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Martin Luther King, Jr., gazes serenely, almost expressionless, in a somber suit and tie before a backdrop of prison bars. Around his neck hangs a booking number, “7089.” Around his head is a brilliant golden halo. The picture is not a mug shot but an icon in the Byzantine tradition. It is, as its Greek inscription says, “Holy Martin.” St. Martin Luther King.
This icon is a popular piece of merchandise for a mail-order Company in Vermont. Each January, just before King's birthday they receive a flood of Orders. This phenomenon is an enigma, the fountainhead for a flood of questions. How can a black Baptist minister become the subject of a popular icon? What in American society and culture fostered its creation? Who invokes this great civil rights leader as a saint? But the most basic question is, how can Martin Luther King be considered a saint in the first place? Was it simply because he was slain for the cause of civil rights? Others died for the cause, and there are no icons of them.
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