Americans, at least as much as other citizens of great nations, love heroes and the stories sustaining their character, bravery and remarkable feats.
Since the beginning of human memory individuals and cultures have enshrined as examples those whose deeds and remarkable minds placed them as heroes among their peers.
Some have been mythologized and their deeds carried beyond the merely human to the supernatural, placing them in a pantheon all cultures and epochs recognize as worthy by any human measure and elevating them among the gods.
The more distant in time the more superhuman heroes become because the firsthand memories die and the embellished character overwhelms the story of fact.
Heroes remembered as extraordinary but merely human always occupy places of importance in inspiring those who succeed them.
Julian Bond, a civil rights icon himself, writes about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in an essay composed decades after King’s murder in Memphis in 1968.
King’s career, he notes, was brief. It lasted “from the Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott in 1955 to his murder in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.” Thirteen years tend to expand as time separates people who remember from the actual events.
“Our early national heroes were warriors and soldiers, whose acts expressed the pioneer spirit that defined the nation. George Washington, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were larger-than-life figures who captured the public imagination,” Bond writes.
“Instant communication now gives us heroes drawn at least as often from the playing field as from the battleground …”
King’s life and work broke barriers never before conquered in our nation.
“While yesterday’s heroes won freedom for the nation, King wrested freedom from the nation for the descendants of the nation’s slaves,” Bond said.
In a concise and powerful insight, Bond writes, “We honor him because of what his memory summons: the stoic who faced injury and death before howling mobs, and the single figure of his period and ours able to articulate to whites what blacks wanted and to blacks what would be expected if freedom’s prize was won.”
King’s expectations of what freedom’s prize requires becomes more important as every year sees part of that dream unfulfilled.
King, it should be remembered, did not seek deification, he sought justice, and that is a task for the living.