When he was assassinated 50 years ago Wednesday on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King was burdened by a decline in his popularity, a decline that sometimes made him a target for other African Americans. A new generation of black activists had elbowed their way onto the national stage, and King himself was concentrating less on a fight against racism and more on issues of peace — specifically ending the Vietnam War — and justice for workers, especially for those, black and white, in low-paying occupations.
But after his death, when the nation was in shock and mourning, people began to remember him, once again, as a peaceful voice for racial equality, as a writer of considerable ability, and as a man of great personal integrity and courage.
Was he perfect? No. But who is — at least among those who wind up on national and world stages?
King’s children, who were still in their preteens when he was killed, remember him less as a legend and more as a doer.
“We’ve sort of dumbed down dad to some degree,” King’s son, Martin III said to a CBS interviewer. “He was a doer, not just a dreamer. He talked about what could become but he left us a blueprint for how that could be manifested.
“Dad was really radical and revolutionary and America doesn’t understand that, yet.”
“I have to ask this question of you. Did you have to lose your father for the nation and the world to appreciate him the way they do today?” interviewer Michelle Miller asked.
“You look at the greater good in terms of the sacrifice,” Dexter said. “If he had lived, I’m certain he would not have been as effective. Because he gave his life, he was martyred, and then you remember all of the positive things that he left behind.”
In that way, King may have been like John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, both of whom also were victims of assassins. Both men were eloquent orators whose words today seem more significant than they did when they were uttered in the heat of 1960s politics.
Many believe that among those three voices, it was King’s whose words have lived longest and had positive effects on the most people.