Contrasting Views of Dr. King’s Legacy
As the nation celebrates the national holiday Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, honoring the slain civil rights leader, many newspaper editorialists will comment on King’s legacy. Almost all will praise the man and his work, although a few will slip in some criticism. King was a controversial figure when alive, and remains so nearly 45 years after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Not only did he force America to confront its racial bigotry and discrimination, he further upset the status quo by calling for economic justice for the poor, and helped lead opposition to the Vietnam War.
Establishing a national holiday to honor King was itself controversial. The bill fell five votes short of passage the first time it came up in the House of Representatives, in 1979. Although President Reagan signed the finally-passed bill on Nov. 2, 1983, he had earlier expressed opposition to it. Various states refused to recognize the holiday, with Arizona and New Hampshire being the last two holdouts, and it was not until 2000 that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was officially observed in all 50 states.
Below are two editorials discussing King’s legacy, revealing markedly different views. The first, written just six days after King’s murder, examined the riots that broke out after the assassination and declared: “Their activities, instead of enhancing the memory of Dr. King, were demonstrating that his policies, by and large, had served in recent years mainly to promote violence in his wake.” The second editorial, published in 2003, stated: “It’s remarkable how his legacy has pulled this nation together.”
This editorial was published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on April 10, 1968:
The Legacy of Dr. King
By Robert E. Baskin
Chief, Washington Bureau of the News
Washington—The senseless slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis has left this capital and much of the nation benumbed and devastatingly saddened.
But in the wake of the assassination there are strange and troubling sights on the American scene that do not speak well for politicians, the Negro militants or the nation’s society as a whole.
The fabric of our civilization has been harshly torn in Washington, Detroit, Chicago and a host of other cities as lawlessness has reigned in an atmosphere of flames, looting and violence.
All of this was triggered by the death of Dr. King.
But anyone who saw the mobs at work in Washington last weekend quickly realized that they were not memorializing him.
Indeed—if emotions could be set aside in evaluating the situation—one could only conclude that they were hard at work repudiating the nonviolence he preached.
Their activities, instead of enhancing the memory of Dr. King, were demonstrating that his policies, by and large, had served in recent years mainly to promote violence in his wake.
In Memphis only a week before his death a peaceful march led by Dr. King had set off vicious rioting, which seemed to surprise and frighten him. But he went right ahead with plans for a spring and summer of demonstrations that surely could have led only to more divisiveness and strife over the country.
Before the assassination, Washington was greatly concerned over the poor people’s demonstration he planned to lead in the nation’s capital beginning on April 22. The Washington newspapers, including the liberal Post, urged him to call off the project, amid warnings that he could set off a community catastrophe.
After his death in Memphis, however, the Post said editorially:
“Those who are responsible for this vile deed have killed an unoffending, God-fearing and innocent man of great goodwill; they have also killed something in the spirit and heart of the American people where lived the bright hope for reconciliation between the races.”
Perhaps more disturbing than such editorial comment is the activity of some politicians. Through much of the political spectrum there has been an unwonted amount of professed anguish and grief from men who not many days ago regarded Dr. King’s activities with less than enthusiasm.
There has been a tendency in some of these public statements to put him on a plane with our Lord himself—not to mention Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi. It has even been suggested that a national memorial day be promulgated in his honor and that the rules be waived so that he can be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
No one can rightly question that Dr. King acted out of the purest motives and that he meant what he said about nonviolence.
But the aftermath of his death is not a pretty sight—burning cities, self-serving political utterances and a state of emotionalism that can only contribute to more violence as we move into the summer months.
Despite all this, it is likely that the House of Representatives, which has not been enthusiastic about a civil rights bill, will pass the measure Wednesday—the day after Dr. King’s funeral.
It is clearly debatable whether this is an appropriate time to legislate on such a touchy matter. Previous far-reaching civil rights legislation was enacted under similar stress, and it has not meant an end to demonstrations and violence. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the Negro militants feel that the only way to get action is through civil disturbances. Congress is likely to strengthen that feeling by its vote in the House Wednesday.
This more recent editorial was published by the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia) on Jan. 20, 2003:
A Uniting Legacy
As the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day today—he’d be 74 if he hadn’t been tragically assassinated in 1968—it’s remarkable how his legacy has pulled this nation together.
Despite the controversies and emotions he generated in the turbulent ’60s, just about everyone claims him today. Even people who criticized him on specific issues, such as his support of school busing and opposition to the Vietnam War, have come to see how right he was on racial justice.
Every reasonable person today agrees that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
History, of course, looks beyond the ideological and political battles of the ’60s. King’s legacy is larger than that. By leading America’s greatest civil rights movement in the 20th century, he stands as a symbol of non-violent resistance to overweening government power. That legacy resonates loudly as we enter another contentious era—balancing privacy rights against the need for security against terrorism.
Another measure of the Rev. King’s lasting impact is that, although he’s been dead for nearly 35 years, no other civil rights leader has come along who comes close to filling his shoes—not that several haven’t tried.
Today’s theme for the ninth annual memorial observance honoring the Rev. King at Augusta’s Mt. Calvary Baptist Church nicely sums up the powerful impact the great man had on our country: “Making a World of Difference through Godly Leadership for Racial Harmony, Non-Violence and Human Emancipation.”
For more information on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visit the King Center website.
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