At the time of his murder in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had become the proverbial prophet without honor in his own land. A survey by the Harris Poll found that the 39-year-old civil rights leader appeared to have lost his grip on the American imagination. Three out of 4 white respondents said they disapproved of King’s work after his turn against the war in Vietnam. More striking, roughly half of all black Americans also disapproved.
Only a few years earlier, King had been at a zenith: In 1964, he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year and the youngest person to date to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His success in seeing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed into law was followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
But 1968: This scant time later, King was widely criticized, even by his peers in the civil rights movement. African American leaders admonished him not to bring his protests to their cities. Of black leaders such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) of Harlem, King lamented: “Their point is . . . Martin Luther King is dead; he’s finished; his nonviolence is nothing. No one is listening to it.”
And from leaders of the rising Black Power movement came other criticisms. King’s philosophy of peaceful protest was weak and servile; some derided his churchly bearing by calling him, behind his back, “De Lawd.” (Even at the height of King’s influence, Malcolm X attacked him as a “modern Uncle Tom.”) As one left-wing writer declared of King’s final, underwhelming effort, the Poor People’s Campaign: “The failure of the campaign is the kiss of death” for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Friends of King remarked on his dejection during his last months, historian David Garrow says in “Bearing the Cross.” “He was just a different person,” said stalwart ally the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. “He was sad and depressed.”
King wondered whether his work was having any impact and noted the animosity aimed at champions of unfulfilled hopes. “The bitterness is often greater toward that person who built up the hope, who could say ‘I have a dream,’ but couldn’t produce the dream because of the failure and the sickness of the nation to respond to the dream,” King said.
And he spoke often of his own death, which seemed as close and tangible as his lectern or pulpit or motel worktable. At home one Sunday in Atlanta, he mused to the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church about the words he hoped would grace his gravestone. A few weeks later, on the night before he was slain in Memphis, King warned his audience that, like Moses, he might not make it to the Promised Land.
Yet over and over on his hard and often lonely path to martyrdom, King admonished himself to remain hopeful. Surrendering to the despair that haunted him would be a repudiation of all that he believed and lived by. This was his profound Christian faith talking. One can be hopeful without being Christian, but to King, no one could truly be Christian without being hopeful. To love one’s enemies, no matter how hateful they are in return, is an act of radical optimism and steeled faith. “Hope,” he said, “is the final refusal to give up.”
On Monday, the nation commemorates 90 years since King’s birth. This year’s holiday finds many of us in our own dark places. Love for enemies is in short supply. Solidarity with the poor, the stranger, the prisoner, is widely mocked. Tribes, sects and identity groups command loyalty, while the principle of universal and essential humanity goes begging.
At such a time, it is good to remember that the life we revere and celebrate this week was shadowed by doubt, stalked by division, haunted by fear and plagued by a sense of failure. We honor Martin Luther King Jr. not for his victories, which remain incomplete at best. We honor him for his vision, and for his sacrificial commitment to that vision. He saw what we might be capable of — as individuals and as a nation — and believed in that possibility so deeply that he dropped everything else, even life itself, to hold it high where we can always see it.
Like King, we also choose each day whether to live in hope or fear, with love or hate, as builders or destroyers. From King, we learn the lesson that these choices are never as easy as they sound and never as popular as we imagine. In King, we have a model for choosing, and a fierce example of the final refusal to give up.
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