WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - As Americans prepare once again to take a day off to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I wonder whether America would be as eager to honor him if he were still around. I'm not alone in my wondering.
"Somebody wrote a poem, which said now that he is safely dead, let us praise him," recalled the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, one of the leaders who succeeded Dr. King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "For dead men make such convenient heroes. They cannot rise up to challenge the images we fashion for them. Besides, it is easier to build a monument than it is to build a movement."
That line comes from Citizen King, a new documentary that premieres on public broadcast TV stations Monday and focuses on Dr. King's last five years before his assassination in 1968.
Those are what I call Dr. King's "forgotten years." They tend to receive short mention in most accounts of Dr. King's life, since they lack the inspiring, unifying drama of his triumphant trifecta: the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Produced by director Orlando Bagwell, a veteran of PBS' award-winning Eyes on the Prize documentaries about the civil rights years, Citizen King focuses on Dr. King the man and the many headaches he encountered later.
"If America really saw the whole person of King, it would be very difficult for America to embrace him the way America does," according to the Rev. James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary.
Mr. Cone's excellent 1992 book, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare, describes how just as Malcolm X became more moderate in his final years, Dr. King grew more militant as he expanded his struggle for equal rights in the South to demands for open housing, desegregated schools and economic opportunities for poor blacks in the North.
Citizen King shows the Georgia minister pursuing those crusades after 1964, but winning fewer victories. Dr. King's open-housing marches in Chicago ran up against larger mobs of angry whites than he ever faced in the South. He also ran up against recalcitrant black leaders in Chicago and Los Angeles and young blacks who were skeptical of his nonviolent strategies.
He ran up against constant death threats and the treachery of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose agents recorded sounds of Dr. King cheating on his wife and then sent her copies of the tapes.
Dr. King's opposition to the Vietnam War on principle sparked a heated backlash from President Lyndon B. Johnson and other liberals, blacks and whites, who chastised Dr. King for meddling in affairs beyond his expertise.
Yet he and his family persevered, even while his broad multiracial and multireligious coalition splintered around divisive questions of political, social and economic justice. Opposition to racial segregation was an easy argument compared with Dr. King's more ambitious and controversial goal of eradicating poverty.
The documentary follows Dr. King through the eyes of those who knew him, including activists, journalists and the late "black power" pioneer Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Toure, who worked more closely with the more moderate Dr. King in the civil rights leader's later years than most accounts reveal.
Were Dr. King around today, it is easy to imagine him preaching, as President Bill Clinton once told a black audience, against the rise of drugs, crime and out-of-wedlock births in black America. It is also easy to imagine him trying to relate to idealistic youths in the hip-hop generation the way he tried to lead the young black power militants of my generation in the late 1960s.
And, in an era of conservative dominance in Washington, I am certain that he would be creating even more opponents of all races on the right and the left. It's hard to make any progress, he might have said, without making some critics.
King Day has become a holiday like others named after heroic individuals, for young people to learn who the honored hero was without learning much about what he did.
Indeed, Dr. King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech is worth repeating, even if people did not hear much else. It properly ranks with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in the canon of this nation's most inspiring oratory. But Dr. King had a lot more to offer in his defense of human dignity. Much more.
As we wonder today what happened to the clear and easy-to-defend agenda of the civil rights years, those forgotten years between Dr. King's landmark speech and his death show us how difficult it was even for the great dreamer himself to turn dreams into reality.
"We all have a task, and let us do it with a sense of divine dissatisfaction," Dr. King said in one of his final speeches. "Let us be divinely dissatisfied as long as we have a wealth of creeds and poverty of deeds." That's his legacy. We may never achieve a perfect world, he told us, but we must never stop trying.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.