Though we both existed on the planet together for about five years, I have no living memory of Martin Luther King. He was assassinated sixteen days before my fifth birthday. I recall hearing of his assassination at the time it happened, but I do not recall specifically how I heard about it, nor did I understand or appreciate what it meant.
My mother, father, or grandmother clarified who he was, but I had no frame of reference for what they told me and I also don’t recall the reaction, if any, news of his death elicited among them. Given the conservative leanings of my family, I imagine they were not heavily invested in the Civil Rights movement.
As the years have passed, and the people who knew him best have left the scene, the historic King has slowly faded into the shadows of history. In his place is the iconic MLK, a man of perfect wisdom and humility, who held a mirror to society to show us its dark side.
I wonder what the actual man would think of how he’s been remembered? He’d probably be happy to know so much of his message survived, though he might also be frustrated at how much has been reinterpreted by politicians and others promoting their own agendas and by how much work remains to be accomplished fifty-one years after his death.
Whenever a person becomes an icon, there’s always a disconnect between the icon and the memory of the actual person.
In the first century of the so-called “Christian era”, a Jewish Messianic contender called Yeshua Bar Abbas led a revolt against Imperial Rome and was crucified for it. His followers believed God would raise him from the dead, and may have stolen his body from its tomb. The world remembers him as Jesus Christ, a dying and resurrected savior king at the center of a Pagan mystery cult. Whenever the historic figure fell short of the icon, the icon always won out, until very little of the historic figure remains.
We are a species obsessed with icons, ideals of what we should be rather than what we are, an advanced group of higher primates, only slightly removed from chimpanzees or gorillas. The reality always falls short of the icon, and yet, it’s the reality with which we must contend.
How different might our experience be if we saw ourselves as we are rather than how we wish we were.