Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Human Rights

After a month’s delay due to Hurricane Irene, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will be dedicated on October 16th. As the new date approaches, I've been thinking a lot about precisely what message the memorial conveys to the public and about how historians interpret King's legacy.  In talks and courses related to King, I cover his famous campaigns at Birmingham and Selma. But I am most interested in exposing audiences to the less well-known, later stages of King's life.  I focus on aspects of the minister's work that tested his alliance with President Lyndon B. Johnson and/or generated controversy within the civil rights movement. Examinations of King's opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and of his campaigns in Chicago and Memphis, which spotlighted economic dimensions of racial inequality, greatly enrich understanding of the struggle for civil rights. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) by Thomas Jackson (UNC/Greensboro--history) is, in my judgment, the single best treatment of  the economic dimensions of Dr. King's life and work. Jackson's book is always on the reading list for my seminars on the legal history of the civil rights movement.

On King's campaign in Memphis, see Michael Honey's meticulous and singular account, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign (Norton, 2007). Honey (University of Washington--History), a distinguished scholar of labor and civil rights, has written many other works about King that may be of interest; you can learn more about Honey's scholarship here.

Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University, editor of the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., and author of the Autobiography of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke about the minister's social gospel foundations and human rights legacy during a 2011 address at the University of Virginia. You'll find a recording of the talk here. Students of King will find a variety of helpful resources about King and the civil rights movement on the website of Stanford's MLK institute.  

Lei Yixin, the sculptor who created the King memorial, used the likeness of King found on the cover of Carson's Autobiography as a guide for his work.  Some, including Carson, have complained that the statue bears little resemblance to the cover photo.  Carson contributed to the initial design of the King Memorial.  The scholar discusses whether the sculptor's work is consistent with the original design concept here.