4 for Now
Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, politicians and white people who want to appear racially aware share the same couple of quotes from Dr. King. You know, the ones that make him look like a dreamer rather than a threat to white supremacy. But if he was simply a dreamer, would he have been vilified and assassinated?
(Granted, that’s a loaded question. As a Black man in the United States, he could very well have suffered the same fate no matter what he said or whether he drew a crowd for it.)
White folks share this whitewashed version of the Reverend Doctor, and Black folks ask us to stop. And we keep doing it.
So who was the real Martin Luther King Jr.?
“I knew [the US] would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
Dr. King challenged the slaughter and the imperialism that made poor people “kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
Both quotes are from his speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967. This not only made him unpopular (as the war had a 64% approval rating according to an October 1965 Gallup poll), it also highlighted his increasing distance from “respectibility politics.”
Federal authorities, fearing violence, turned the March on Washington into a military operation, placing 19,000 troops on standby in the D.C. suburbs to repress possible (but ultimately nonexistent) rioting. An FBI official later wrote that Dr. King’s speech meant that he was now “the most dangerous [Black man] of the future in this Nation.”
J. Edgar Hoover made trying to publicly discredit Dr. King his entire personality for a while. The animosity between them intensified in April 1964, after Dr. King said that the FBI was “completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and brutality inflicted upon the [Black community] in the Deep South.”
Across the US in the 1960s, white folks considered Dr. King “a traitor, communist, troublemaker and a con man.” [Paywalled. See text of article on Reddit.] In the 1966 Gallup poll, his positive rating dropped to 32% while his negative rating rose to 63%. It wasn’t until recently his rating improved (by 2011 his rating was 94% positive).
But don’t think this is because of his radical ideas. It’s only because of the whitewashing and appropriation of Dr. King’s work by whites that has made his legacy more palatable to us.
Dr. King was many things, more than what fits in a 4-minute blog post. But above all, he was a human who wanted better for himself and others. And he wasn’t afraid to stand up (or sit down) for it.
4 for Later
- Watch some of Dr. King’s speeches on YouTube .
- Learning for Justice has classroom and professional development resources, not just on Dr. King, but on all sorts of racial justice topics.
- Help continue Dr. King’s work by supporting the Poor People’s Campaign.
- Watch this video message from Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice [Twitter], pick one or more issues you care about (list starts at about 5:10), and take action to commemorate Dr. King and his legacy. See TheKingCenter.org for more information.