Martin Luther King was a great man and he was made greater by martyrdom; he had eudaimonia, and the way his life ended gave the entirety a blessed meaning. He did not live to become old, angry, and irrelevant, or long enough that his flaws began to outweigh his virtues. His death was cruel and sparked a destructive rampage as riots swept across the United States in its aftermath, but it became one of those punctuation marks that separated the violent and frantic 1960s from the new status quo that followed them. In death he became the symbol of his people's struggle, a kind of glorious jewel in their crown. While he was alive, many white Americans thought he was dangerous and many black Americans thought he was too timid: his death had a way of clarifying precisely who endangered who, and who was braving what.
King didn't excel at school at first, and he had a habit of engaging in plagiarism: to argue that this was overlooked due to a sort of nascent political correctness is ludicrous, as this was a time when black men trying to register at university were more likely to be beaten senseless by the Ku Klux Klan than subjected to less stringent marking criteria. However, he gained his PhD and became a preacher, which in those days especially meant to be a community leader and a politician more than an original academic thinker.
At college, King developed some of the tastes that would threaten his reputation and give his enemies ammunition to use against him later in life - drinking, womanizing and a vanity that some of his contemporaries found hard to swallow. His womanizing was not atypical in the milieu he moved in, and seems in his case to have been amplified by a desire for escapism born of his own fear of violent death. His over-use of alcohol was probably also influenced by this, and it's always seemed to me that his frequent bouts of exhaustion-related illness might have been helped by backing off the bottle (and the fag packet) as well as backing off his frenetic fund-raising and speaking schedule. His aides called his lifestyle the "War on Sleep", an echo of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" that was probably hilarious if you were there.
King was a preacher in Montgomery, Alabama and got drawn into the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The civil rights movement in the South was an amorphous entity which aimed to undo the system of state and local laws known as Jim Crow. These laws mandated the segregation of black and white Americans, requiring all public places - schools, buses, railways, restaurants - to provide supposedly "separate but equal" facilities for whites and blacks. Of course, as well as being objectionable in itself, this usually meant that black facilities were inferior in quality to the ones for whites. The system was kept in place by savage restrictions on the ability of black citizens to vote and hence overturn the laws.
This system had come into being after the federal government declined to impose a social revolution on the American South after the Civil War, and up until the 1950s most black organizations - such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People - focused on gradual reform through the courts and legal system. The people that made up the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s had a different goal: to force the federal government to come back and finish the job, often simply through the moral example provided by their broken bodies as they braved the organized resistance of southern law enforcement and the Klan.
Within this context, King had a number of roles. The first was as a leader, organizer and inspiration for the movement. In the civil rights movement, all politics was local - the movement focused on specific injustices in specific places, from segregation on Montgomery's buses to broad attacks on the segregation regime in Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. As the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded after the Montgomery boycott in 1957, King was often only one of the leading figures involved in these campaigns. Although his mastery of Gandhian techniques has been overstated, King's basic tactic was to expose the injustice of the Jim Crow system by having his followers violate its laws and then let the world see how the American South treated black people who wanted to sit at a lunch counter or gather peacefully in the streets.
By adopting these peaceful tactics, King occupied the centre ground of the civil rights movement. At the more extreme end - the end that eventually adopted Black Power as its slogan - you had blacks who believed in violence and separation from whites. At the sharper end of the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which joined other parts of the left in going a bit dotty in the late 1960s and changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee, a fairly provocative signal of intent, violence-wise. Then you had the NAACP, which often treated King as a demagogue who would just scare white folks and set back their goal of peaceful reform through the legal system, which NAACP had been pursuing since before Martin Luther King was born, thank you very much.
King rejected the path of violence and he rejected the gradualism of the NAACP, and with good reason. The moral quandaries of violence aside, it was a hopeless path when blacks made up such a small part of the population and had such a small share of its means of organized violence. And gradual reform couldn't be accomplished from within the American South, which was essentially a one-party state dominated by the segregationist Democrats. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, King addressed himself to the moderates, saying: "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!'... This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never'." And never wasn't good enough for Martin Luther King Jr: so he set about trying to involve the only power that could truly rid the South of Jim Crow, the federal government in Washington.
This wasn't easy. John F. Kennedy showed little interest in civil rights until shortly before his death, which is what prompted King to go to Washington to give his famous I have a dream speech in the interest of keeping pressure on the government to act. The breakthrough came with Lyndon Johnson, with whom King at first enjoyed a good relationship. With the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965, Johnson finally made the Jim Crow system illegal, an act which for a Democratic Party president at the time was a bit like a turkey voting for Christmas. The so-called "solid south", the base of Democratic support since the late 1870s, drifted into the Republican camp, and this had something to do with the Republican domination of the office of the presidency in the next few decades.
After the triumphs of the mid-1960s, King wasn't ebullient. He increasingly turned his attention to the struggle for economic equality rather than equality in law, addressing himself to the problem of the economic and social situation of northern blacks. He also increasingly saw himself as part of a worldwide struggle which included opposition to the Vietnam War, and in joining the coalition against the war he angered President Johnson. For most of his career, King had been a target of FBI snooping and suspicion, and Johnson now began to give credence to the reports he received from J. Edgar Hoover that King was a danger, possibly even a Communist. King's rhetoric shifted to portraying poor white and black Americans as both victims of the capitalist system, and stressed their need to work together for equality. "This is such a sick society," he took to saying.
It was while visiting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee that King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray for reasons unknown. King's final campaign on behalf of the poor had been controversial, as other black leaders saw the same capitalist system he did but prescribed a radically different solution: black separation and independent power, rather than integration into the current system. They were unable to trust white America, or the government of America, after all that had been done to their people: the psychic damage was too much. King stood for something different: for peace, for integration, and for mutual love. He was still working for it when he died, and that's how he has been remembered.