We Remake Heroes in Our Own Image. That’s Why Americans Admire Two Martin Luther King, Jrs

Americans tend to prefer one version of Martin Luther King, Jr., to another — the one most like them.

By David Mills Published on January 17, 2022

The Martin Luther King, Jr., now being celebrated isn’t quite the one who actually existed. As a public hero, celebrated by almost everyone, people naturally want to identify with him — but on their own terms. They want to claim him — for their own side, as someone like them, and someone not like the other guys.

Some stress his religious and patriotic ideals and ignore his political radicalism. The real King was the “I have a dream / content of our character” King. Others emphasize the political radicalism. They see it as growing from the ideals, and reflecting his experience asking America to live up to them. Conservatives and a lot of liberals like the first version, and leftists like the second. 

The Two Sides

There’s the King favored by conservatives and liberals. The one who fought racist laws and culture. The one who believed in America. Who didn’t believe in racial divisions. Who saw the Civil Rights movement as a deeply American movement. The King as described in conservative scholar Paul Kengor’s new article, “Teach MLK, Not CRT.”

The Letter From Birmingham Jail is one of the two major texts for King’s conservative admirers. The conservative writer Joe Long calls the letter “a startlingly prophetic discourse,” on the American Greatness site. Not a claim a similar publication would have accepted even thirty years ago. He points to King’s belief both in America’s founding tradition and Christian belief.

There King said, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” The Civil Rights movement asked America to be what it aspired to be. “When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters,” he said in that letter, “they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

He believed the movement would succeed because he believed in God and in America. “I have no despair about the future. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”

The other major text is King’s speech during the 1963 March on Washington. Especially the famous, ever-quoted line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Leftists’ King

Then there is the King favored by Leftists. This King not only worked for civil rights, but challenged America’s aggressive foreign policy and its treatment of the poor. Writing for the English lefty newspaper The Guardian, Gary Younge points to King’s social and political radicalism. 

Americans will cheer themselves for cheering King, he says, “selectively misrepresenting King’s life and work, as if rebelling against the American establishment was, in fact, what the establishment has always encouraged. They will cite the ‘dream’ speech as if it were his only one — and the line about wanting his children to be ‘judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character’ as if it were the only line in it.” In the same newspaper, historian Michael Harriot describes how the dominant picture of King has been “whitewashed” and de-radicalized.

King was more radical at the end of his life than many of us know. His 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, for example. “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.”

A little later, he broadens the critique. “When I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” (His 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech was equally radical.)

“There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country,” he said that same year. “Racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is.” 

So Hard to Get Right

Conservatives look at the beginning and middle of King’s work. Leftists look at the latter part as well. Each explains the development in different ways. One thinks he went wrong, the other thinks he went right.

In any case, most people choose one King or the other. We tend to like the historical heroes who agree with us and in the version of them we prefer, one that time has refined and polished to broaden their appeal. But we should listen sympathetically to the heroes who don’t, because they will challenge us in ways we need to be challenged.

Here is the challenge. If you admire one King, you should respect the other and take him seriously. He was the same man, after all. The man who questioned American economic and foreign policy was the same man who preached nonviolent resistance as the Christ-like way to bring down racist laws and customs. He was a man who risked his life in a cause everyone now sees as just. 

Maybe he went too far. But even if he did, he may have seen realities and truths we haven’t, perhaps ones we don’t want to see. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a hero, and heroes deserve a hearing.


David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. His previous article was The Foundation is Love: Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Christian Calling to Nonviolent Protest.

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