We Honor Martin Luther King Jr. Not for His Victories but for His Vision

By David Von Drehle | The Washington Post

At the time of his murder in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had become the proverbial prophet without honor in his own land. A survey by the Harris Poll found that the 39-year-old civil rights leader appeared to have lost his grip on the American imagination. Three out of 4 white respondents said they disapproved of King’s work after his turn against the war in Vietnam. More striking, roughly half of all black Americans also disapproved.

Only a few years earlier, King had been at a zenith: In 1964, he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year and the youngest person to date to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His success in seeing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed into law was followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

But 1968: This scant time later, King was widely criticized, even by his peers in the civil rights movement. African American leaders admonished him not to bring his protests to their cities. Of black leaders such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) of Harlem, King lamented: “Their point is . . . Martin Luther King is dead; he’s finished; his nonviolence is nothing. No one is listening to it.”

And from leaders of the rising Black Power movement came other criticisms. King’s philosophy of peaceful protest was weak and servile; some derided his churchly bearing by calling him, behind his back, “De Lawd.” (Even at the height of King’s influence, Malcolm X attacked him as a “modern Uncle Tom.”) As one left-wing writer declared of King’s final, underwhelming effort, the Poor People’s Campaign: “The failure of the campaign is the kiss of death” for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Friends of King remarked on his dejection during his last months, historian David Garrow says in “Bearing the Cross.” “He was just a different person,” said stalwart ally the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. “He was sad and depressed.”

King wondered whether his work was having any impact and noted the animosity aimed at champions of unfulfilled hopes. “The bitterness is often greater toward that person who built up the hope, who could say ‘I have a dream,’ but couldn’t produce the dream because of the failure and the sickness of the nation to respond to the dream,” King said.