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The Other Side of the Mountaintop

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Matthew Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize winner and 25-year veteran of The Washington Post, looks back at covering the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King six weeks before his death, and the riots that engulfed parts of Washington, D.C., after King's assassination.Video by Lucian Perkins/washingtonpost.com

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

Near the end of his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. felt cornered and under siege. His opposition to the Vietnam War was widely criticized, even by friends. He was being pressured both to repudiate the black power movement and to embrace it. Some of his lieutenants were urging him to jettison his urgent new campaign to uplift the poor, believing that King had taken on too much and was compromising support for the civil rights struggle.

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Today students learn of his powerful "dream" that children be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Politicians and private citizens of all ideologies summon King's soaring oratory as the inspiration that challenged the nation to better itself. But this beleaguered young man -- he was only 39 when he died -- was not just the icon celebrated at Martin Luther King Day programs and taught in U.S. schools.

His life, like those of other historical figures -- Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt -- has been simplified, scholars say, his anger blurred, his militancy rarely discussed, his disappointments and harsh critiques of government's failures glossed over.

Forty years after King was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, it is this sharper-edged figure who has come into focus again. To mark today's anniversary, several scholarly reports have been released charting the nation's uneven social and economic progress during the past 40 years. Some scholars and former King associates are using the occasion to zero in on the two issues -- war and poverty -- that were consuming him at the time of his death.

Both have particular resonance now: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that has grown increasingly unpopular, and the poor -- despite the concerns highlighted by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis -- are as voiceless as they were in King's day, advocates contend.

"His challenge was much bigger than being nice," said Taylor Branch, author of a three-volume history, "America in the King Years." "It was even bigger than race. It was whether we take our national purpose seriously, which is the full promise of equal citizenship."

King's legacy, Branch said, should have been to give the nation confidence that it can address big problems such as the crumbling economy, the endangered environment and ending the war. "Instead, our sense of what we can do has kind of atrophied," he said. "We're still imprisoned by the myths of the 1960s" -- that it was a period when the country went off the rails and government overreached.

If King could look across the landscape today, he would see a mixture of progress and regression on the issues he cared about: The overall poverty rate hasn't changed much since 1968, though there has been a big drop among the elderly. Wider income disparities exist between the richest and poorest Americans, but opportunities for educational advancement have broadened and workplaces have become more diverse.

The number of African Americans in prison or local jails, currently more than 900,000, is nearly six times the number incarcerated in 1970. But the growth in the number of black elected officials is even greater, from 1,469 in 1970 to an estimated 10,000 now. One of them, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is given a serious chance of becoming the next president.

King was not a fan of fawning testimonies to his greatness, but in the years since his death about 770 streets and 125 schools have been named after him, according to research by Derek H. Alderman, an East Carolina University geographer. The street-namings are fitting tributes to King's legacy, Alderman said, because so much of the civil rights movement unfurled in the streets. Roads link our homes to our schools to our jobs, "the three areas where we struggle the most to negotiate our differences," Alderman said.

But there is an uneasy irony to these tributes: Most of the King avenues run through black communities, often in low-income neighborhoods. In some cities, attempts to rename major thoroughfares -- streets that cross racial and economic boundaries -- after King were met with political resistance.

"Here was this man whose life was committed to bridging races," Alderman said, "and in death his commemoration is largely segregated."


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