Articles by the Staff of the
King Papers Project


Reconstructing the King Legacy:
Scholars and National Myths

The modern black freedom struggle transformed, my life, as it did the lives of many other young people. Because of it I became aware that young black students such as myself might transform America and assume new, previously unimaginable social roles. This awareness inspired my own political activism and altered my sense of racial identity and destiny. My understanding of the black struggle changed as I absorbed its emergent values and became aware of a rich African-American protest tradition I knew little about.

I am sometimes asked whether my previous participation in the struggle interferes with my ability to write about it. The question seems meaningless to me because the struggle revealed the kind of history I wanted to write. The experiences that brought me to the Capitol Historical Society's conference on Martin Luther King, Jr., can be traced back to another day more than two decades ago when I participated in my initial civil rights demonstration and saw King for the first time.

In August 1963, after completing my freshman year in college, I joined the multitudes at the March on Washington. It was a wonderful introduction to the struggle, culminating in a major historical event -King's "I Have a Dream" speech -but also punctuated with those unrecorded occurrences that forever separate history as lived from history as reconstructed by historians. My initial encounters, a few days earlier, with the brash young activists of SNCC heightened the March's impact on my undeveloped political consciousness. Participating in the March was the most politically unconventional thing I had ever done, but Stokely Carmichael of SNCC reshaped the meaning I attached to my involvement when he gratuitously informed me that the event was only a sanitized, middle-class version of the real black movement, which was occurring in places such as Albany, Georgia, Cambridge, Maryland, Danville, Virginia, and the Mississippi Delta.

Having just emerged from the racial isolation of growing up in New Mexico, I was not yet ready to venture into the battlefields of the deep South where Carmichael and other SNCC workers confronted racist authorities. For me the Washington "picnic" was an epiphany. During that one day I saw more black people than I had seen in my life. Exposed to the constantly widening range of views among activists, I saw black politics differently from before. I will never forget King's oration, but the militancy of the SNCC workers, exhibited at the March in John Lewis's caustic warm-up to King's speech, tempered my enthusiasm. That SNCC existed revealed to me that King was only one aspect of a multifaceted social movement.

Today, after years of political activism and ivory-tower reflection, I have now come full circle, returning to the nation's capital to take part in another occasion dominated by King's ideas. After spending the first years of my professional life studying SNCC, I have now--as editor of King's papers--turned my scholarly attention to the person who was the antithesis of SNCC's notion of leadership from the bottom up. Having once sympathized with the young SNCC militants who were my age when they challenged King (who was then fifteen years my senior), I find my sympathies have shifted somewhat as I study King, who, when he died, was younger than I am now.

During the last half of the 1960s, my own youthful impatience and a measure of arrogance led me to agree with some of SNCC's criticisms of King's moderation and firm commitment to integration and nonviolence as a way of life. In later years, acknowledgment that the black power movement failed to achieve the power, or even the racial unity we anticipated, has fostered a greater degree of humility in my assessment of King's alternative course. For me and for many of his youthful critics, King became wiser as we grew older. My changing views of the modern black struggle have continued to reflect the enduring tension between the ideas of King and those of its little-known shock troops.

Martin Luther King's status as the main symbol of the modern African-American freedom struggle has now been sanctioned by the creation of a federal holiday honoring his birth. Given this formal recognition of his historical importance, it becomes more difficult, yet also more necessary, for those of us who study and carry on his work to counteract the innocuous, carefully cultivated image that we honor in these annual observances. The historical King was far too interesting to be encased in simplistic, didactic legends designed to offend no one -a black counterpart to the static, heroic myths that have embalmed George Washington as the Father of His Country and Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. King was an exceptionally gifted, fascinating, and courageous individual who challenged authority and took such controversial stands as opposing American intervention in Vietnam and mobilizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968. He was also a leader best understood in the context of African-American history and as the product of the social movements that he has come to symbolize.

Serious students of Martin Luther King and of the black struggle have recognized their responsibility to understand, on the one hand, the nature and sources of his ideas and, on the other, the historical significance and social impact of his life. Contemporary biographers, theologians, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, social psychologists, and historians, a number of whom participated in this symposium, are in the process of constructing a more balanced, comprehensive assessment of King. The recent works of David J. Garrow and Taylor Branch have illustrated the benefits of studies that combine thorough biographical investigation with efforts to understand larger issues of social and historical context. These and other contemporary writers may benefit from and stimulate the popular interest in King spurred by the national holiday, but their probing research and critical analyses serve as a necessary corrective to the mythmaking. This volume provides a valuable opportunity to acknowledge and assess this outpouring of reflective and critical works about King and allows us to place them within the broader literature of African-American freedom struggles.

The initial King biographies were, for the most part, laudatory accounts written by his acquaintances. Although they benefited from their authors' firsthand knowledge of the man, these early accounts were not based on extensive research in primary documents. More recent biographies have taken on the task of critically assessing King's leadership and intellectual qualities. August Meler's 1965 essay on King and David Lewis's King: A Critical Biography, published in 1970, broke new ground in their acknowledgment of King's limitations as well as his achievements as a civil rights leader. Both scholars saw him as part of a broader social movement that included important factions forcefully challenging his leadership.

Neither Meier nor Lewis placed much emphasis on King's intellectual orientation-the latter explicitly derided his intellectual credentials -but their inattention has been more than rectified by numerous studies focusing on King's religious and political ideas. One line of research has focused on his contribution to Christian thought. Although he received his doctorate in systematic theology, he published no significant writing in this field, and most scholars recognize that his main intellectual contribution was in the area of Christian social practice. That King saw himself primarily as a religious leader is clearly evident in his graduate school and later religious writings, which have been closely examined in the pioneering work of Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, published in 1974, and in later efforts by Harold L. DeWolf (King's advisor at Boston) and John Ansbro. Recently, even scholars who seek primarily to explicate King's thought have recognized that it was not shaped simply by his academic training but derived as well from the emergent ideas of social movements. In addition, rather than solely emphasizing King's graduate school experiences and readings, scholars have begun to acknowledge his indebtedness to African-American sources and, in particular, to the tradition of black Christian activism. James P. Hanigan's work, for example, marked an important departure in this respect.

The essays in this volume by Richard H. King and Cornel West provide interesting and contrasting approaches to the study of King's thought. Professor King's explication of the meaning of freedom for Martin Luther King is, from one point of view, narrowly conceived intellectual history, locating the sources of King's ideas in his earlier readings. But while viewing Martin Luther King as an intellectual, Professor King also shows an awareness that these ideas should be evaluated in light of other strategies of struggle, such as SNCC's anticharismatic model. Although Cornel West is similarly concerned with King's intellectual life, his emphasis on the African-American church as a source for King's ideas suggests a promising area of research for other scholars moving beyond the internalist-ideas as sources for other ideas-approach of traditional intellectual biography and history. The relationship between King's Christian ministry and black religious traditions and practices has attracted the attention of other scholars as well, including Lewis V. Baldwin, James H. Cone, and David J. Garrow.

The danger is that studies linking King to African-American religious thought may underestimate the extent to which, as a religious liberal, he departed from the mainstream of that tradition. Although, like many black clergymen, King used his well-developed oratorical skills to strengthen his appeal to blacks, he set himself apart from other black preachers through his use of traditional black Christian homiletics to advocate unconventional political ideas and to extend the boundaries of African-American religious thought. King's autobiographical writings reveal that early in his life he became disillusioned with the unbridled emotionalism associated with his father's religious fundamentalism. As a thirteen-year-old, he questioned the bodily resurrection of Jesus in his Sunday School class and subsequently struggled to free himself from "the shackles of fundamentalism." King's search for an intellectually satisfying religious faith stemmed from his reaction against the emphasis on emotional expressiveness that he saw in Christian evangelicalism. His preaching manner derived from the traditions of the black church, while his subject matter, which often reflected his wide-ranging philosophical interests, distinguished him from other preachers who relied on rhetorical devices that manipulated the emotions of their listeners. A religious liberal and pioneering proponent of what is now called liberation theology, King carried on a long and determined-though unsuccessful-struggle against the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention. Instead of viewing himself as the embodiment of widely held African-American racial values, he willingly risked his popularity among blacks as well as whites through his steadfast advocacy of Christian social activism and militant nonviolent strategies to achieve radical social change.

Recent scholarship of King's leadership has displayed a growing understanding of the interplay between his exceptional oratorical abilities and the expectations and understandings of his various audiences. Aldon D. Morris notes in his essay in this volume that the type of leadership exercised by King and other black leaders developed within the institutional context of the black church, where charismatic ministers "occupied strategic positions which enabled them to become extremely familiar with the needs and aspirations of blacks." It is misleading, however, to explain King's unique role in the black struggle simply by referring to the supposedly charismatic qualities he displayed in the pulpit. The term "charisma," which once referred to the godlike, magical qualities of an "ideal" leader, has now, in our more secular age, lost many of its religious connotations and refers to a wide range of leadership styles that involve the capacity to inspire-usually through oratory-emotional bonds between leaders and followers. Arguing, therefore, that King was not a charismatic leader in the broadest sense of the term is akin to arguing that he was not a Christian, but emphasis on his charisma obscures other important aspects of his role in the black movement. To be sure, King's oratory was exceptional, and many people saw him as a divinely inspired leader, but he did not receive and did not want the kind of unquestioning support associated with charismatic leaders. He was a profound and provocative public speaker, not simply an emotionally powerful one. Emphasis on his charisma conveys the misleading notion of a movement held together by spellbinding speeches and blind faith rather than by a combination of rational and emotional bonds.

Not only did King's supposed charisma fall to place him above criticism, but he was never able to gain mass support for his notion of nonviolent struggle as a way of life, rather than as simply a tactic. Most movement activists saw him not as their unquestioned commander but as the most prominent among many influential movement strategists, ideologues, theologians, and institutional leaders. King used charisma as a tool for mobilizing black communities, but always in the context of other forms of intellectual and political leadership that reflected his academic training and that were appropriate for a movement containing many strong leaders. He undoubtedly recognized that charisma could not provide the only basis for leadership of a modern political movement, one which enlisted the efforts of many other self-reliant leaders. Moreover, he rejected aspects of the charismatic model that conflicted with his sense of his own limitations.

King was a leader full of self-doubts, keenly aware of his own limitations and weaknesses. He was at times reluctant to take on the responsibilities suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon him. Scholars have only begun to understand the significance of his evolving religious beliefs as a foundation for his leadership abilities and political attitudes. David Garrow's paper, for example, stresses the importance of the "kitchen experience" in 1956 during the Montgomery bus boycott, when King was overcome with fear as a result of threats to his own life and to the lives of his wife and child. Rather than feeling confident and secure in his leadership role, he was able to continue only after acquiring an enduring understanding of his dependence on a personal God who promised never to leave him alone.

Although King biographies and King-centered studies of the black struggle continue to appear, serious writers have moved beyond haglography and have challenged the notion of King as the modern black struggle's initiator and indispensable leader. This reflects a general historiographical trend away from the notion of Great Men either as dec' sive elements in historical processes or as sole causes, through their unique leadership qualities, of major historical events. Because the King myth emphasizes personality rather than social context, it exaggerates his considerable contribution to black advancement without acknowledging his indebtedness to other organizers and activists who set the stage for his appearance in a leading role. Robert Moses's apt metaphor of the movement as "an ocean of consciousness," which he offers in his commentary, provides a useful framework for understanding the surging wave that was King's leadership.

The historical significance of King's political ideas, furthermore, especially his contributions to the Gandhian and African-American traditions of nonviolent resistance, cannot be fully understood without a determination of the extent to which activists adopted his tactics and strategies. The importance of James H. Cone's essay on Martin Luther King and Third World liberation movements is enhanced by his decision not only to describe what King said about those movements, but also to explore the impact of King's ideas on Third World activists and leaders. Cone only begins to study an issue that requires much further research, both abroad and at home: To what extent did King's ideas actually guide the mass struggles he sought to influence? Implicitly assuming that King's role in the southern black movement was indispensable or at least crucial to its success, King-centered scholarship has unfortunately contributed to the popular but misleading notion that most movement activists adopted his philosophy of nonviolence. Such scholarship has also reinforced the tendency of many Americans to see him not only as the exemplar of the modern black leader, at least in the pre-Jesse Jackson era, but as a charismatic figure who single-handedly directed the course of the civil rights movement.

Even the most perceptive King-centered studies will have limited value unless they acknowledge that the black struggle was a locally-based mass movement rather than simply a reform movement led by national civil rights leaders. King was certainly not the only significant leader of the civil rights movement, for sustained protest campaigns developed in many southern communities with which he had little or no direct involvement. In Montgomery, for example, local black leaders such as E. D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, and Jo Ann Robinson started the bus boycott before King became the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Thus, although he inspired blacks in Montgomery, and black residents recognized that they were fortunate to have such a spokesperson, talented local leaders other than King played decisive roles in initiating and sustaining the boycott. Similarly, the black students who initiated the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins admired King, but they did not wait for him to act before launching their own movement. The sit-in leaders who founded SNCC became increasingly critical of his leadership style, seeing it as the cause of feelings of dependency that often characterize the followers of charismatic leaders. The essence of SNCC's approach to community organizing was to instill in members of local communities the confidence that they could lead their own struggles. A SNCC organizer had failed if local residents became dependent on his or her presence; as the organizers put it, their job was to work themselves out of a job. Though King influenced the struggles that took place in the Black Belt regions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, self-reliant local leaders guided those movements. They occasionally called on King's oratorical skills to galvanize black protesters at mass meetings, but they refused to depend on his presence.

If King had never lived, the black struggle would have followed a course of development similar to the one it did. The Montgomery bus boycott would have occurred, because King did not initiate it. Black students probably would have rebelled-even without him as a role model-for they had sources of tactical and ideological inspiration besides King. Mass activism in southern cities and voting rights efforts in the deep South were outgrowths of large-scale social and political forces rather than simply consequences of the actions of a single leader. Though perhaps not as quickly and certainly not as peacefully or with as universal a significance, the black movement probably would have achieved its major legislative victories without King's leadership, for the southern Jim Crow system was a regional anachronism and the forces that undermined it were inexorable.

To what extent, then, did King's presence affect the movement? Answering that question requires us to look beyond the usual portrayal of the black struggle. Rather than seeing an amorphous mass of discontented blacks acting out strategies determined by a small group of leaders, we should recognize King as a major example of the emergent local black leadership that developed as African-American communities mobilized for sustained struggles. Directing attention to the other leaders who initiated and emerged from those struggles should not detract from our appreciation of King's historical significance; such movement-oriented research reveals him to be a leader who stood out in a forest of tall trees.

King's major public speeches-particularly the "I Have a Dream" speech-have received much attention, but his exemplary qualities were also displayed in countless strategy sessions and in meetings with government officials. His success as a leader was based on respect for his intellectual and moral cogency and his skill as a conciliator among movement activists who refused to be simply his "followers" or "lieutenants."

