Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Cornel West, author of "Race Matters," talks at University of Utah about Martin Luther King.

When speaking about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cornel West issues a disclaimer: "I only give one lecture a year about Martin at most."

The philosopher and author explains, "I'm getting too old. It takes too much out of me" to reflect on the late civil right leader's depth, "the scope of his compassion, his love, his willingness to sacrifice for something bigger than him."

West, whose books include "Race Matters" and "Democracy Matters," was Thursday's keynote speaker for the University of Utah's 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

West was often interrupted by applause and shouts of affirmation from the standing-room-only crowd as he described King's belief in the Socratic method — that life isn't worth living without self-examination. West used satirical humor as he described the relevancy of the life and legacy of King, who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

"If he is not part of a viable and vibrant tradition of struggle for decency and dignity ... we end up allowing him to be Santa Clause-ized.

"When he was alive and in the flesh, he was the most dangerous black man in America, that's what the FBI said, if we believe J. Edgar Hoover," West said. "So anytime we mention that brother, man, we ought to shake and tremble. I know I do. That's why I only talk about the Negro once a year."

West told the audience, "It takes courage to examine yourself." Which is something, he says, America doesn't like to do.

However, in the post-9/11 world, West suggested that America would be wise to learn from King's legacy and "how have black people dealt with terrorism."

West pointed to irony in Americans' feeling of insecurity following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, drawing a comparison of "to be a black person in America for 400 years and to feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated for who you are."

He says America is what it is today because King and other civil rights leaders who opted against violence and terrorism. He wondered what would have happened if during King's march on Washington the leader had said, "I once loved my white brothers and sisters, but I changed my mind."

The question for today's society, he concluded, is "how do we melt the ice age in such a way that it becomes cool, hip and appealing to fall in love with truth and justice. ... That's Martin."

West, who has endorsed Barack Obama's campaign, also chimed in on presidential politics when asked hypothetically about an election pitting Barack Obama against Mitt Romney, given the LDS Church's past prohibition against blacks holding the priesthood.

West said the Mitt Romney he knew as Massachusetts governor is a different presidential candidate. However, when discussing Mormon attitudes, he said pointedly, "there's no such thing as a monolithic Mormon community.

"There's certainly more Republican Mormons than Republican black folk. That's true. But you've got a whole host of Republican black folk who are on television all the time, and you've got very progressive Mormon brothers and sisters who ought to be on TV more often."