Since Martin's death, there isn't a day or two that goes by that someone doesn't ask me, what would Martin say about this or that,'' says Clarence B. Jones, lawyer and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. You can imagine how often that gets asked at the moment. Not only because we've just seen the 40th anniversary of the assassination, but because of the emergence of Barack Obama as the first viable, African-American presidential candidate. Jones waited all these years to write a book, "What Would Martin Say?" But he is one of several authors who are now examining, into a contemporary context, the life and legacy of one of the most important leaders our country has ever had.
Perhaps the most revisionist, and surprising, new book is "April 4, 1968'' by Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson argues that King has been largely reduced to uplifting one-liners and oversimplified social ideas on race. But Dyson describes King's last few years as filled with intense bouts of deep depression. "It's time that people see the man and not just the image that's been crafted over the years,'' says Dyson. "And it shouldn't be seen as failure or weakness—but just how amazing he was able to accomplish the things he did when so many things were eating him up inside.'' Dyson carefully lays out the tumble from grace with the white establishment King experienced in 1967 after he publicly spoke out against the Vietnam War and expressed his fear that racism was much more deep-rooted than he'd imagined. "In many ways King's death prevented him from feeling some of the anger that leaders like Jesse Jackson have felt for decades,'' says Dyson. "Not to say that death is easy, but it did help King escape the resentment that the mainstream can have when you fight for change.''
Jones's book focuses on what the civil-rights leader would think of events such as the Jena Six case in Louisiana, where six African-American high-school students were charged with attempted murder after beating up a white student, prompting 50,000 marchers to protest against what they saw as a biased criminal-justice system. Jones argues that King would have "abhorred everything but the peacefulness of the demonstration, starting with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton treating Mychal Bell, one of the black students, like Rosa Parks.'' "What Would Martin Say?" never flinches when examining how King might see even some of the black community's most revered institutions. "He'd hate the way some of our African-American pastors are so-called 'prosperity preachers' and how money is so important in their message," Jones says. "I'm sure Martin would have hated the way some of our black leaders love to be in the press these days."
Rather than projecting how King would respond to today's issues, Jonathan Rieder's "The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me'' explores how King might be received now. He notes that King, whom he calls a "mix master," wouldn't hoop and holler at white churches as he would at black ones, "but he found a way to combine the rhythmic power of repetition and the emotive language, of crying out with quotes from Ovid and Goethe, merging his voice with theirs." At the same time, Rieder reminds us that King never pulled his punches. He would likely have been castigated for saying things such as, "We've committed more war crimes than almost any nation in the world"—much the same way that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been disdained for his outspoken criticism of America. But in the end, each of these books does a service to King's legacy, by lifting the layers of oversimplifying myth and legend to reveal a deeper, more complex man.