The success of the black civil rights movement required the mobilization of black communities as well as the transformation of attitudes in the surrounding society, and King's wide range of skills and attributes prepared him to meet both these internal and external demands. He understood the black world from a privileged position, having grown up in a stable, prominent family within a major black urban community; yet he also learned how to speak persuasively to the surrounding white world. Alone among the major civil rights leaders of his time, King could not only articulate black concerns to white audiences, he could mobilize blacks through his day-to-day involvement in black community institutions and through his access to the regional institutional network of the black church. His advocacy of nonviolent activism gave the black movement invaluable positive press coverage, but his success as a protest leader derived mainly from his ability to mobilize black community resources.

Analyses of the southern movement that emphasize its nonrational aspects and expressive functions explain the black struggle as an emotional outburst by discontented blacks, rather than as a sustained, politically effective mobilization of black community institutions, financial resources, and grass-roots leaders. The values of southern blacks were profoundly and permanently transformed not only by King, but also by their own involvement in sustained protest activity and in community-organizing efforts, mass meetings, workshops, citizenship classes, freedom schools, and informal discussions. Rather than merely accepting guidance from above, many southern blacks became leaders in their communities as a result of their movement experiences.

Although the literature on the black struggle has traditionally paid little attention to the intellectual content of black politics, movement activists of the 1960s made a profound, though often ignored, contribution to political thinking. King's own most significant leadership attributes did not derive from his academic training, his philosophical readings, or even his acquaintance with Gandhian ideas. Instead, his influence on the black struggle resulted mainly from his immersion in, and contribution to, the intellectual ferment that has always been an essential part of African-American freedom struggles. Scholars are only beginning to recognize the extent to which his attitudes and those of many other activists, white and black, changed as a result of their involvement in a movement in which tactical and strategic ideas disseminated from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

Although such a movement-centered perspective on King's role in the black struggles of his time reduces him to human scale, it also increases the possibility that others may recognize his qualities in themselves. Idolizing King lessens one's ability to exhibit some of his best attributes or, worse, encourages one to become a debunker, emphasizing his flaws in order to avoid embracing his virtues. Undoubtedly fearing that some who admired him would place too much faith in his ability to offer guidance and overcome resistance, King often publicly acknowledged his own limitations and mortality. Near the end of his life, he expressed his certainty that black people would reach the Promised Land whether or not he was with them. His faith grew from an awareness of the qualities that he knew he shared with all people. When he suggested his own epitaph, he asked not to be remembered for his exceptional achievements--his Nobel Prize and other awards, or his academic accomplishments; instead he wanted to be remembered for giving his life to serve others, for trying to be right on the "war question," for trying to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, for trying to love and serve humanity." Those aspects of King's life did not require charisma or other superhuman abilities.

If King were alive today, he would doubtless encourage those who celebrate his life to recognize their responsibility to struggle as he did for a more 'ust and peaceful world. He would prefer that we remember the black movement not as the scene of his own achievements, but as a setting that brought out extraordinary qualities in many people. If he were to return, his oratory would be unsettling and intellectually challenging rather than confining itself simply to comforting diction and soothing cadences. He would probably be the unpopular social critic he was on the eve of the Poor People's campaign rather than the object of national homage that he became after his death. His basic message would be the same as it was when he was alive, for he did not bend with the changing political winds. He would talk of ending poverty and war and of building a 'ust social order that would avoid the pitfalls of competitive capitalism and repressive communism. He would give scant comfort to those who condition their activism upon the appearance of another King, for he recognized the extent to which he was a product of the movement that called him to leadership.

The notion that appearances by Great Men (or Great Women) are necessary preconditions for the emergence of major movements for social change reflects a poor understanding of history and contributes to a pessimistic view of the possibilities for future social change. Waiting for the Messiah is a human weakness that is unlikely to be rewarded more than once in a millennium. Studies of the modern black freedom struggle offer support for a more optimistic belief that participants in social movements can develop their untapped leadership abilities and collectively improve their lives.

Clayborne Carson

"Reconstructing the King Legacy: Scholars and National Myths." In We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

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