Paul M. Gaston: Martin Luther King at 81

Paul M. Gaston: Martin Luther King at 81

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Martin Luther King caricature
Ron Coddington caricature of civil rights leader Martin Luther King

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - The last time Martin Luther King Jr. and I met was in March 1963. A student civil-rights group had invited him to come to the University of Virginia to speak. He came and, before an audience of almost 900 people, gave one of his typically vibrant and uniquely inspiring addresses.

After the speech and the reception that followed, three of us strolled about the university grounds with our guest. We heard a loud report. I assumed it was a car backfiring (which it was). Wesley Harris, the student leader with us, could not make that assumption. He pinned King to the wall of the building we were passing. Many years later I asked Wes about that event. This is what he told me:

"It was without thought; it was instinct. Out of what I would describe as the Southern experience of a black person in that era. That we had seen so many of our leaders jailed and beaten and dragged through the streets, so a person of King's stature is priceless. So any possible threat of danger or whatever, you would need to protect him. I shall never forget that night."

Back in King's motel room near midnight, speaking of what had happened, King told us that, yes, one of these days - and probably soon - he would be shot and killed. We left the room humbled and anxious. None of us was ever in his presence again.

Five months after our meeting, King was in Washington to lead a march for jobs and freedom. His "I Have a Dream" speech, the riveting highlight of the occasion, began with a prediction that the day would "go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." And so it did. Ironically, however, the meaning of that speech would soon be distorted and manipulated.

It has, for example, been used to turn the civil rights movement into yet another example of the heroic and dramatic story of American democracy. His dream, he said, was "deeply rooted in the American dream." And so the civil rights movement, as it swept away segregation and disfranchisement, came to be described as proof of the self-corrective nature of America's unique democracy.

Martin King had a different message, one seldom recorded in birthday encomia. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he said it was necessary to move beyond the reformist tactics of the previous decade. The abolition of segregation and the acquisition of the right to vote were crucial to the freedom struggle, but they were not the ultimate goals of that movement, not ends in themselves. The meaning of freedom, he was to say often, reached far beyond those building blocks.

"We must recognize," he said, "that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power." Among other things, this would require facing the truth that "the dominant ideology" of America was not "freedom and equality" with racism "just an occasional departure from the norm." Racism was woven into the fabric of the country, intimately linked to capitalism and militarism. They were all "tied together," he said, "and you really can't get rid of one without getting rid of the others." What was required was "a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society."

That phrase - "a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society" - was not uttered in the dream speech of 1963. The time was not right for it. The Jim Crow shackles had to be smashed first. But the phrase carries the essential message and embodies the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and it is a message virtually air-brushed from history. His radical critique was drowned out from the beginning by angry White House rejections, white fear of the Black Power movement, escalating riots in Northern cities, and liberal integrationists' continuing loyalty to reformist principles of contained social change.

Little time passed before the King who would remake the "architecture of American society" was absent from school books, anniversary celebrations and political oratory. Julian Bond had it right when he wrote that "we do not honor the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself. We honor an antiseptic hero."

This antiseptic hero was the product of the whole culture, a culture innocently unable to imagine itself as fundamentally flawed. The right-wing assault on civil rights over the last generation, however, has been anything but innocent. It has appropriated King himself as its ally in rolling back the things for which he and his comrades stood, fixing on the dream speech as its primary text. King's statement that his "dream is deeply rooted in the American dream" is interpreted to discredit his radicalism; and his hope for the day when people would be judged "by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin." It is enlisted in the battle against all legislation and programs that might help to undo the effects of three and a half centuries of racial exclusion and exploitation.

Pundits and politicians on the right have fixed on these two fragments. George Will, conceding the existence of continuing poverty and disadvantage, explains them as the "terrible price" blacks have been made to pay "for the apostasy of today's civil rights leaders from the original premise of the civil rights movement." That premise, he declares, was that "race must not be a source of advantage or disadvantage."

Rush Limbaugh writes that "the vision that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had for a color-blind society has been perverted by modern liberalism." Newt Gingrich and Ward Connerly, blasting what they call "the failure of racial preferences," conjure up King's "heartfelt voice" wishing for an end to judging people by skin color.

Linda Chavez, prominent crusader against affirmative action, came to my university a few years ago to admonish us to cease judging applicants "based on the color of their skin" (which we did not do). King, she told us, would be opposed because our policy "smacks of the kind of racism that has long plagued this nation." She and a legion of others have given life to what George Orwell, in "1984," called Newspeak, the use of words in ambiguous and contradictory ways, telling lies by appearing to tell the truth.

We are right, on the anniversary of his birth, to celebrate King's courage, vision, and leadership that helped to transform our country for the better and helped to bring about, for the first time in our history, the election to the presidency of an African American. We should not do so, however, without heeding the largely forgotten words of the last three years of his life, a life ended by the assassin's bullet he had foreseen five years earlier.

Paul M. Gaston ( is professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia. He is author of "Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea." He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)


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