As the turmoil of the 1960s grew, King seemed to become overshadowed by the militants and the violence they preached, both near the end of his life and for a time thereafter. The fact that he and his message endure from that era, so sharply defined, testifies to the value of his leadership.
Fully making this point requires including noteworthy white political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Less visible today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
Also in 1948, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully. In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led Southern delegates in bolting the convention and establishing the breakaway Dixiecrat Party. In the fall election, Dixiecrat presidential nominee Thurmond won Southern states, but Truman nonetheless was re-elected.
King was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. Both his message and efforts were fully congruent with our most fundamental principles.
President Barack Obama’s political success personifies King’s victory.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc.