Today we observe the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and reflect upon Dr. King’s message, mission and moral mandate. Much of what transpires today is predictable: Students have no classes, many workers have the day off, and opportunistic corporations will likely have sales in his “honor.” Churches and community centers will hold large and small commemorations and television networks will air their annual Dr. King movies, interviews, and news specials. Some of us will play audio or video clips of Dr. King’s passionately poetic speeches and marvel at his courage, commitment and vision.
Of course, the magnitude of this day is not lost on President Barack Obama whose inauguration ceremony coincides with King’s holiday. According to the Constitution, Presidential inaugurations occur on January 20th. So President Obama was privately sworn in yesterday at noon in the White House. Anytime an inauguration day falls on a Sunday, the public ceremony is pushed back to the following day. This is only the second time since King’s Holiday became official in 1986 that the holiday coincided with the Presidential inauguration. So no, President Obama did not change the day himself to fall on Dr. King’s birthday. In fact, six other U.S. Presidents had their inaugurations on January 21st because the official day fell on a Sunday. Nevertheless we know that the President appreciates this coincidence for all the powerful racial, political and historical meaning it imports. The President announced that he will take his oath using a Bible that once belonged to Dr. King.
Dr. King’s Legacy Still Misunderstood
As is the case with any towering public individual, Dr. King remains a misunderstood figure. With Martin Luther King Jr. the task of accurately perceiving him becomes more complicated given the many dimensions of his life. We can understand him as a man of God, a scholar, an activist/organizer for social justice, an organizational leader, a humanitarian, an orator, a writer, a pacifist, and the list goes on. Moreover, as an important and inspiring Black leader, Dr. King joins a huge pantheon of people whose significance and meaning were deliberately (and unintentionally) distorted by the American elite and by various groups around the world who see in Dr. King a role model and influence for their own particular issues and interests.
In my previous article about Muhammad Ali I made the point that America vilifies our heroes while they’re alive, and honors them in their death. We must NEVER forget that the government wiretapped King’s home and office telephones and hotel rooms across the country. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover – with partial permission from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy – compiled a ruthless record of harassment against King, which included the false accusation of him being a communist, making audio recordings of his sexual encounters, threatening letters, and ultimately complicity in his assassination in 1968. Then after his death, King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, was voted the number six most important person of the century by Time Magazine (2000), voted the third greatest American by a Discovery Channel poll, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (2004), had his home and other relevant buildings declared a National Historic Site, and in 2011 was the first non-president honored with a memorial in Washington, D.C. Then on November 2, 1983 following an impressive campaign led by Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder, President Ronald Reagan (of all people) signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King. The holiday is now observed on the third Monday of January each year. Interesting how that works, isn’t it?
A man with over 700 American streets named after him, the first non-President to have a monument in the nation’s capital, and the subject of hundreds of books, movies and documentaries needs no long introduction. Indeed, we can fetch any amount of trivia pertaining to Dr. King from the internet in minutes. The goal of this article is to challenge 4 myths about Dr. King, inaccurate assessments of him that serve to obscure his meaning. My hope is that this will help us to better understand, defend, and implement his ideas.
Debunking The Myths Surrounding Dr. King
1. King was no threat to the power structure. Some politically conscious people, in an attempt to trivialize King’s impact because they disagree with his nonviolent and “integrationist politics,” suggest that Dr. King posed no real threat to American interests. This myth is easily dismissed. Dr. King confronted the philosophy and practice of racial segregation, particularly the racist assumption that Blacks were inferior to whites and subject to their control. In this sense, he challenged and threatened the philosophical basis of and justification of white supremacy! He helped Blacks gain access to educational, political and economic sites of power. Dr. King challenged the military industrial complex by speaking out against war and American imperialism. According to him, “America should support the shirtless and barefoot people in the Third World rather than suppressing their attempts at revolution.” Dr. King also had a class dimension to his analysis. He decried poverty and once noted “Something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” He planned a “Poor People’s Campaign” which sought to have Congress create an “Economic Bill of Rights,” for all American citizens. And lest we forget, his last political move prior to his assassination was to support the strike of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Therefore contrary to the myth, Dr. King posed serious threats to the concept of White supremacy, to the military industrial complex and American imperialism, and to the selfish and ruthless interests of big business/corporations. On a more basic note, if Dr. King were not a serious threat to the establishment, he would not have been jailed over 30 times, had his house bombed, been under government surveillance, or assassinated! Listen to Dr. King courageously challenge American imperialism:
2. Dr. King’s nonviolent tactics were weak or cowardly. My own political hero Malcolm X once believed this and later came to change his position. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, we must understand that Dr. King did not simply speak against racism, but organized masses of Black people to challenge hostile southern racists directly. He confronted brutal police chiefs, rapidly racist white citizens right in their backyard! He endured time in some of this nation’s most dangerous jails, willingly put himself in great physical danger to do so, and inspired others to join him. We may disagree with the wisdom or impact of King’s tactics, but we certainly cannot say they were “cowardly.”
3. Dr. King was Color-Blind. This myth usually derives from liberal whites who feel left out of the King discussion or from Negroes whose humanitarian interests lead them to confuse racism with self-determination. Dr. King grew up in the racially segregated south. He experienced the isolation of having to use black bathrooms, water fountains, and dining facilities. And he vowed to change this condition. These race-based conditions are what led him to become a leader for social change in the first place. Read his sermons or speeches and see how many references he makes to the “Negro condition,” “racial superiority or inferiority,” or our “sick white brothers.” Or listen to this interview in which he outlines how he developed racial consciousness as a child.Dr. King clearly saw himself as a Black man confronting white supremacy on behalf of Black people. This was his foundation. He certainly welcomed white support and challenged issues beyond race, but to suggest that he was color-blind is simply inaccurate. We cannot remove people from their geographical, historical or political context. Nor should we impose our own politics on those of Dr. King’s. Listen to King speaking to the issue of Blackness below:
4. Whites Chose and Appointed Dr. King’s Leadership. This is another example of disingenuous claims from segments of the Black community. Dr. King rose to national and later global prominence from his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1953-54, initially called by longtime activist Jo Ann Robinson. The Montgomery Improvement Association, composed entirely of Black clergy and community members (my grandmother included), chose Dr. King and asked him to lead the movement. Several years passed before Dr. King received mass support from liberal elements of the white community, and even then he received criticism from some of those elements – a situation for example that led him to write his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in response to white clergy who thought him too impulsive.
Why is it necessary for us to debunk myths about Dr. King? So that we are empowered to understand, defend, and implement his ideas. If we truly understand Dr. King’s motives and ideas, we can diligently defend them from those who wish to distort and pervert such ideas. We can use his ideas to challenge politicians and others who claim to support Dr. King, but write legislation and public policy diametrically opposed to his philosophy. We can raise important questions. For example, how does Dr. King’s philosophy speak to the murder of Osama Bin Laden or Muammar Ghaddifi without the benefit of a trial by members of their countries? How do we understand America’s military relationships with Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land? What is our moral and political mandate concerning poverty, public education, healthcare, social services and the prison system? Are ultra-conservatives justified in attempting to use Dr. King’s words/ideas to justify their attacks on abortion, gay, and women’s rights? Has America truly become “post-racial,” or does white supremacy and discrimination still dominate the landscape? In closing, I submit the following video clip of Dr. King’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” in which he elaborated on how he wanted to be remembered, at 3:33 seconds in:
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.