The Children Who
Would Be King

The Truth
About Memphis

(continued from Page 1)

Hoover may have been overestimating his foe, particularly after 1965. On the streets, the black-power movement thought King's philosophy of nonviolence was out of date. Within the system King fared little better. "The years before '68 were a time when people in Detroit would call us to march for civil rights--come to Chicago, come to L.A.," Jesse Jackson says. "But by the '70s, you had mayors who were doing the work every day." King felt this chill wind in Cleveland, when he campaigned for Carl Stokes, the city's first successful black mayoral candidate. The night Stokes won, King waited in a hotel room for the invitation to join the celebrations. The call never came.

Andrew Young
The Diplomat
After the demonstrations were over, King would send Young in to negotiate with city leaders. He has continued to work within the system, first as Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, later as mayor of Atlanta. (Andrew Innerarity/AP)
King took the change in climate hard. He told his congregation that "life is a continual story of shattered dreams." "Dr. King kept saying," John Lewis recalls, " 'Where do we go? How do we get there?' " According to David J. Garrow's Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography, "Bearing the Cross," he had found one answer while reading Ramparts magazine at lunch one day in 1967. Coming across photos of napalmed Vietnamese kids, King pushed away his plate of food: "Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war."

Look at this from the eyes of King's family. He is attacking the war and poverty. He is planning to "dislocate" daily life in the capital by bringing the nation's impoverished to camp out in Washington. "He was about to wreck this country," says Hosea Williams, "and they realized they couldn't stop him, and they killed him." But it did not seem that way to Williams--or to King--in real time. The Poor People's Campaign was having so much trouble turning out marchers that one organizer, James Gibson, wrote Williams a terse memo just two weeks before King was to die. "If this is to be a progress report," Gibson told Williams, "I can stop now; there has been none!" The march was to be a model for multiethnic protest--a forerunner to the Rainbow Coalition. The early returns--and King knew this--were not good. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was riven as the calculus changed. "I do not think I am at the point where a Mexican can sit in and call strategy on a Steering Committee," one SCLC aide said.

John Lewis
The True Believer
In 1965 Lewis crossed Selma's Pettus Bridge into "a sea of blue" – and Alabama troopers viciously beat him. Now known as "the conscience of the House," the Atlantan has served in Congress since 1986. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)
What would have become of King? His lieutenants do not believe he could have kept up the emotional and physical pace of the previous 13 years. They doubt he would have run for office despite speculation about RFK or a presidential bid with Benjamin Spock. Nor do they think he would have pulled a Gandhi and gone to live with the poor. ("Martin would give you anything, but he liked nice things," says one King hand. "He would not have put on sackcloth.")

A more likely fate: pastoring Ebenezer Baptist Church and using his Nobel platform to speak out--on war and peace, the inner cities, apartheid. King would have stood by liberalism: conservatives who use his words to fight affirmative action are almost certainly wrong. "At the end of his life," says Julian Bond, "King was saying that a nation that has done something to the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something for him." Had he lived, King might have been the only man with the standing to frame the issue of the ghettos in moral terms. On the other hand, he might have become a man out of time, frustrated by preaching about poverty to a prosperous country.

Jesse Jackson
The Brand Name
As counselor, candidate and crusader, Jackson has forded the mainstream. Would King have embarked on a similar campaign of passionate – but sometimes unfocused – global good works? (David Longstreath/AP)
The fight over King's legacy resonates beyond the small circles of family and historians. To the Malcolm X-saturated hip-hop generation, "by any means necessary" is a better rap beat than "I have a dream." "For kids outside the system, King has no relevancy," says Andre Green, a freshman at Simon's Rock College in Massachusetts. "But for the upwardly mobile, assimilated black youth, King is a hero because he opened the doors." That is true of older African-Americans as well, though there is a rethinking of integration, too. Some black mayors now oppose busing even if it means largely all-African-American schools.

On the last Saturday of his life, sitting in his study at Ebenezer, King fretted and contemplated a fast--a genuine sacrifice for a man who joked about how his collars were growing tighter. He mused about getting out of the full-time movement, maybe becoming president of Morehouse College. Then his spirits started to rise. "He preached himself out of the gloom," says Jackson. "We must turn a minus into a plus," King said, "a stumbling block into a steppingstone--we must go on anyhow." Three decades later, he would want all of us to do the same.

With Veronica Chambers

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