The annual celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. creates annual mixed reactions and concerns. On the one hand it is great and wonderful that there is a national holiday that recognizes a great and courageous and brilliant African American who is an indelibly important part of the history of this country. And yet this holiday can also distort history and distract from the true significance of Dr. King.
Ever since the King national holiday has been a part of this country’s calendar, there has been a continuous effort to sanitize the life and legacy of Dr. King. There are any number of leading political figures who damned the living Dr. King and supported institutionalized racism and then became adherents of Dr. King’s “dream”. To this day, many people conveniently forget the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke truth to power and the abuse and misuse of that power.
Dr. King spoke out against social and income inequality. Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam and other imperialist incursions by the United States. Dr. King did not seek to accommodate injustice and while he advocated nonviolence, he did not advocate acceptance of what was wrong. His choice of nonviolence as a strategy was as calculated and as sincere as the strategies of opponents of injustice throughout world history including Gandhi, Castro and Mandela.
But it is not a surprise that there would also be some discomfort in placing the entire civil rights movement on the shoulders of Dr. King to the exclusion of all of the famed (and unnamed) millions of Americans who changed America. It can be imagined that Dr. King would be the very first person to point out that without W.E.B. Dubois and Walter White and Booker T. Washington and Thurgood Marshall there would have been no record of success by the national civil rights movement.
It can also be imagined that Dr. King would be the very first person to point out that without Harry T. Moore and Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo and Emmett Till there would have been no record of success by the national civil rights movement. And certainly, without the millions of parishioners of black (and white churches) who supported the Movement, along with the maids and cab drivers and train porters and students – all anonymous in current historical accounts – there would have been no record of success by the national civil rights movement.
The problem with the narrative that accompanies the King Holiday is that by promoting the “great man” theory, it gives everyone else a free pass. By presenting Dr. King as a demi-godlike apparition on the stage of history, it means that the rest of us cannot have the hope or capacity to create and sustain the kind of change attributed to him.
And I believe that Dr. King would be the first to say that that would be wrong. King was not a solo act. He was a virtuoso in one of the greatest human orchestras ever, and we would do well to remember that.