“…martyrdom also forced onto King’s dead body the face of a toothless tiger. His threat has been domesticated, his danger sweetened. His depressions and wounds have been turned into waves and smiles. There is little suffering recalled, only light and glory. King’s more challenging rhetoric has gone unemployed, left homeless in front of the Lincoln Memorial, blanketed in dream metaphors, feasting on leftovers of hope lite.
White Americans have long since forgotten just how much heat and hate the thought of King could whip up. They have absolved themselves of blame for producing, or failing to fight, the murderous passions that finally tracked King down in Memphis, Tenn. If one man held the gun, millions more propped him up and made it seem a good, even valiant idea. In exchange for collective guilt, whites have given King lesser victories, including a national holiday.
But blacks have not been innocent in the posthumous manipulations of King’s legacy. If many whites have undercut King by praising him to death, many blacks have hollowed his individuality through worship. The black reflex to protect King’s reputation from unprincipled attack is understandable. But the wish to worship him into perfection is misled; the desire to deify him is tragically misplaced. The scars of his humanity are what make his glorious achievements all the more remarkable.
Both extremes of white and black culture must be avoided. Many whites want him clawless; many blacks want him flawless. But we must keep him fully human, warts and all. In the end, King used the inevitability of a premature death to argue for social change and measure our commitment to truth. There is a lot to be learned in how King feared and faced death, and fought it too. What we make of his death may determine what we make of his legacy and our future.”