I often remark to my students that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., much celebrated speech that he delivered to a crowd of over 250,000 people on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was quite possibly the worst speech he ever delivered. Malcolm X summed up the entire event with the following quip, “it was a circus, with clowns and all.”
Now I do not cast disdain on either this moment or the oratorical wizardry that King repeatedly delivered when he amazingly took hardy slices of scriptures for his listeners to digest lightly. Nor do I necessarily agree with Brother Malcolm that the entire event “was a circus, with clowns and all.” The reason that I hold this moment in such disdain has little to do with King and everything to do with an outside world that has frozen him in what they have decided was his most defining moment.
The great Muhammad Ali stated, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” This quote is particularly applicable to Dr. King’s legacy as his prophetic vision was not silenced by an assassin’s bullet for nearly five years after that moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Despite many individuals’ best attempts to cease Dr. King’s legacy on August 28, 1963, Dr. King did not waste the last years of his life, he continued to grow ideologically and displayed a propensity to alter his philosophy as needed.
I think that it is appropriate on the Anniversary of Dr. King’s death to take a quick glance at a few of King’s beliefs after the March on Washington. Considering the recent release of the movie Selma, most are shocked to learn that King later realized that mass marches and dramatic protests were simply incapable of achieving the racial equality that whites so desperately resisted after President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It is this changing political climate that led the much celebrated King to issue the following indictments toward the nation and the movement.
“[W]ith Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade — the first phase — had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away.
When negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.
The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites…
Negroes of America had taken the President, the press and the pulpit at their word when they spoke in broad terms of freedom and justice . . . The word was broken, and the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance.
Whites’ increasing resistance to racial equality, let alone any concept of racial justice, forced King to re-evaluate the rising tide of “Black Power” occurring throughout the nation. The preacher from Atlanta eventually issued a statement that supported “Black Power” politics when he stated the following,
There is nothing essentially wrong with power. The problem is that in America power is unequally distributed. This has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience…. [I]t is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times…
Black Power is a call for the pooling of black financial resources to achieve economic security.… Through the pooling of such resources and the development of habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment, the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation. If Black Power means the development of this kind of strength within the Negro community, then it is a quest for basic, necessary, legitimate power.
So as we celebrate Dr. King’s still reverberating life, let’s consider something beyond the vaunted speech given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That is unless you think that Dr. King was the type of man to waste any portion of his life as Muhammad Ali stated. Trust me when I say, if you think that about Dr. King, you need to re-evaluate your entire understanding of our people.
James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2015