The recent national celebration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrated the caution with which the lens of history should be used. Obviously history depends upon who is telling the story and what are the motives of the historian. In the case of Martin Luther King there are competing motives.
Many of the celebrants who extol Dr. King’s virtues as a peacemaker and an advocate of universal harmony conveniently forget (or neglect) the broader of the story of this man. Seen through the lens of the times in which he lived he was a radical. Dr. King fought against a system of American institutionalized racism that was so vicious that a man could be killed for seeking the vote for Black Americans (e.g. Medgar Evers shot to death in his driveway in Mississippi in 1963 or for going to church on Sunday to worship God (four Black girls murdered by Ku Klux Klan bombers at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, also in 1963)
Only a radical Black man would stand up against the system of American racism that had countenanced, indeed accepted, the lynching of thousands of Black men and women in the 100 years prior to the Montgomery bus boycott that brought Dr. King to national attention. And only a radical Black man would seek to inspire Black people to shed the cloak of subtle resistance and instead to take up the armor of confronting the hatred and racism that flowed unchecked through the American bloodstream.
Much has been made about Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence without taking into account that he understood the very radical strategy employed successfully by Mahatma Gandhi. Both Gandhi and Dr. King understood that their enemy – the British in India and white American racists (and their enablers) in America, would meet resistance and protest with unimaginably vicious violence and hatred.
They both understood that strategically, exposing the imperialists in India and the racists in America for who they were would ultimately induce such shame and disgust that change would have to come. Certainly the imperfect results in India and America should not diminish the understanding that true victories were won against odds that would have been insuperable in violent conflict.
Dr. King espoused nonviolence as a strategy. He did not advocate complacency or the peaceful and timid acceptance of the status quo. Dr. King sought to uproot the status quo and for proof we need to go no further than to remember that Dr. King identified income equality and poverty as evils that also had to be confronted. He also understood the error of American imperialism so tragically exposed in the Vietnam War. And for taking those positions he was criticized and shunned by many in a country that now seeks to honor a sanitized version of a man who sought to change the world.
Even the so-called “I Have a Dream” speech has been misinterpreted and miscast as an expression of hope for a better day in some vague day in the by and by. But a more truthful understanding of his radical call for change on that August day in 1963 is revealed in his words before his reference to the “dream”. Consider some of these excerpts, clearly spoken and just as clearly, conveniently ignored:
“One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
These were the words of a man who had a clear-eyed vision of the vile and hateful nature of institutionalized racism and these were the words of a man who fought against it literally to his dying day. Those who wish to praise Dr. King without acknowledging his radical stance in the face of what were (and are) overwhelming odds, do not do justice to his memory.
Those who wish sugarcoat the memory of Dr. King through mythical hagiography dishonor everything that he stood for and died for.
It is right to remember Dr. King. It is also right to remember that he had a lot more than a dream.