In his famous speech offered before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a powerful faith. With it, he claimed "we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
King's legend has been similarly crafted, hewn from the mountain of truth into an image serving those who carved it. The real Martin Luther King, like most public figures, remains greatly obscured from history. Was he the devout Christian minster who preached forgiveness and reconciliation? Or was he a radical community organizer who would march today alongside Black Lives Matter?
Today's racial agitators resent the "appropriation" of King by mainstream America. Writing for Dissent, author Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou raises the objection:
... pundits of all persuasions have invoked his name to browbeat younger activists and their tactics. Such is the case with Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), commonly known as Black Lives Matter (BLM)...
... The real King stands in stark contrast to our current pop image of him. An avowed democratic socialist who called for the redistribution of wealth in several speeches and sermons, Martin Luther King was loathed in many quarters. He was stalked by the FBI, undermined by the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and labeled “the most dangerous man” alive and a “notorious liar” by J. Edgar Hoover. King’s own board of directors at Southern Christian Leadership Conference censored him for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Sekou cites historical polling data which indicate King peaked in popularity in 1964-65, the zenith of the civil rights movement during which key legislation was passed. After that, King's popularity plummeted as his rhetoric and tactics turned more radical. Yet, as Sekou notes:
Our contemporary version of King is strikingly different. A 1999 Gallup study determined that Martin Luther King was one of the most admired figures of the twentieth century, second only to Mother Theresa, and in 2011 Gallup rated his favorability in the United States at 94 percent. With a national monument and federal holiday to boot, King’s status as a national hero is by now indisputable.
A worthy question which Sekou fails to address is: Why? Why does America revere Martin Luther King today? Did we change? Did 94 percent of Americans grow to appreciate democratic socialism? Or is the object of our reverence more specific than the man?
Whoever King really was, whatever he sincerely believed, the image of King worth celebrating was presented in that 1963 speech. We aspire toward a world where children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." That vision of racial reconciliation, of judgment according to merit, speaks to each and every human being. It's something we can and should get behind. It evokes the American spirit, a point emphasized when King cited the Declaration of Independence. Ninety-four percent of Americans came to favor King because they associate him with that dream, not because they support whatever radicalism he later embraced.