THE BLOG
01/15/2015 01:45 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. in American Memory

Getty

Martin Luther King Jr. conquered the challenge Abraham Lincoln outlined in his second inaugural address in 1865. No two human beings have defined freedom and the struggle for its achievement better.

Lincoln remains the preeminent symbol of American exceptionalism. A rural farmer who becomes an attorney rises to represent his people in a democratic assembly, often arguing unpopular positions in defense of the common good. By extraordinary chance, Lincoln became president at the most divisive and decisive moment in the nation's existence. His character and choices restored the Union at the cost of a pre-industrial genocide -- a conflagration that consumed his life too. In his 1865 speech, Lincoln urged reconciliation in the aftermath of war, despite the enduring hatreds and individual passions that persisted. Poet Walt Whitman immortalized him and elevated him to secular sainthood -- a plateau only George Washington had occupied a century earlier. Yet this sacrifice by Lincoln and the country, and its sacramental process, only changed slavery to segregation. It reconciled nothing.

King, in contrast, made reconciliation the core of his public identity. Through the crucible of abiding faith, he counseled the nation and the world to abandon violence and war in pursuit of peace. While many have noted the importance of Cold War tensions to the position King's movement held in redefining white supremacy between 1955 and 1968, the shadow of the atomic bomb looms larger in his legacy. The idea of instant annihilation terrified humanity. The philosophy of nonviolent social change found an international audience that did not exist before 1945. Therefore, a child prodigy inspired by faith and doctrine leading a downtrodden people against injustice and tyranny became the early narrative of King's celebrity. His 1963 speech created a public vision of racial equality that no longer terrorized white Americans. If Lincoln convinced white Americans to accept legal emancipation between 1863 and 1865, King literally broke the shackles on many of their minds that day in August. He created the possibility of equitable reconciliation among the descendants of Africa, Asia and Europe in the Americas.

Stevie Wonder replaced Walt Whitman in the manufacture of King in American memory. Biographers, journalists and historians continue to refine the ways we understand his legacy. Where Lincoln was commander-in-chief, martyr and hero, King evolved from citizen-pastor to martyr to saint. Who, now, will follow in their footsteps toward freedom?