My 9-year old daughter came home this week raving about her class and their discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr.
She declared that she loved learning about his life and that she was thankful to him because without King, no change would have been possible in America on the question of race. I am a historian of African-American history specializing in social movements, so I quickly moved to correct her. Of course change would have happened, even if King had never lived! I described to her other leaders. I reminded her that movements don’t function because of just one great man. I told her that King was not a perfect person, and that even he had come short of meeting all his goals. In the end, I even resorted to reminding her that I wrote a book on a movement that took place 35 years before King was even born.
Clearly my daughter didn’t care. She insisted that her school would not be integrated, and that her whole world would not have been the same without King’s leadership.
After thinking about it for a while, I realized that most people feel the same way about King that my daughter does. King has become the single greatest icon of the civil rights movement—his words are studied, his great marches are remembered, his name marks our boulevards; his shadow, now literally cast in stone, looms large on our national consciousness. He has become the benchmark for great leadership, so much so that nearly every leader that has emerged after him is compared to him, and found wanting.
As an icon, King is often thought of as flawless, so that we rarely reflect on his failures as a movement leader. Our collective memory of King only touches on the high points. The images we remember are the moments of his greatest triumphs as a leader: the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the Birmingham Campaign that same year, and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Each of these efforts resulted in positive change, clear victories in the courts or in the halls of Congress.
We tend not to remember the moments when King faltered or searched for the right direction. We don’t recall the indecision about what to do next after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the challenge of the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, or his unfulfilled Poor People’s Campaign — cut short by his tragic assassination in 1968. These moments are forgotten when King is not remembered in his broader context.