MLK: If He Were Alive, He'd Be Highly Controversial

Roundup: Media's Take

Clarence Page, writing in the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 14, 2004):

As Americans prepare once again to take a day off to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I wonder whether America would be as eager to honor him if he were still around. I'm not alone in my wondering.

"Somebody wrote a poem, which said now that he is safely dead, let us praise him," recalled the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the leaders who succeeded King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."For dead men make such convenient heroes. They cannot rise up to challenge the images we fashion for them. Besides it is easier to build a monument than it is to build a movement."

That line comes from"Citizen King," a new documentary that premiers on public broadcast TV stations on Jan. 19 (9 p.m. on WTTW-Ch. 11) and focuses on his last five years before his assassination in 1968.

Those are what I call King's"forgotten years." They tend to receive short mention in most accounts of King's life, since they lack the inspiring, unifying drama of his triumphant trifecta: the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Produced by director Orlando Bagwell, a veteran of PBS' award-winning"Eyes on the Prize" documentaries about the civil rights years,"Citizen King" focuses on King the man and the many headaches he encountered later.

"If America really saw the whole person of King, it would be very difficult for America to embrace him the way America does," according to the Rev. James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary. Cone's excellent 1992 book"Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare" described how, just as Malcolm X became more moderate in his final years, King grew more militant as he expanded his struggle for equal rights in the South, to demands for open housing, desegregated schools and economic opportunities for poor blacks in the North.

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