The 1960s, the heyday of the civil rights movement, saw a polarized, volatile American public. At the symbolic center of the vitriolic rhetoric stood the figure of Martin Luther King Jr., hailed by some as a messianic hero and demonized by others as an un-American antagonist with evil intent.
Today Dr. King is more symbol than human. And despite the exposed human faults of the actual man, his human virtues are worthy of the symbol. For his endurance in the face of opposition, for his subjection to a campaign of lies, for his refusal to retaliate, for his submission to physical violence, for his suffering unjust incarceration, for his brandishing powerful nonviolent rhetoric, and for his proclamation of clear, if not universally accepted moral truth, Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of our nation’s most revered figures.
The persecution Dr. King endured was not feigned. It was no perceived attack with roots in legitimate criticism. His life, the lives of his compatriots, and the lives of their families were continually threatened, and the threats were punctuated with a series of actual incidents of horrible physical violence. He had little recourse in local government, who threatened and imposed further violence and incarceration. And the federal intervention was obviously too little too late.
Still when it came time for MLK to mount a rhetorical defense, he always chose to defend the cause of the needy, the oppressed, the poor, and the outcast. He never defended himself. He stood up for justice and truth, not himself.