Ernest Withers, a photographer during the Civil Rights movement, took this striking picture of Martin Luther King Jr. A crowd presses in on King as he glances to his right, his face framed by the backs of men’s heads. He looks like a man under pressure, deciding what to do next. The art of Ernest Withers impresses me.
King himself puzzles me. Churches revere him as a saint and a latter-day Jesus, but I’ve never figured out how to approach him. I read through his speeches and writings years ago, and his beliefs appeared more Gandhian than Christian. But that does depend on how someone defines Christian. My beliefs resonate more with Martin Luther than Martin Luther King. At the Henry Ford Museum I sat on the very bus that started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it didn’t move me – beyond wondering what man would get on a bus and expect a woman to move to accommodate him.
King was courageous, and he lost his life in a cause above self – that deserves respect. Still, I feel an ambivalence about him, and it’s hard to imagine I’m alone in that. When he’s being praised I nod quietly, mindful that he’s someone else’s hero.