As I mentioned here, I do a fair amount of guest lecturing in our faculty members' civil rights classes. Each time I meet with a new group of students, I do my very best to remind people that Dr. King was only the most "noticeable and charismatic" of individuals within a narrow window of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
I think it's important for many reasons, but among the most important is to provide more accessible role models in the wake of our national deification of Dr. King, of Rosa Parks, etc. All too often, students end up thinking that only "great men" and "great women" can foment great change.
But avoiding a reductionist history of the movement leads to a richer story for all involved - not just students.
The movement began (even in its most remembered nonviolent 1960s guise) long before Dr. King was born, and it should continue now, even though I must ask myself why such racism and hatred persists in today's society, why such a fragmentation at the heart of the CRM was allowed to occur without true attainment of its goals. There are so many people we can learn from - yes, Dr. King is an individual from whom we can all learn so much, but there were thousands of others; rich people who gave up everything (William Monroe Trotter) or very little (T.R.M. Howard), poor who had nothing to give, like Fannie Lou Hamer, but gave it anyway in their blood and sweat in dark prison cells in Mississippi. Jo An Robinson, Claudette Colvin, Paul Cuffee, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, James Meredith, Medgar, Myrlie, and Charles Evers, Bob Moses, Vernon Dahmer... so many names, faces, stories, strengths and foibles.
As I've noticed in many threads, people somehow try to qualify one person as being "more hated" than another. This kind of "quantification" shouldn't happen, especially not here, among all these progressive minds. Even though Dr. King, Vernon Dahmer, and Medgar Evers gave their lives in the struggle for rights, they understood this: a poor laborer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who lost his land because he participated in Freedom Summer, had lost his livelihood, and a young black girl in Arkansas who didn't have books but yearned to read lost her hope. The black men and women who died at the hands of white men driven by ignorance and hatred wanted to preserve everything that was good for all people. They would have despaired more over the loss of HOPE than the loss of one person, for they knew that even if one person died, others would step up to take his or her place - as long as they all had strength, hope, and the same ultimate goal.
All these people were only human, but they were given strength by their belief that a man (or woman, later - even SNCC & COFO had problems with sexist discrimination) had rights, regardless of the color of his skin. It is our responsibility to remember in these times (that yes, try our souls) the changes wrought in the Civil Rights Movement were created by thousands of people doing little things and massive protests. We should commemorate Dr. King, not just this day, but every day - with our words and our actions, but we should also remember the thousands of people who went before and made the explosion of justice in the 1960s possible. The people I named above and their stories are remarkable. They should serve as our guides during the next few years, because they have fought far, far more entrenched hatred than we confront today. They succeeded to a degree, and it is up to us, regardless of color to take up their mantle, re-learn their stories and dust off their time-worn shoes for another long march toward justice.