Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  I was happy to have the day off yesterday.  My family played so hard during the three-day weekend that I felt a bit weary at work today.  My wife felt the same way.  Of course, my son is always a bundle of energy.  Work was extremely productive despite my weariness.  I finished the monthly performance metrics and finished the first draft of a report on development assistance.  I’ll proofread it once more tomorrow and then hand it in to my supervisor to review.  I also met with the cafeteria operator to discuss adjustments to the cafeteria.  The cafeteria has received mixed reviews.  Most complaints have focused on the prices and food selection.  The vendor agreed to adopt some changes I hope will improve its image.
Last year, I wrote about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and reminisced about my time walking on the National Mall and at the Lincoln Memorial.  In November, I dwelled on the passing of Rosa Parks and the start of the Civils Rights Movement.  Tonight, I want to focus on another aspect of Dr. King’s legacy, one that some may consider controversial.  I want to focus on Dr. King’s historical legacy.  Dr. King has become larger than life both as a martyr and as one of the country’s most revered public figures.  Only one other person, Christopher Columbus, has a U.S. federal holiday dedicated in their honor.  President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln were each honored with their own holidays until Congress consolidated their birthdays into a single federal holiday, President’s Day, in 1971.  Officially known as “Washington’s Birthday,” it is actually the celebration of both presidents’ February birthdays.
As time passes, holidays that honor individuals seem to diminish in importance.  This is partly because their legacy fades, and reality mingles with myth.  The legacy of Christopher Columbus has been increasingly scrutinized as the remembrance of his legacy has shifted from his “discovery” of the Americas to the negative impact of his arrival in the New World, particularly the devastation of indigenous Native Americans by disease, conquest, and colonization.  His legacy has also come under fire from those who claim he did not discover the Americas after all.  The Vikings very likely “discovered” America when they arrived in Newfoundland from Iceland in the 9th Century.  Some allege that Chinese Admiral Zheng He “discovered” America in 1421.  Others have noted comparisons between the pyramids in Egypt and the Aztecs temples and claimed the knowledge arrived in the Americas from the Middle East.  The legacies of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and others have also been tempered by the reality that they were in fact humans, men with flaws as well as virtue.  The George Washington who chopped down the mythical cherry tree and could not lie to his father also fought Native Americans and their French allies in 1854.  When he was defeated, the French showed him mercy and released him.  He regrouped and fought again until the British were victorious.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may very well suffer the same fate.  After all, between 1963 and 1966, President Lyndon Johnson was the public figure most admired by Americans, and in 1967, Dwight Eisenhower won the honor.  While President Johnson was instrumental in signing key civil rights legislation into law, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his legacy is now overshadowed by his involvement in the Vietnam War.  Nowadays, President Eisenhower rarely tops anyone’s list of best presidents for reasons most people cannot explain (thank Eisenhower the next time you drive on the interstate–the U.S. Interstate highway system was largely built during his administration). 
Dr. King’s legacy may also fade with time and will likely grow tempered with a measure of reality.  Those who were with him and were most vocally supportive of him have aged.  His widow, Coretta Scott King, was too ill this year to publicly honor her late husband.  His family has been fighting over the future of the King Center.  Allegations of Dr. King’s controversial behavior have surfaced in many biographies, including some by former associates.  For now, Dr. King represents the embodiment of civil rights in the U.S., but I cannot help but wonder what will happen to his legacy as time passes and memories of the Civil Rights Movement fade into the history books.  Perspectives on civil rights and support for Dr. King’s ideals have already started to splinter.  People’s definition of “I Have a Dream” and its meaning have diverged over the years.  While it may not be politically correct now to tamper with Dr. King’s legacy, with time, his legacy will change.  The question remains as to whether Martin Luther King Jr. Day will still have meaning to future generations of Americans or whether it will become a minor holiday marking a specific time in U.S. history.
Blog Notes:  I didn’t have time to finish yesterday’s entry on Seoul Grand Park.  I added some more monologue for your reading pleasure.

For my 2012 post commemorating Martin Luther King Day, click here.

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