Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Lives in the Future, Not the Past
Civil Rights historian describes King as a "modern founder" in American history.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Martin Luther King Jr. was more than the leader of a "peculiar movement and a long past set of times," according to civil rights historian and award-winning author Taylor Branch. Rather, King is about the future, and his influence is still ahead of us. He should be regarded as a "modern founder" in this nation's history alongside Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and the Suffragettes to name just a few.
Branch, the author of the epic trilogy America in the King Years (Simon & Schuster), shared his thoughts during the Jan. 19 MLK Day Lecture hosted by the Ross School of Business in its new Blau Auditorium. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar who has dedicated more than two decades to three books chronicling the civil rights era, Branch is widely considered the definitive literary source on King and his legacy.
"King did what the other modern founders did," Branch told the audience. "He confronted systems of hierarchy and subjugation and set in motion changes for a common citizenship, which is the very promise of America. Martin Luther King is about the future. It's about how we apply the ideas born of the civil rights movement going forward, because these ideas are the base ideas of democracy itself."
Branch bemoaned the fact that while the idea of democracy presents a profound challenge to the intellect, citizenship is not really studied in this country. "We treat it as something in our back pocket," said Branch. "We don't treat it as a fundamentally difficult academic subject to know whether people can permanently govern themselves and have public trust. Nobody had more self-governance and public faith than the freedom riders who were willing to accept blows from somebody who was trying to kill them."
King's movement was couched in the fact that power grows against the grain of violence. "King was right when he said that democracy itself is nonviolence," Branch said. "You bomb a church and kill four little girls, and now people vote in Alabama. What is a vote? A little piece of nonviolence in a ballot. Democracy is nothing but a huge cathedral of votes. Not just on Election Day, but on every board, every little league, and every corporation. There are thousands and thousands of interconnected votes that make this country run."
As a white southerner who grew up in the segregated south and was transformed by the civil rights movement, Branch said the most enduring amazement to him is that a movement for freedom was led by African Americans who'd never really experienced the benefits, the privileges, and the promises of democracy. Somehow they found the political genius, the indescribable discipline, the nonviolent courage, and the grace to lift "all the rest of us" toward the true meaning of our own professed values as Americans.
The modern founder in King may have led that movement, but he did so in conjunction with an aroused citizenry committed to an ideal of "horizontal politics," in which all people's votes are equal, not because of attainment or virtue or quality, but because their very souls are equal before God. In horizontal politics, Branch said, people own the government and they own the responsibility for it. It's a message that is more relevant today than ever in light of President Barack Obama's call to action for Americans to reclaim this nation's loftiest principles.
"Now from a larger base, we must all become modern founders," Branch said. "Because that's what the world needs and that's what our citizenship requires. King was right when he said that no leader in a modern democracy in a shrinking world is so wise that the leader can make major progress toward freedom without an aroused citizenry pushing him, behind him, ahead of him. We all have to do our part. That's the great lesson from the civil rights era."
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