Though last year's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington provided a commemorative moment for some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s priorities—including affordable housing and job creation—there is a void in books focused on how civil rights shifted post-1968. Historian David L. Chappell is out to correct the imbalance with his new book Waking From The Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King Jr.
"His work, particularly with the poor, was unfinished," Chappell says. Coretta Scott King and others continued to advocate for housing and economic policies that King supported, but "the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s were so dramatic and revolutionary, they unfairly diminish the legacy of people who have tried to carry on after that for 50 years now. I think that's perhaps the simplest message of my book: If you look at what happened in the 20 or 30 years, it was clear that people were trying to go further in the direction King was pointing."
Try as they might, Chappell writes that leaders of the civil rights movement would have difficulty finding anyone to replace the charismatic and iconic leader. Problems included competitive tension among those expected to take up King's mantle, with significant focus on Jesse Jackson Sr. and Ralph Abernathy.
"No one else wanted to be heir apparent to King as much as Jesse Jackson, and of course there was a big debate about that," Chappell says. Though Jackson was dynamic in his own right with a flair for self-promotion, marketing and eloquence, the traits that made him an obvious fit also made him a scapegoat for what would become a flawed public image of the movement.
"Jackson seemed to challenge the idea that you could avoid having someone being seen as the spokesperson for black America," Chappell says. "People thought there was something wrong with that—no one expected there to be one guy speaking for white America. One of the results of the successes of the civil rights movement in culture as well as politics and economics is that it just doesn't work to have one person out there appearing to speak for the entire population."
Jackson tried to make it work. He wanted to embody the civil rights movement even though he was constantly criticized for his endeavors. "All leaders worth their salt are embattled," Chappell says. He adds that another element of King’s life we tend to forget is that he was “extremely controversial.” He wasn’t without his critics. “At some point he was the most hated and feared man in America."
The leadership vacuum within the civil rights movement, Chappell points out, was not because King was infallible. Waking From the Dream includes a rare look at the mainstream media's treatment of news about King's documented plagiarism at Boston University, as well as his largely dismissed adultery, which was first uncovered by the FBI. From Chappell's perspective, the fascinating, underreported story of King's extramarital affairs is that they weren't surprising and they didn't change people's thoughts on King. Neither did allegations of plagiarism.
"Even full-time writers and scholars on civil rights and racism have completely forgotten that there was this big discussion about plagiarism,” Chappell says. “We remember the sex more than the schoolwork. I think that anybody who has looked at King for long or for real knows that he wouldn't want to be held up as a god. I'm not alone in wanting to give a perspective on King that makes him human."
Decades after the death of the beloved King, Chappell says most of what is missing from stories about King is a "more human and developed portrait." Whether it is King's birthday or Black History Month, generally what is remembered about the legacy of King and the civil rights movement is his "I Have a Dream" speech.
"We ought to remember all of the past with a more critical, deeper understanding of the complicated forces at work," Chappell says, citing not just King, but historical figures like Frederick Douglass. "I wish people knew more about MLK than 'I Have a Dream,’ but I don't think there's any kind of systematic irresponsibility in the media."
We also now take a different approach to organizing and social justice than when King was alive. "There is no illusion of unity anymore in the struggle for civil rights, let alone in the larger African American population," Chappell says. "Like any other population, it's full of contention and debate over strategies and tactics and even ultimate goals." But the violence, anger and hatred in American society that confronted King and his partners in the civil rights movement he helped lead is still present.
"The practical work he did focusing on achievable, near-term goals in the structure of political power and advantage is still quite meaningful to work on," Chappell says. "And there's still a lot of work to do."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C.