In a small southern town, a black boy is imprisoned for a fight with a white youth. Thousands of protesters (and legions of journalists) from across the country flood the town, demanding freedom for the prisoner who they say is being treated unfairly because of his race.
The protests in Jena, La., in 2007 were eerie in the way they paralleled the civil rights protests that changed American society four decades ago. But there was one monumental difference: the absence of a leader as influential as Martin Luther King Jr. April 4, 2008, will mark the 40th anniversary of King's assassination, when he was killed by a gunman's bullet as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The occasion will no doubt be commemorated with various ceremonies and countless replays of his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech. But perhaps the best way to honor his legacy is to get reacquainted with the realities of his fight.
King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop, a new biography by University of New Hampshire Prof. Harvard Sitkoff, serves as an interesting starting point. The book notes that the canonization of King as an American hero has, in some ways, sapped him of his power. "As such, King is the nice man who helped solve the problems of the past," Sitkoff writes, "rather than someone who challenges us to solve the problems of our present injustices and inequities." The biography Sitkoff has written explores how progressive King's ideas truly were, particularly his desire to move people to challenge economic inequity.
Of course, no one speaks more eloquently of King's vision than King himself. A good place to examine his words is Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches, edited by Josh Gott-heimer. By placing King's speeches side by side with others from the civil rights movement, the book gives his message more power. While King may have said, "I have a dream," there were 250,000 other people with him on the Mall who shared his vision.