The passing of Coretta Scott King last week marked the very end of an era that in fact had been over well before the assassination of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. I had always admired Coretta King as a beautiful and stylish lady (here’s a lovely photo of her on La Shawn Barber’s blog) who stuck by her husband through many ups and downs and raised four children under circumstances that must often have been harrowing, for the oldest ones were only in grade school when their father was murdered.
As for Martin Luther King himself, he was a great, if flawed, human being who displayed amazing courage and dignity in his battle against the large and petty humiliations to which members of his race were daily subjected in some parts of this country. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” of 1963 is still read and studied in graduate-school English classes as a model of rhetoric, in which he subtly combined graceful writing, classic Aristotelian devices of persuasion, and biblically based moral theology to make a powerful case for civil disobedience against unjust laws under some circumstances, a concept that is still regarded as radical and disreputable by most people.
The problem was that King was all too successful in his campaign to make good people across the nation aware of the grave wrong of legally sanctioned racial discrimination in the South. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, nullifying wage discrimination for members of ethnic minorities and also women. The momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964 quickly followed, and after that, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Two years after King’s famous letter, the struggle was over, legally speaking. And just as quickly, King’s strategies–restrained and dignified marches and sit-ins by people who had carefully schooled themselves not to fight violence with violence–went completely out of style among African-American political leaders. Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers replaced King as the face of the civil rights movement, and the urban riot, with its burning, looting, random murders, racial hatred, and, ultimately, blackmail of a frightened white establishment, became the preferred form of protest, to the dismay of King, who repeatedly deplored racial violence in his speeches and writings. The aftermath of such tactics–burnt-out inner cities, omnipresent racial quotas, a massive and debilitating welfare state, and the omnipresence of hate-rousing demagogues such as Al Sharpton–are still with us.
King himself, pushed to the sidelines, dissipated his energies on anti-Vietnam War protests and a futile and simplistic war on urban black poverty in the North. King, the product of a genteel and deeply religious rural southern black middle-class, was ill-equipped to understand northern city slum-dwellers, whose problems stemmed far more from widespread moral collapse than from institutional racism. By the time King died, he was already obsolete. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference quickly slid into shambles and irrelevance after his death. Were King still alive today, he would be regarded as an interesting but superannuated pioneer–a Where Is He Now? figure–whose time had come and gone as far as black politics were concerned.
Of course Martin Luther King is not still with us, so we remember his greatness instead, and we look for the hopeful signs of civility and a renewed moral conservativism among the vastly enlarged black middle class whose existence he helped foster. The same goes for Coretta King. We remember her for the great lady she was during extraordinarily difficult times, not the unfortunate turns that the movement she once represented has taken.