I Am Martin Luther King Jr., by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
In many ways, this was perhaps the most inevitable selection to be made among the list of heroes that I have read so far. My own feelings about MLK are somewhat more complex. If one wishes to give credit for beneficial social and legal changes that make life for America’s black population less unjust to him, there are far worse choices to be made. At the very least his nonviolence makes him a more appealing hero than the advocates of Black Power, and with his Letters From The Birmingham Jail he at least had some serious literary heft to him. Unsurprisingly, both of these aspects to his life and approach are focused on here in this particular volume as well. Unsurprisingly, though, this book does not focus on the seamier side of his life, whether one looks at his lack of personal character–a particularly serious failure for a man of the cloth, as he was–as well as his lack of originality and his flagrant use of plagiarism without giving attribution that got him a somewhat undeserved reputation for eloquence. Be that as it may, attributing heroism to Martin Luther King Jr. is somewhat easy in that it allows us to praise some positive tendencies and to signal our virtue to others concerning racial matters, and that is worth something.
This book gives an airbrushed account of MLK’s life that focuses mainly on the positive and gives him praise for the virtue signalling that marked his public career even when he was alive. Whether it is providing a picture of an idyllic childhood of playing with white friends being spoiled by the reality of racism in the schools, having to explain why Funworld won’t admit black children to it after commercials for it show up on television, or praising the subject for being the youngest winner of the all-too-politicized Nobel Peace Prize, there is a lot here that seems more like propaganda than legitimate biography. One gets the feeling that the author is reveling in his inner Parson Weems here, and that is probably not for the best. Unsurprisingly, the author talks a lot about the March to Birmingham, the heroism of other blacks in Alabama, and his March on Washington as well as his time in the Birmingham Jail as being seminal moments in history, and the reader gets a few of his life that doesn’t include any unpleasant or unseemly or controversial parts.
And it is that airbrushed history that bothers me a great deal. The author’s portrayal of MLK’s heroism is not the sort of heroism that most people can be expected to follow. Most people will not lead peaceful marches on behalf of important and urgent social causes. In our present world most people will be hipsters in progressive rioting that goes awry all too quickly and destroys public and private property. Most people will never write seminal letters from prison while struggling with injustice or give famous speeches that we stole from less famous predecessors at the last minute in order to make our own better. The subject’s life and its complexities and its end lend itself to a complex presentation that points out his courage in facing oppression and his abilities in inspiring others to do the same but also points out his failings and his struggles in how to continue his public service in the aftermath of social and legal chance that he had advocated for and the inevitable backlash of dramatic social change that is done through coercion rather than persuasion. That would have been a far better book, but probably not one that the author is willing to write for children.