King as symbol

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(Host) Commentator Willi Coleman reflects on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

(Coleman) In the afterglow of the national holiday celebrating the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King I am once again left with a sense of slight discomfort and a nagging question… Is that all? After his assassination I was one of the people who fought the good fight for a national day to honor his life and work. Well, we won.

And now I’m presented with a man who appears to have been air brushed by faulty memory and diluted by time. In death he has become an all-purpose hero whose words can be cut to fit whatever needs fixing. Sometimes I wonder if Martin Luther King would even recognize himself. The challenge of his life and the disruptive questions he raised are all but buried under the weight of the image and the usefulness of his words. His picture on a wall is all that is needed as proof that justice now reigns across America.

Martin Luther King spoke of a world that would judge his and the world’s children by the content of their character – not the color of their skin. Now that the is dead his words have been reclaimed to oppose policies such as affirmative action or fair housing. King, it is said, would never support such preferential treatment.

And then there are those who cloak the man in holy garments: his sins or successes tallied against or for his professed beliefs as a Christian. He was in fact deeply religious, a radical, and an imperfect being. He was a disobedient citizen, a jail-bird. He preached non violence but was not inactive.

Now that he has been raised to the dizzying heights of hero and martyr, it is easy to forget the snarling dogs and baton-wielding, badge-carrying thugs empowered to enforce the law. I will never forget nor forgive enraged fellow American citizens willing to deliver on the promise of certain death for the sin of voting.

Deeply rooted in African American religious traditions, King placed his body on the line to oppose poverty, war and inequality wherever and however it existed. In death he has become a symbol recognized around the world. His face adorning stamps and tee shirts, he no longer belongs to anyone. He is every man’s Martin, a useful King.

And I continue to wonder what he would think about all this… our gift to him. Well, Happy 75th Birthday, Dr. King.

I’m Willi Coleman from South Burlington.

Willi Coleman teaches history at UVM and works in multicultural affairs.

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