A ‘cultural icon’ may be defined as a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, especially of a culture or movement, perhaps even considered worthy of admiration or respect. Examples include Adolf Hitler as an ‘evil’ icon, Marilyn Monroe as a beautiful movie icon, Elvis Presley as the ‘King of rock’ icon, and even David and Victoria Beckham as an iconic couple of fashion and football. People admire the celebrities above and so this makes them cultural icons. In this essay, I shall focus on Martin Luther King Jr, as a cultural icon. I will evaluate the significance he made to society, which is what made him into being the icon he was and still is today. Martin Luther King was perhaps one of the most influential people of our times. People saw him as the father of the modern civil rights movement, he is recognized around the world as a symbol of freedom and peace.
Martin Luther King Jr was born on January 15th, 1929 and was the son of an Atlanta pastor. The community in which he lived was like many he knew. He said, “No-one in our community had attained any great wealth.”1 The neighbourhood he lived in was religious just as King’s family were. As a child King first experienced racism towards him when he made friends with a white boy and was told that they could not go to the same school as each other because King was black. The parents of the white boy told him that he could no longer play with their son. King was very upset and his mother told him of the race problem, and this was the first time he was made aware of it. King said, “From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person.”2 However it was his father who taught him not to hate, and that people should love one another.
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His father told him, “You should not hate this white man, it is your duty as a Christian to love him.”3 King grew up wanting to make a difference in black people’s lives, and create social and racial equality. He remembers what it was like being black in America. “Being a Negro in America is not a comfortable existence. It means being a part of the bruised, the battered, the scarred and the defeated. Being a Negro means trying to smile when you want to cry.” King was incredibly clever and studied hard. As a result, he achieved many great things, such as obtaining a divinity degree and a doctorate in theology. King also achieved the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1964. King was assassinated in 1968 outside his hotel room by James Earl Gray. He was prepared to die if it meant freedom for black people and social and racial justice in society. It was only the day before his death that he had addressed the Mason Temple congregation and spoke of threats against his life by ‘some of our sick white brothers.’
He mentioned that he would like to live a long life, but said, “I just want to do God’s will…I’m happy tonight, I am not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”6 This shows King as very righteous and brave and should be remembered for his courageousness. Nowadays, black citizens have exactly the same rights as white citizens. If King had not done what he did, perhaps things may have been different today. Even though racism still unfortunately exists, it is less common and not tolerated in most countries and societies. Black people of America and elsewhere are thankful for King’s efforts and success. King died as a martyr for black and white people alike. Peace and justice were achieved.
King ultimately accomplished his dream. “I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers…one day every negro in this country, every coloured person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character, rather than the colour of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”Martin Luther King Jr looked up to Mohandas K. Gandhi, another one of society’s cultural icons. He adopted many of his strategies including non-violence tactics. Gandhi however, sought political independence, whereas King wanted to transform structures of political, social and economic systems, so that society and its people could experience integration and live together harmoniously, without racism and hatred. King was impressed with pacifism, which is the belief that violence is not the way to resolve differences. He decided that this was the perhaps hardest and longest way to social change, but the most effective and longer-lasting.
One of the main reasons why King Jr, is seen as a cultural icon, is because he managed to stand up to the oppressors in his life and change laws and people’s thoughts without the use of violence. This is an admirable quality and he is respected for this. King explained, “Hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love.” King maintained the view that “violence is immoral because it increases the existence of evil.” King’s non-violent demonstrations brought about several achievements, e.g. the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He said, “Fewer people have been killed in ten years of non-violent demonstrations across the south than were killed in one night of rioting in Watts.”
King died at a time when the United States needed him most. He had the courage of his convictions and the vision of a prophet. A friend of King’s said, “Martin Luther King’s knowledge ranged widely and his prophetic wisdom penetrated deeply into human affairs…he sought to relieve the slavery of the oppressor as well as that of the oppressed. It is now for us to aid the oppressed and to heal the hate sealed world.” Therefore, King left it up to us, modern-day society to carry on his fight. King was a remarkable human being and gave hope to all situations. People can now fight for what they believe in and know that anything is possible with a little determination. If King can create equality, peace and justice, then shouldn’t society be encouraged to fight our own battles to get what we need/deserve?
King became a national hero, and this is proved by the National Holiday celebrated every year on January 20th. It is called the ‘Martin Luther King day.’ On this day, Americans think about racial equality and non-violent social change. King changed or influenced the views of many people, including today’s people. Also, on this day, people remember his many achievements and Negroes thank him for standing up to the world and achieving integration. King gave them freedom and made racism and prejudice aware to each and every one of us. In addition to the National Holiday, the Lorraine Hotel where King Jr, was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum. Martin Luther King, a man of integrity, intelligence, determination and strength to fight. King was a man who will always be remembered and will be part of history forever.
- Ansbro, J (2000). Martin Luther King Jr: Non-Violent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change. New York-London: Madison Books.
- Giddens, A (2001). Sociology-4th ed. Cambridge: Polity Press-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- Harmer, H (1998). Martin Luther King. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.
- King Jr, Martin Luther (1984) – The words of Martin Luther King Jr – selected by Coretta Scott King. Great Britain: Robson Books Ltd.
- King Jr, Martin Luther (1958). Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.
- King Jr, Martin Luther (1967). Where Do We Go From There: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper and Row Publishers.
- King Jr, Martin Luther (1968). The Trumpet of Conscience. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
- Lenwood, G.Davis (1969). I have a dream. London: Greenwood Press.