views updated Jun 08 2018


The militant political legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is in eclipse, and his historical reputation is frequently distorted by the popular misconception that he was primarily a philosophical "dreamer," rather than a realistic and often courageous dissident. King's true legacy is not the 1963 March on Washington and his grandly optimistic "I Have a Dream" speech; it is instead his 1968 plan for a massively disruptive but resolutely nonviolent "Poor People's Campaign" aimed at the nation's capital, a protest campaign that came to pass only in a muted and disjointed form after his death.

Some of the distortion of King's popular image is a direct result of how disproportionately he is often presented as a gifted and sanguine speechmaker whose life ought to be viewed through the prism of his "dream." King had used the "I Have a Dream" phrase several times before his justly famous oration, but on numerous occasions in later years King invoked the famous phrase only to emphasize how the "dream" he had had in Washington in 1963 had "turned into a nightmare."

Both the dilution of King's legacy and the misrepresentation of his image are also in part due to the stature accorded his birthday, now a national holiday. Making King an object of official celebration has inescapably led to at least some smoothing of edges and tempering of substance that otherwise would irritate and challenge those Americans who are just as eager to endorse "I Have a Dream" as they are to reject any "Poor People's Campaign."

But another facet of King's erroneous present-day image as a milquetoast moderate, particularly among young people, is directly tied to the greatly increased prominence of Malcolm X. Even before the media boom-let that accompanied Spike Lee's 1992 movie Malcolm X, popular appreciation of Malcolm X had expanded well beyond anything that had existed in the first two decades following his 1965 death. Even if young people's substantive understanding of Malcolm X's message is oftentimes faulty or nonexistent, among youthful Americans of all races the rise of Malcolm X has vastly magnified the mistaken stereotype that "Malcolm and Martin" were polar opposites.

Far too many people assume that if Malcolm personified unyielding tenacity and determination, King, as his supposed opposite, was no doubt some sort of vainglorious compromiser who spent more time socializing with the Kennedys than fighting for social change. Hardly anything could be further from the truth, for while Malcolm's courageous self-transformation is deserving of far more serious attention and study than it has yet received, King was as selflessly dedicated and utterly principled a public figure as any other in the United States during the twentieth century.

Perhaps King's most remarkable characteristic was how he became a nationally and then internationally famous figure without ever having any egotistical desire to promote himself onto the public stage (unlike virtually every luminary in contemporary America). Drafted by his colleagues in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 to serve as the principal spokesperson for the black community's boycott of municipal buses, King was far from eager to be any sort of "leader," and only a deeply spiritual sense of obligation convinced him that he could not refuse this call.

King's resolutely selfless orientation gave his leadership both a public integrity and a private humility that are rare, if not wholly unique, in recent U.S. history. Perhaps the greatest irony generated by the hundreds upon hundreds of King's ostensibly private telephone conversations that were preserved for history by the FBI's indecently intrusive electronic surveillanceand released thanks to the Freedom of Information Actis that one comes away from a review of King's most unguarded moments with a distinctly heightened, rather than diminished, regard for the man. Time and again, those transcripts show King as exceptionally demanding of himself and as an overly harsh judge of his own actions. How many other public figures, lacking only an FBI director like J. Edgar Hoover to preserve their off-the-cuff comments for posterity, could hope to pass such an ultimate test of civic character?

King's remarkable political courage and integrity were just as dramatically visible on the public stage, however, as in his self-critical private conversations. Unlike almost every other public figure in the country, both then and now, King had no interest in assessing which position on which issue would be the most popular or the most remunerative for organizational fund-raising before he decided how and when to speak his mind.

Nowhere was this more starkly apparent than in King's early decision to speak out against U.S. involvement in Vietnam at a time when President Lyndon B. Johnson's war still had the support of most progressive Democrats. Many liberal newspapersand even several "mainstream" civil rights organizationsharshly attacked King for devoting his attention to an issue that did not fall within the "black" bailiwick, and while in private King was deeply hurt by such criticism, he had decided to confront the Vietnam issue knowing full well that just such a reaction would ensue.

"Leadership" to King did not mean tailoring one's comments to fit the most recent public opinion poll or shifting one's positions to win greater acclaim or support. King realized, too, that real leadership did not simply comprise issuing press releases and staging news conferences, and he was acutely aware that most real "leaders" of the southern civil rights struggleunheralded people who performed the crucial task of encouraging others to stand up and take an active part in advancing their own lives and communitiesgot none of the public attention and awards that flowed to King and a very few others.

King understood that in the modern culture of publicity, the recognition of an individual symbolic figure was inevitable and essential to the movement's popular success, but he always sought to emphasize, as in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, that he accepted such applause and honors only as a "trustee" on behalf of the thousands of unsung people whose contributions and aspirations he sought to represent. King realized, better than many people at the time, and far better than some subsequent disciples, that the real essence of the movement was indeed the local activists in scores of generally unpublicized locales. In private, King could be extremely self-conscious about how he personally deserved only a very modest portion of all the praise and trophies that came his way.

King would very much welcome the newfound appreciation of Malcolm X, but he would likewise be intensely discomfited by a national holiday that in some hands seems to encourage celebration of King's own persona rather than the movement he came to symbolize. King also would rue how the culture of celebrity has become more and more a culture of violence, and how economic inequality in America is even more pronounced in the 1990s than it was at the time of his death in 1968.

King would also rue his legacy being too often shorn of his post-1965 nonviolent radicalism, as well as the celebration of his image by people who proffered no support to him and the movement when he was alive. But King would not worry about any decline in his own reputation or fame, for he would greatly welcome increased credit and appreciation for those whom the media and history habitually overlook. If Martin Luther King Jr.'s individual image continues gradually to recede, King himself would be happy rather than sad, for personal fame and credit were not something that he sought or welcomed either in 1955 or in 1968.

See also Black Power Movement; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; King, Coretta Scott; Malcolm X; Mays, Benjamin E.; Meredith, James H.; Montgomery Improvement Association; Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Parks, Rosa; Poor People's Campaign; Shuttlesworth, Fred L.; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Voting Rights Act of 1965


Albert, Peter J., and Ronald Hoffman. We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Cone, James H. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991.

Harding, Vincent. Martin Luther King, the Inconvenient Hero. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.

Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: The Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1997.

Miller, Keith D. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources. New York: Free Press, 1992.

david j. garrow (1996)
Updated bibliography


views updated May 23 2018

leg·a·cy / ˈlegəsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) an amount of money or property left to someone in a will. ∎  a thing handed down by a predecessor: the legacy of centuries of neglect.• adj. Comput. denoting software or hardware that has been superseded but is difficult to replace because of its wide use.


views updated May 23 2018


A disposition ofpersonal propertyby will.

In a narrow technical sense, a legacy is distinguishable from a devise, a gift by will of real property. This distinction, however, will not be permitted to defeat the intent of a testator—one who makes a will—and these terms can be applied interchangeably to either personal property or real property if the context of the will demonstrates that this was the intention of the testator.

A general legacy, a demonstrative legacy, and a specific legacy represent the three primary types of legacies.


views updated May 09 2018

legacy †legateship XIV; bequest XV. — OF. legacie — medL. lēgātia legateship, f. lēgātus LEGATE. In the second and current sense repr. AL. lēgantia, f. lēgāre (see LEGATE).