Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s discuss the real Dr. King.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but there’s more to Dr. King’s legacy than his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech that we were all force-fed every year in elementary school. We’ve been given a ‘Disney princess’ version of the great Reverend, and this is not by accident. MLK comes from a Black radical tradition rooted in love and extreme truth-telling about the violent and oppressive nature of the United States government. As great as he was, he was not perfect, and in line with this radical truth-telling tradition, we must also acknowledge where Dr. King failed.
King the Radical
Contrary to popular belief, Dr. King was hated by many during his lifetime. His kindness and aversion to violence did him no favors in the minds of white America back then. Many of the same people that glorify his legacy and message today were on the wrong side of history when he was still alive. This perfectly explains their hyper-focus on the most agreeable portion of his message, racial integration, and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. As King says in his 1967 speech, ‘The Other America,’ it’s a lot easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee stable housing and a living wage to every American.
Dr. King began his final transformation in the last three years of his life. He cracked the ‘DaVinci Code’ that is the white supremacist American Regime. He named America’s three evils of racism, imperialism, and economic exploitation. He expressed that those three things were inextricably linked, and dismantling those systems of oppression was the key to our collective liberation. He even went as far as opposing U.S. interventionism in Vietnam by following Coretta Scott King’s lead. This April 4th, 1967 speech he delivered in Riverside Church is regarded by many as the best speech he ever gave. It also marked the beginning of the end of his life.
His newly found anti-imperialist rhetoric coupled with uniting the multi-racial working class (by way of the Poor People’s Campaign) against their common oppressor made Dr. King a marked man. He was abandoned by many of his Black allies, as they withheld funding for his organizing campaigns and distanced themselves from him publicly. He continued to live under constant surveillance from the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO operation and lived in constant fear of white vigilantism. This was the cost of getting to the root of oppression, and he was brutally murdered even though he stayed committed to non-violence his entire life. Remember that as U.S. government officials invoke his name and memory today.
What King got wrong
As I mentioned earlier, Dr. King was not perfect. He was unfaithful to his wife, Coretta Scott King, and was not as involved in his children’s lives as he should have been. We must not sweep these things under the rug because saving the world is a tall task, but so is being a good father and husband. It’s possible that he could have assuaged the latter error by sharing more responsibilities with others within the movement. Dr. King did not do a good enough job of centering and championing the Black women that aided him in the Civil Rights struggle. We’ve learned now that the Civil Rights movement was not a gender-inclusive one, specifically regarding who was in leadership positions. This is an unfortunate failure that held the movement back then and something that we continue to struggle with to this day.
I admire Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence because he stayed true to it until the bitter end. However, it was not and is not an effective enough tactic against our collective oppression. Even when it succeeded early on in the movement, the people that it swayed were swayed by the State's violence and not by the realization that Black people deserve human rights. Dr. King expressed his disillusionment when he admitted that many of the alleged ‘white allies’ stopped supporting the movement when state violence was no longer center stage. When the movement became centered around habitable housing for all, eradicating poverty, and opposing imperialism, those ‘white allies’ morphed into silent spectators.
Additionally, a complete aversion to violence allows the state and its white vigilante allies to monopolize violence. I watched protestors all over this country protest police brutality peacefully over the summer and get viciously attacked by cops. Simultaneously, the corporate news media attempted to lie to me about what was happening right before my own eyes. I am not suggesting that Black people all become violence-seeking vigilantes, but what I am saying is that we cannot be completely opposed to defending ourselves and our communities with every tool at our disposal. If we are unarmed, they kill us anyway. If we peacefully march, they beat and arrest us anyway. This hasn’t changed since the inception of this nation, and it will always be a symptom of the U.S. Empire. As one of King’s former allies, Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) once said, “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a [moral] conscience. The United States has none.”
Lastly, I want to uplift the fact that Dr. King did not achieve all of his successes alone. The Civil Rights movement's collective gains cannot only be credited to King nor the other famous figures of the movement either. Millions of activists and organizers dedicated so much of their time and sacrificed their safety and well-being for the ‘beautiful struggle.’ We’ll never read about any of them in history books, nor are their speeches on YouTube, but they were just as important to the movement as Dr. King was. Furthermore, if we are to recreate a similar mass movement, most of us will have to do the work without becoming famous figures of history. We must tell the truth about Dr. King, and learn all that we can from his life and legacy to fully realize our shared dream of Black liberation.