One of the most misunderstood and misrepresented individual’s in American History is also one of the most popular; the person that I am alluding to is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now I am absolutely certain that many readers are questioning how is one of the most well known figure’s in American history ‘misunderstood and misrepresented’?
If you are one of those who are questioning the validity of my statement that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is ‘misunderstood and misrepresented’ you have made a typical error of associating an
individual’s fame with the world understanding their message. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is quite possibly the greatest victim one could find in regards to his true message, particularly the post-March on Washington period, not being heard by the masses of people, including those who proclaim to follow his teachings.
Unfortunately for King, the most important aspects of his activism have been ignored by the very people who most vociferously champion his positions of integration and non-violent civil disobedience. According to historian Anthony Quinn, “Dr. King is remembered as ‘The Dreamer’ whose greatest goal was the ending of racial discrimination. That is only part of his story, so that makes it a partial lie.”
Unfortunately for Dr. King, he, and more importantly his message, has been frozen on August 28, 1963; the date that he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The primary problem with freezing Dr. King at this particular moment is that it causes people to ignore the last five years of King’s public political career that saw the Civil Rights Leaders mature into a radical political leader and theoretician who finally realized what droves of other leaders eventually realize; that being, in America it is always about the money.
Ironically, the celebrated Civil Rights icon that most people remember in their minds today would neither be recognized nor supported the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that was not assassinated until 1968. Despite supporters most desperate attempts to refute this reality, the false memories that so many have created about King is an inaccurate and dishonest representation of the Civil Rights Leaders final belief systems and political goals. According to Mike Hinton, “The Dr. King that was speaking out against poverty and the Vietnam-War is a figure that would disturb the vast majority of Americans. It is one of the reasons why we don’t deal with it. We prefer to portray Dr. King as an accommodating, self-sacrificing, and eternally optimistic figure who never tired of the economic equality occurring throughout this nation. And that is simply a lie, a lie of major proportions.”
If MLK’s post-March on Washington speeches and writings are examined closely, a rather radical figure emerges. This radicalized King is markedly different from the accommodating, patient, and long-suffering figure that many have popularized for their own selfish reasons. It is this King who took the nation for not having the courage to pursue true racial equality, a process that Dr. King admits would be as lengthy as it was difficult.
[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.
King feared that since many Americans foolishly considered the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts a magical cure-all for the nation’s race problem, its failure would disappoint many.
Dr. King realized that Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act secured equality on the law books of America, a feat that must not be ignored as Blacks had never been equal in the eyes of the law prior to the aforementioned Voting Rights Act, however, this theoretical equality meant little to the average Negroes day-to-day existence as it would never deliver tangible gains. A radicalized King admonished whites by reminding them that legislative acts only secured theoretical equality, however, the subsequent stage, the exercise of equality, had yet to occur. According to King,
“(t)he 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.”
There was no equivocating in King’s mind that whites, even so-called liberals, despite their rhetoric and hobnobbing with Blacks, were in no way shape or form prepared for racial equality. According to Dr. King, Naïve Blacks, as they are known to do,
…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’ hypocrisy produced a new push among young Blacks that was best expressed with the slogan “Black Power!!!!!” Although the language and imagery behind Black Power politics somewhat saddened King, he realized the disappointment from whence the language came from. King remarked that
Many of the young people proclaiming Black Power today were but yesterday the devotees of black-white cooperation and nonviolent direct action.… If they are America’s angry children today, this anger is not congenital. It is a response to the feeling that a real solution is hopelessly distant because of the inconsistencies, resistance and faintheartedness of those in power.
Many have chosen to ignore Dr. King’s post-March on Washington evolution for their own selfish political reasons; put simply, during the final years of his life the Civil Rights stalwart had abandoned previous hopes that whites would ever do what was morally correct for African-Americans. It was in the years after the March on Washington Movement that King’s philosophy dramatically altered and led to a shift away from persuasive speeches seeking to tap into the morality of the white man, by 1965 this Baptist preacher realized that the white man was woefully deficient when it came to any semblance of morality in regards to racial matters. King realized that when it came to racial matters, the only path to Black liberation was for African-Americans to begin pooling their political and economic resources. Although many wish to ignore this fact, however, it is clear that during the latter moments of his life, Dr. King was almost solely focused upon economic inequality in America. Dr. King once posited the following argument in regards to economic inequality.
As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.
As evidenced by his final social movement in America, ‘the Poor People’s Campaign’ and one should not forget that Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, the location where he would unfortunately be assassinated, speaking on behalf of sanitation workers who were striking for increased wages and working conditions.
It is moments such as this that most frustrated Dr. King as they reaffirmed his conclusion that he must continue to tirelessly work to prove that all mankind was “…caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” It was the fact that we are inextricably connected to one another that should cause urgency among those who proclaim love and affinity for Dr. King’s legacy. According to Dr. King, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
It is this call that best represents Dr. King, however, it will continue to be ignored because it places the onus for activism on the backs of average Americans, the alluded to activist call means that they, particularly those to whom much have been given, may have to loosen their grip upon ‘things’ in favor of enjoying the sweetest things that this world has never experienced: racial equality, gender equity, universal health care, and the ending of hunger throughout the planet.
James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2016