King biography, holiday prompt focus on legacy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon addressed a memorial service in Baltimore last week, he said the national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. must represent more than a day for shopping and other such pursuits.

Sun reporter Laura Barnhardt's article Tuesday noted that Gordon did not want the King holiday to become like Memorial Day - "the day the pool opens" - and Presidents Day - "the day automobile dealers put their best prices on their cars." He said the accomplishments of the civil rights movement and the social and economic issues raised by King must not be forgotten.

A review of Sun reporting on King over the past week shows that the newspaper produced articles of substance about the civil rights leader's beliefs, his final years and his relevance to today's world.

Part of the increased interest in King's life and work was driven by the release of Baltimore-based biographer Taylor Branch's final installment of his trilogy about King and the civil rights movement - At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968.

Branch's book documents the last three years of the civil rights leader's life, picking up from his first two books, Parting the Waters (1988), which won a Pulitzer Prize, and Pillar of Fire (1998).

As Sun reporter Michael Hill noted in his Jan. 15 piece, "King's sharp edges," Branch's work "makes clear that the civil rights movement that orbited around King's powerful nucleus was not the simple morality play it is often portrayed as today." Hill's article examines the myths, assumptions and distortions of King's message and the continuing relevance of King's work.

An example of the obscuring of King's message is how the emotional "I have a dream" part of King's speech at the 1963 march on Washington has overshadowed the real substance of that address. Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, told Hill: "The real reason for that speech is very seldom played: somebody coming to Washington to demand the cashing of a check marked 'insufficient funds,' the criticism of the extent of racism in American society."

Hill says this theme resonates today as much as any time since the civil rights days, especially after Hurricane Katrina. No recent event has brought race and poverty into the national consciousness more than the debate over the treatment of those most visibly victimized by the storm.

That Hill's article represents a sophisticated and well-reported view of the meaning of King's life and work is no accident.

Hill, like Branch, grew up in King's hometown of Atlanta and attended the same private school as Branch, who was four years ahead of him. The school began integrating in 1968 - the year Hill graduated and the year King was assassinated in Memphis.

The proximity of place and time provides Hill with insight.

"I have always felt that white Southerners were forced to confront the issue of race - in part because of the intense focus of the media on the civil rights movement in the South," Hill said.

"It was much easier for whites in other parts of the country to ignore the race question, in part by blaming the South but also because the de facto segregation there was much more effective in keeping the races apart than the Jim Crow segregation of the South."

The Sun's Opinion/Commentary page Monday offered a piece that also examined the distortions of the King legacy. Written by political analyst and social commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the article relates examples of how "everyone wants a piece of the fallen legend to puff up his or her importance and whatever social and political ax he or she seeks to grind."

Also referring to material from Branch's new book, Hutchinson finds parallels between details of battles among King and his aides over the civil rights movement's priorities and current attempts to evoke his name to promote more personal agendas.

Finally, Sun reporter Joe Burris' profile Monday of Branch put into perspective the author's 24-year effort to research and make his case for the continued relevance of King's beliefs.

Branch is concerned that the positive changes in America produced by the movement's emphasis on nonviolence have had little effect on the Bush administration's and Congress' decisions about bringing change in Iraq.

"But now they're trying to establish democracy, and there are very, very critical and important lessons from the 1960s and I don't hear them being articulated," Branch told Burris. "That era seems on point if you're trying to create a new democracy."

These recent articles offered readers context and depth - which is what a newspaper is supposed to do.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays. Please see related articles on Pages 3 and 4 of this section.

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