It has become, at least in the blue states where I live, fashionable to spend Martin Luther King Day, celebrating all the great things that we as a society have done following in that great man's footsteps. Having moved here from a state, Missouri, which does not officially celebrate MLKing Day, I know that recognition of his works are not universal. Further, having lived through his working life and his death, I remember enough to recall that he was not universally admired during his life.
This is not to take anything away from his greatness, but to add to it. It took more grit and faith to continue in his ministry in the face of the opposition from so many Whites of many stripes of politics and faith. And perhaps it took more faithfulness to continue in the face of opposition from his own race. There certainly was plenty of both. Followers of Malcolm X felt that Martin was defusing the power of the revolution through his strong movement for nonviolent action. As a child of well-intentioned, middle-class white parents in the segregated south, I can tell you that my parents were very afraid of what Martin Luther King, Jr. was bringing. I am ashamed to say that they felt mostly relief at the news that he was assasinated. Over time, they came to hold different beliefs about him, but at the time, he frightened them.
For people who have never heard the power of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking, you should really hear. He was first and above all, a preacher of God. And he came from an oral tradition, that builds a speech to be listened to, not read. I found an excellent site that has a video of his most famous "I Have a Dream" speech in full, plus an MP3 audio of it, and a text of the full speech. You have to understand that it was a march of Blacks from all over the country to meet at the Lincoln Memorial, and King takes that as his keynote at the start of the speech. See this terrific speech site, which also provided the image:
Having said the sad truth about Martin Luther King, Jr. both frightening and frustrating people at the time he was alive. It is worth stopping to measure what has happened since he passed (as we say in the South). He had a mighty impact that has gone far beyond what could have been done just in his life. It is a sad thing to say, but his death, like those of John F. Kennedy and Mohandas Ghandi, probably gave him and his ideas more power than they would have ever had otherwise.
It is amazing to me to contemplate how far our society has shifted in the years since Martin Luther King, Jr. opened up the dialog. It may be hugely frustrating to my fellows of color that it has not shifted farther, but when you consider how rarely an entire society moves on an issue like this, it seems miraculous. The songwriter Leonard Cohen, in "Bird on a Wire," says
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"
Without the power and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr, we would not have gotten as far as we have. I pray that we continue to learn and grow, and to let Justice roll down like water, and to share in his mighty dream!