Today is the day each year when ideologues argue over Martin Luther King's legacy. You're bound to hear a lot about content of character, since King in his 1963 March on Washington speech dreamed of a time when all people would be judged on that basis, and Republicans today believe it can be done right now, and claim to be doing it themselves, without enduring prejudice and without bothering with affirmative action or any other compensatory policies. You'll probably see speculation about what King would think or say about today's issues. In some cases, at least, the world has changed so profoundly since 1968 that it's impossible to predict what an 87 year old King would think now from what he wrote and said then. You can jump to conclusions on tolerance, but you don't know how he would have reacted to terrorism, among other things. Moreover, were King alive today his merely having lived probably would have changed him regardless of what else happened in the world. Had he remained a public figure and a progressive gadfly, and especially if he traveled the path his self-styled heir Jesse Jackson took and ran for public office, his extramarital affairs and collegiate plagiarism would have been exposed in his lifetime to his probable ruin. Such ruin may have marginalized, embittered and further radicalized King, and he may well have been one of the elder statesmen like Jackson who resented the rapid rise of Barack Obama, coloring his attitudes and beliefs in ways his written record can't anticipate.
In any event, King's holiday is as much an occasion for national self-congratulation as it is an idolization of a fallible man. As certain historians and politicians insist on reminding us, King himself did not personally end segregation or secure black people's voting rights. These reforms required political action by elected officials, and King is beloved today for inspiring (or provoking) these necessary measures. He is credited with awakening America to its better self, for stirring the collective conscience so we would do the right thing. Those who regard King's methods as an infallible technique for achieving further reform forget that it takes two (or more, in this case) to tango. With King as with Gandhi, nonviolent resistance flourished within cultures that were at once repressive and uniquely liberal, the U.S. as a whole and the British Empire, when the movements and men would have been short-lived in most other places. While the two cases aren't identical, the American civil rights legend tells us that King's tactics exposed the self-evident wrongness of Southern racist practices, so that the national majority put them to an end. But what happens when the wrongs protested later by similar means are not as self-evident to the majority?
It's one thing to be reminded through nonviolent resistance that certain laws and practices betray the nation's principles as you yourself understand them. But if someone proposes revolutionary changes to make the nation (or the world) something radically new, challenging your very frame of moral or ethical reference, then no amount of suffering protesters subject themselves to may persuade you that they're right and you're wrong. In other words, you can't let yourself get jailed or beaten or worse for just anything and expect to have the same impact the Civil Rights movement did. And if the moral of the King story is that his is the correct and only way (other than voting) to push for change from below, radicals may find themselves more S.O.L. than King himself often was in his last years when they try to persuade majorities grown more complacent or conservative. If one hears a more coercive or intimidating tone in black protest today, whether in the trivial pursuit of "safe zones" on college campuses or in more obviously urgent demands for police procedure reform, it's probably because today's protesters realize that King's way took them to a certain point but could not take them much farther, while they deny that the limits of King's strategies represent the limits of what they can rightly demand. King's strategy, and the nonviolent principle in general, is an appeal to voluntarism. It depends on the will of others, whether it's the will of a democratic majority or the will of an enlightened, compassionate ruler. But political philosophy can't rule out the possibility of imperatives that exist independent of individual or collective will -- of things that may be right or necessary whether people want them or not. In such situations, King leaves only the option of martyrdom, and not the effective Muslim kind. If certain ends really do justify more means than King could countenance, our annual celebration of him and ourselves may prove a handicap in the long run.