Why are we talking about Martin Luther King now?

A lot of people have been talking and writing about the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr, on or around the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. It was certainly an event that shook America – and beyond. His life and his death affected the history of his country and inspired a lot of people elsewhere. People are rightly asking how far America has changed in the intervening years and what should they do to complete what he started.

How does hindsight affect our image of King?

I am amazed at the almost universally positive words used about this man, particularly from people who otherwise would seem to be unsympathetic to all he stood for. People who were ‘even-handed’ in their response to the Charlottesville incident not long ago. Those who are outraged at sportsmen refusing to stand for the national anthem. People who are hostile to trades unions. Rich people who think the poor are scroungers.

What was King’s image before his death?

Many people considered him an irresponsible troublemaker. Even some black Americans accused him of turning local disputes into national issues, allegedly for his own purposes. Others said his condemnation of violence was naive, when his other words and actions incited it, if only indirectly. On the other hand, some have pointed out that the Establishment begins to take notice only when violence occurs. Gerry Adams would probably agree. Dr King’s image changed very quickly following his death. All his critics either kept quiet or remembered only good things about him.

What was special about Martin Luther King?

Many people could say a lot about him and how special he was without lying or exaggerating. There is one sense in which he is not so special: the remarkable effects of hindsight do not apply uniquely to him. Think of Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. People revere them as saints almost everywhere. It was not always so. If you think there is something racial going on, think again! Think about Winston Churchill. Immediately before World War II, many thought of him as a has-been and a troublemaker. Then what about that American revolutionary, George Washington? Not all Americans supported the War of Independence and even among those who did, he had plenty of critics.

What’s Dr King’s got to do with historical novelists?

It is not that I intend to write a novel about him. However, I do need to remind myself to look beyond the popular images of historical characters and try to see them as human beings. If I acknowledge their faults, I do not  deny their goodness or greatness. I certainly should not forget their achievements or stop cheering for those who have taken up the baton.