Martin Luther King, a martyr to the cause of civil rights, and his legacy have been distorted and misunderstood, journalist Godfrey Hodgson argues in his new book, published by the University of Michigan Press. King was not an "unthreatening, relatively conservative leader," or exclusively "a champion for African-Americans." Rather, King "came to believe that his mission was to fight for economic equality for all."
King's "I Have a Dream" address ranks right beside Winston Churchill's famous "We Shall Fight" speech, Hodgson says, but King was more than just its author; he was a visionary politician, blending Old Testament rhetoric with Jeffersonian ideas of equality.
In "Martin Luther King," which goes on sale Monday, Hodgson points out that King spoke to several audiences at once -- fellow protesters, "southern blacks and northern whites, to the tens of millions of undecided white Americans, willing to be persuaded that the time was ripe to end the embarrassing southern folkways of segregation, yet reluctant to be carried away on radical paths." It was King's message of brotherhood and his dream that his four children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" that so moved a nation.
Hodgson, who interviewed King and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s, writes with unsentimental grace about a complex, sensuous man, a daring radical who made this country a better place, but also a place fraught with divisions -- stemming from the fracturing of the Democratic Party in the South and the retrograde reactions of white Southerners, who provided the Republican Party with a hegemony that has made progress on King's radical agenda problematic.