Home Society & Culture MLK and the Deification of Historical Figures

MLK and the Deification of Historical Figures

Published: Last updated:
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Listen to the article.

Martin Luther King Jr is widely celebrated and recognised as a national hero in the US. Every January, the nation observes an entire day in honour of the revered civil rights icon. His nonviolent campaigns against racial segregation are taught in schools across the country, and streets are named after him. However, an intense debate has erupted, particularly among conservatives, over whether the visionary leader has been placed on too high a pedestal.

Serving as the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, MLK Jr spearheaded monumental social change through impassioned yet peaceful calls for justice. His speeches still evoke chills, continually fueling the ongoing fight against prejudice. His dictum of “character over skin colour” is frequently repeated by people of all political stripes, albeit with interpretations that work best for their respective political narratives. Dr King is seen by many as an important contributor to the progress of Black communities in America, though some on the conservative right disagree.

While I greatly admire Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s work in advancing racial discourse and equality, I would not consider him a personal hero of mine. Of course, identifying one’s heroes is a matter of personal preference. I consider someone a hero when they demonstrate near-perfection in speech, deed, and character, or when their life stories are so extraordinary that they leave you in complete awe.

For example, when I immersed myself in the pages of Booker T. Washington’s seminal work, Up from Slavery, I discovered a figure deserving of complete respect and admiration. Up from Slavery is not merely a memoir but a poignant narrative that traces Washington’s extraordinary journey from enslavement to becoming a prominent educator and influential leader. The book unveiled the stark realities of post-Civil War America, detailing Washington’s tireless efforts to uplift himself and his community through education and self-improvement.  The recurring themes of self-mastery, pragmatism, and perseverance in the face of adversity resonated deeply with me.

And this is why Booker T. Washington stands as one of my personal heroes. But I’m not naive or foolish enough to believe that he was without flaws or shortcomings. In my view, no person should be idolised to the extent where they are immune to criticism and their actions and words are deemed beyond scrutiny. Every individual should remain open to examination, and no one should be considered above reproach.

But what about the legacy of individuals, one might ask? It’s sad that our perspective on life often leans towards binary thinking. We ought to be capable of critically examining our heroes and acknowledging the impact they’ve made without oversimplifying or overlooking their complexities.

Some argue that the undermining of MLK Jr’s legacy is a deliberate, racially motivated assault orchestrated by the right, supposedly in retaliation for attacks on their own historical figures. However, this doesn’t make sense since Martin Luther King Jr isn’t exclusively admired by the left, and the attacks on his legacy have also drawn criticism from many on the right.

Yet it is true that in recent years, the progressive left has actively engaged in demonising, vilifying, and attempting to cancel figures such as Columbus, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth II, and others. They claim that their positive contributions should be overlooked, insisting on applying contemporary moral standards while neglecting the complexities inherent in their decisions and the norms of their respective eras.

However, this is an inadequate justification for diminishing the esteemed status of a historically significant icon like MLK Jr The scrutiny of a historical figure’s legacy should be grounded in legitimate reasons rather than merely reacting to actions taken by “the other side.”

So should Dr Martin Luther King Jr be deified? At an individual level, certainly, but in our multicultural societies and globally interconnected world, the collective deification of any historical figure presents obstacles and grows more challenging. One person’s hero can be someone else’s villain. One group’s freedom fighter might be seen as a terrorist by another. What might be a source of inspiration, hope, or admiration for one person could simultaneously evoke fear, discomfort, or resentment in another. The same qualities that elevate one person to heroic status may be perceived as threatening or objectionable by someone else.

Who we consider “heroic” says more about our own personal values, ideals, and worldviews than any absolute truth. It’s all very subjective.

Ada Akpala is the senior content officer of The Equiano Project.


© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd