A few weeks ago my wife found a copy of Time Magazine’s May 17th, 1963, issue in a used bookstore in Austin, TX. On the front of this issue was a picture of James Baldwin and inside the section called “The Nation” had a subsection on “Races” where this description of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can be found on p. 23:
For more than a month, Negro demonstrations in Birmingham had sputtered, bursting occasionally into flames, then flickering out. Martin Luther King, the Negroes’ inspirational but sometimes inept leader, had picked this bastion of racial inequality for the crusade, “because Birmingham is the symbol of segregation.”
It was a very odd experience reading this 1963 article in 2013. Dr. King is a legend to us now. He is considered one of our nation’s prophetic voices. We have built a statue of him in Washington D.C. Our cultural memory has rightly enshrined him as a great man, but it may wrongly lead us to think that Dr. King has always been admired, and that what progress we’ve seen is something that was destine to happen, and that Dr. King completed his mission, and that his dream has been fulfilled.
As we remember Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” on its fiftieth anniversary (several months after this edition of Time Magazine had gone to print) it is helpful to remember that while we admire and respect the man now he faced great opposition then. We must not let our admiration for the man lead to a cultural memory that sanitizes the past. If we do that then we are bound to forget how much work and suffering it has taken to change what has been changed and how much more work it will take to “survive as a democratic experiment” in the words of Dr. Cornel West.
This video that my wife posted to Facebook today begins with the man who introduces Dr. King. He calls him “the model leader of our nation.” Indeed, he was/is, but we must remember that model leaders are sometime seen as “inept” by their contemporaries. May our modern “inept” prophets and leader bare the the fruits of justice that we have seen come from Dr. King’s life.