You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King Jr. and not think of death. For as famous as he may have been in life, it is death that ultimately defined him. To be sure, King was courageous in the face of death. But the unrelenting threat of bombs exploding and snipers shooting took its toll. King suffered desperate stretches of depression that sometimes alarmed his closest aides and friends. He fought valiantly to maintain sanity and focus in the midst of the surrounding turmoil. One of his top aides wanted him to consult a psychiatrist because of his steep descent into the doldrums. The sleeping pills he got from a physician friend stopped working. His vacations rarely allowed him to escape his troubles and pressures. And the somber tones of his voice evoked the nightmares that stalked him.
It is nearly miraculous that King managed to keep death in a philosophical headlock as often as he did. He was so preoccupied with his death, so obsessed with its likely occurrence, that in the last years, he could relax only in a room with no windows because he was tortured with worry about who might pull the trigger. His eyes fell on strangers, wondering if they were the messenger of death. King was increasingly marginalized in his own pain; a close aide says there were very few people to whom he could confide the depths of his obsession, and he suffered huge grief of soul and heart, largely alone.
King's depression was also fed by the fallout from butting heads with the soft, safe image manufactured for him. The more he protested poverty, denounced the Vietnam War and lamented the unconscious racism of many whites, the more he lost favor and footing in white America. For the first time in almost a decade, in January 1967 King's name was left off the Gallup-poll list of the 10 most admired Americans. Financial support for his organization nearly dried up. Mainstream publications turned on him for diving into foreign policy matters supposedly far beyond his depth. Universities withdrew lecture invitations. And no American publisher was eager to publish a book by the leader. In many ways King was socially and politically dead before he was killed. Martyrdom saved him from becoming a pariah to the white mainstream.
But martyrdom also forced onto King's dead body the face of a toothless tiger. His threat has been domesticated, his danger sweetened. His depressions and wounds have been turned into waves and smiles. There is little suffering recalled, only light and glory. King's more challenging rhetoric has gone unemployed, left homeless in front of the Lincoln Memorial, blanketed in dream metaphors, feasting on leftovers of hope lite.
White Americans have long since forgotten just how much heat and hate the thought of King could whip up. They have absolved themselves of blame for producing, or failing to fight, the murderous passions that finally tracked King down in Memphis, Tenn. If one man held the gun, millions more propped him up and made it seem a good, even valiant idea. In exchange for collective guilt, whites have given King lesser victories, including a national holiday.
But blacks have not been innocent in the posthumous manipulations of King's legacy. If many whites have undercut King by praising him to death, many blacks have hollowed his individuality through worship. The black reflex to protect King's reputation from unprincipled attack is understandable. But the wish to worship him into perfection is misled; the desire to deify him is tragically misplaced. The scars of his humanity are what make his glorious achievements all the more remarkable.
Both extremes of white and black culture must be avoided. Many whites want him clawless; many blacks want him flawless. But we must keep him fully human, warts and all. In the end, King used the inevitability of a premature death to argue for social change and measure our commitment to truth. There is a lot to be learned in how King feared and faced death, and fought it too. What we make of his death may determine what we make of his legacy and our future.
Michael Eric Dyson is university professor of sociology at Georgetown University. He is the author of 16 books, including April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America, from which this essay is adapted.