Martin Luther King’s life remembered and examined by David Levering Lewis

Initially published soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., David Levering Lewis’s King: A Biography was acclaimed by historians as a foundational work on the life of the civil rights icon.

In 2013 the University of Illinois Press published an updated Third Edition of the biography. Lewis wrote in the preface:

A half century beyond the March on Washington. . . . history should oblige Americans to pause to make an informed appreciation if the soaring democratic vision Martin Luther King shared with his nation that day in 1963. After fifty years of rote evocation of those lapidary phrases broadcast from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. it should not be too much to hope that something of the economics of empowerment implicit in “I Have A Dream” is heard above the thunder of ceremonial applause—that, as King charged, the Negro had been dealt a check “that came back ‘marked insufficient funds.’” If the deposit funds are still insufficient fifty years after the March on Washington and the Dream dreamt that long day, there are positive things to be said, nevertheless, about how far the nation has come. . . . More of us have also come to realize that the extreme inequalities under capitalism are ordained neither by God nor birth. For that wisdom we owe an incommensurable debt to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty years after the path-breaking events of King’s crusade Lewis reflected on moments such as the letter from Birmingham jail, which the biographer describes as a “milestone. . . . in the republic’s growth.”

The personal and professional life of Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to be told in books or films like 2014’s Selma.

As King was both canonized and reinvented with new depictions of his life, Lewis wrote “with each January 15 commemoration of his birth , Martin Luther King recedes deeper into the mists of his mountain top.” The fear Lewis voiced was that King would become “a man for all reasons, an elastic fetish as potent for one cause as for another.”

With civil rights issues on the front page of newspapers well into the 21st century, there is little chance that King’s life and legacy can be obscured by the mist.



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