America did not make the journey towards formal equality willingly. A month before the March on Washington in 1963, 54% of white Americans thought the Kennedy administration “was pushing racial integration too fast”. A few months later, 59% of northern white Americans and 78% of southern white Americans disapproved “of actions Negroes have taken to obtain civil rights”. That same year, 78% of white southern parents and 33% of white northern parents objected to sending their children to a school in which half the students were black. According to Gallup, it was not until 1995 that a majority of white US citizens approved of marriage between black and white people.

To discount King would be to dismiss the most prominent and popular proponent of civil rights. That in turn would demand some other explanation as to how the US shed the stigma of segregation and imagined itself as a modern, nonracial democracy. For while the means by which codified segregation came to an end – mass marches, civil disobedience, grassroots activism – was not consensual, the country did reach a consensus that it had to end. But there was no plausible account for how they travelled from Rosa Parks to Barack Obama that does not have King front and centre, even if the gap between black and white unemployment is roughly the same now as it was in 1963, southern schools are resegregating and the wealth gap is widening.

So, white America came to embrace King in the same way that white South Africans came to embrace Nelson Mandela: grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace or guile. Because, by the time they realised their hatred of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which loving him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice.

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