Firstly, I will first portray the importance of King as a the symbol of the American myth for his generation, of the redefinition of America and her American Dream. He was loyal to the American values of freedom, democracy and equality, but he was also committed to the struggle for equal distribution of wealth, so that each human being could reach his personal version of the American Dream. King’s fierce involvement in this struggle, first within American boundaries and later worldwide, made him the best American ambassador of the real concept of democracy. King symbolized mankind’s dream of human equality. He devoted his life to America’s redefinition as a nation and in the world community, for King “was a man who knew his own destiny, he understood his grand place in the history of the South, the United States, and the black people of the world.” (3)
Almost everything was taken away from African-Americans, except for their religious strength and devotion to the gospel. It was within the fundaments of the Black Church that the new black leader was raised, because “people were willing to follow him due to his deep connection with God and because he was a preacher, a kind of Messiah.”6 The waiting ended as Martin Luther King became the symbol of the black struggle in Montgomery. The moment King launched a campaign of Christian love and non-violence, based on Christian moral principles and Gandhian thought, the course of the protest was changed and King became a living symbol of racial justice. The non-violent struggle, he said, would use “the weapon of love.”7
King’s commitment to Christianity showed the power of religion in the quest for political justice. Following the American tradition of including religion in politics, King reinforced the role of religion as a bridge between what America was and what she should have become. His deep devotion to the religious concepts of justice, Christian love, salvation and redemption changed the course of American history, and he considered them the only possible answer to mankind’s problems. King promoted Christian love as the cure to the poisoned minds who proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,”8 because legislation could only influence their conduct, but love could change their minds.
King was quite confident that many black and white Americans were going to permit themselves be transformed by the power of love, but he knew that some more challenging measures had to be undertaken in order to transform the entire nation, and especially the Southern segregationists. Inspired by the teachings of Christ and his own faith in God’s will, King felt called to suffering and sacrifice for the sake not only of the civil rights struggle, but for the redemption of America’s and the salvation of mankind. “If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from permanent life of psychological death” he wrote, ” then nothing could be more honourable.”
Guided by the teachings of Christ, King followed the steps of his spiritual leader and put his life in the hands of God. America had found then “the suffering servant, the pure moral leader, the innocent lamb led to the slaughter,”16 who, just as Christ did, was going to follow God’s will and confront death for the sake of America’s and Christianity’s redemption. It seemed as if King , through sacrifice, was offering “the white man a message of salvation” but that “the white man is so blinded that he doesn’t recognize the peril in which he puts himself by ignoring the offer.”17 At that point, many supporters believed that King wasn’t just making history, he was regaining America’s place as the chosen land and offering all Americans to enter with him into a providential reciprocity willed for the United States by God, who had given America a second chance, before violence, hate and even a possible civil war took over. For them, King wasn’t just a prophet of peace or an apostle of non-violence; he was now the new Messiah, who had come to share with mankind the love and compassion of God. King was a common American, following his providential call, the one the rest of the nation hadn’t been willing to listen and to commit to.
King’s message of brotherhood and human redemption wasn’t going to be easily accepted in a nation divided by a capitalistic system of caste and racial segregation. Therefore, the introduction of the idea of “a multiracial nation where all groups are dependent on each other”18 was predestined, from the very first moment, to find strong resistance, due to Americans’ great abuse of their freedom, for it was in their human nature’s evil “to divide, to separate, and to negate.”19 King was never afraid of the confrontation with other positions within the American political framework. Actually, he was a man of a tremendous moral rectitude who preferred to stand alone against injustice rather than to betray his constant search for truth. He knew that by standing alone, he was going to be judged as a misunderstood prophet or even a dangerous revolutionary, but he wasn’t cowed by any criticism.
A racism deeply rooted in the American collective mind, supported by the incapacity of the federal government to overcome it by legal means and the Christian Church’s disinterest in preaching the real gospel, became a greater enemy than King had first imagined. Many blacks and whites committed to his call for Christian love, but the majority wasn’t yet prepared for such an invitation by a black man, whose commitment to a total collaboration of both races for the sake of the American soul made him the symbol of racial integration. He not only wanted blacks to forgive and love the white supremacist, but he insisted on developing their spiritual capacities to redeem and enlighten him, “so as not only to save his soul from perdition but also to awaken his mind and his conscience, and stir him to initiate the reform and renewal which may still be capable of saving the society.”21
King’s life among blacks and whites made him, like Gandhi, a marginal man, who knew the best virtues and emotions and the worst thoughts and convictions of both races. Such knowledge made it easier for him to expound the greatness of blacks and to attack the advantages of whites in order to create a collaborating and supportive multiracial environment as the basis of a redefined and more democratic America ,his weaponry was based not only on democratic principles, but on a religious reform, the word of God.
King embraced the idea of reconstructing the entire American society, not only for the sake of the black oppressed, but also of the white oppressor, because one rotten part could have poisoned the whole society and condemned it to destruction. Until his death, King was obsessed with finding the perfect way by which he could “press the nation toward its best possibilities, toward its next birth of freedom and justice.”24 As time passed and the United States entered the Vietnam War, King realized that the only possible way was his personal sacrifice, for as he said, “a man must conquer the fear of death, otherwise he is already lost.”25 First, he sacrificed his place in the American collective mind.
It seems as if King offered his life as the symbol of moral force that America needed in the crucial hour. He was a symbol of the highest patriotism, for he implored America to listen to him and to confess her sins in order to reach redemption and to embrace his theory of social liberation and civic virtue. King encouraged Americans to commit to a real patriotism, one that “motivated citizens to work for social change through analyzing the shortcomings of our society and working to strengthen the nation’s moral and political life.”26 As we can see, King’s commitment to the word of God and the life of Jesus wasn’t so far away from his admiration for the American Creed, because in the end both were elementary parts of American Civil Religion. He also showed Americans that Christian love wasn’t entirely different from the love of a nation, because both demanded suffering from the believers in order to defend the principles of justice, freedom and equality.
Despite America’s increasing denial of King in the Vietnam era, he continued loving his country. His unending love and unconditional faith allowed him “to carry the cross of being his people’s leader with grace and humility.”27 He apparently knew that he was going to be sacrificed for America’s redemption. The night prior to his assassination, King delivered the most prophetic of his speeches in front of an overcrowded audience, in which he foresaw his death, as well as the culmination of his lifetime commitment to reach the Promised Land. In this final sermon, King was ready for God’s will, for he had spent his entire life preparing himself for such commitment. As he used to say, “every man should have something to die for, because a man who will not die for something is not fit to live.”28 He was willing to sacrifice his life for the happiness of his family, the freedom of his people, the redemption of America and peace in a more just world.
King’s assassination paralyzed a nation, the same as Kennedy’s did, for those two great American leaders were killed in their prime. Both assassinations had a tremendous impact on the entire American society, because “the murder of King on April 4th, 1968, stands with the assassination of president Kennedy as one of the political tragedies in the 1960s that forever changed America, driving a stake through the heart of a nation’s innocence.”29 King’s killing can be considered by his followers as an injustice of greater magnitude, and by his opponents as the most wonderful gift; but it is a fact that his commitment to America was a great contribution to a better world.
Alive, King was already an American symbol, but his martyrdom elevated him to a greater spiritual and unifying symbol for a renewed American society. People who had never been committed to King’s cause started wondering about King’s special relation to God, while loyal believers related his death to Christ’s crucifixion.
In the aftermath of his assassination, most American newspapers dedicated several articles to King’s life and struggle. Several columnists acknowledged his greatness and his commitment to civil rights, as well as grieved his assassination. For example, The Washington Post stated that “his humanity and his hope were universal, but first and last, he was a black leader,” and “Ebenezer Church is Bethlehem, because is the place where Martin was spiritually born.” 31 Furthermore, The Atlanta Constitution commented that “Martin Luther King, Jr., was by far the most respected leader of black America. His loss therefore has at least as much impact on negroes as the death of president Kennedy did on the entire nation as a whole,”32 and ” King was a committed Christian, a great American, a dedicated servant of all mankind. Wisdom and courage were the hallmarks of this man who occupied a rightful place of leadership in the long and sometimes bitter struggle for racial justice in our land.”33 A columnist of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “I think that white folks will be missing him more than blacks. He led more whites than blacks. He predicted that April will be an extremely bitter month in America.”34 Finally, The Chicago Sun-Times commented that “King was too good for this world, at least for this country, and there is going to be one last hope that could answer the racial problem in America: let us be thankful for King’s martyrdom.”35
King’s death sent America into a period of national soul searching, for which a real answer hasn’t been found so far. Many efforts have been undertaken to fill the empty space that he has left, but most of them have been oriented to the creation of a false image of his contribution, by making people believe that a true equality had been reached during his lifetime. King’s work was not the end of the decadence into which America was submerged. King showed America the correct way, but it was up to the citizens to follow it. King was a challenger for Americans, a leading man, a champion of truth and justice, and a lamb ready for sacrifice, but he wasn’t the one to fulfil this dream, for that was the obligation of mankind as a whole. King was the symbol men needed to be guided by in order to strive for the impossible dream.
King was a great martyr, because he confronted his internal demons, addressed his flaws, renewed constantly his faith in God and in mankind, maintained his love for a corrupted America, preached Christian love for his enemies, and devoted his life to America’s redemption. It seems as if King sacrificed his life, as Christ did, because he knew that he could make a difference between good and evil, but mainly because he knew that God loved him and was never going to leave him alone, not even in his last hour.
In conclusion, King lived according to the American Creed and was able to fulfil his personal American Dream. Furthermore, he gave Americans the means to redefine their national identity; to recover the principles of the American Creed; to accept integration as the only possible means for national survival; to make their religious institutions commit to the gospel of Jesus and to make their government promote a social democracy based on “radical redistribution of economic and political power.”104 But above all, he showed them the way to a chosen land in which “America must open her heart to a denied people, by making a massive effort to undo the deep racial injustices of two centuries.”105 Sometimes, I am almost convinced that King wasn’t fully aware of his greatness, but I am definitely sure that King didn’t want to be canonized or idolized. He only wanted to be listened to and perhaps, with the grace of God, be followed, for he was the man “called the nation’s conscience.”106