Today – January 15, 2016 – marks the 87th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. Today through his holiday on Monday, we will reflect on his message, mission and moral mandate.
Much of what transpires on his holiday is predictable: Students and some workers will enjoy the day off, and opportunistic retail chains will likely have sales in his “honor.” Churches and community centers will hold large and small commemorations and television networks will air their nostalgic 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.
And despite all the media attention and gestures of reverance, Dr. King will unfortunately remain misunderstood. For almost the 48th consecutive year after his murder, this society will narrowly depict him as the nonviolent and “reasonable” contrast to Malcolm X, the lucid and colorblind sociopolitical “dreamer,” or the brilliant and poetic wordsmith-turned-folk- hero whose oratory moved the world from the black-and-white video clips of snarling police dogs and angry waterhoses to the promised land of integration.
All towering public figures risk our misinterpretation, as we try to distinguish between their private and public personas and the mythology created around them. In this sense, Dr. King is no different from other celebrated people.
Yet Dr. King is not just another “celebrity” in the sense that we understand the term today. Like brother Malcolm, Ella Baker and so many others, Dr. King didn’t distinguish himself by outlandish displays of wealth, or other forms of self-absorption; He made his mark by organizing, speaking truth to power, and challenging the ideological foundations of white supremacy.
Dr. King certainly was not without flaws.. The young activists of SNCC felt his leadership was often too charismatic and top-down. Ella Baker (an active organizer within King’s organization who later coordinated SNCC) constantly challenged King and the male civil rights leaders in their patriarchy.
Nevertheless, as an important Black leader, Dr. King joins a huge pantheon of people whose significance and meaning were deliberately 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.
The plain truth is that America often vilifies its 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 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 1968 assassination.
Only after an assassin’s bullet quieted his voice, did Dr. King posthumously receive America’s adulation: The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, 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), the declaration of his home and other relevant buildings as a National Historic Site, and in 2011 was the first non-president honored with a memorial in Washington, D.C. 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.
Despite these deferred accolades however, make no mistake; The government that honored Dr. King after his death, harrassed, despised and eventually killed him.
A man with over 700 American streets named after him, a national monument in his honor, 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.
I find it more useful to uncover dimensions of Dr. King that are often obscured in a collection of misleading myths. 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 inaccurate and 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 domination. In this sense, he challenged and threatened the philosophical basis 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 very 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. In fact, Dr. King delivered a powerful speech in 1967 entitled “The Three Evils of Society,” which he identified as racism, imperialism and materialism.
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!
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, rabidly 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.
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 maternal grandmother included),
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 and radical.
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 sift through the propaganda, and truly understand Dr. King’s motives and ideas, we can diligently defend him from those who wish to distort and pervert his meaning for us today.
This empowers us to use his ideas to challenge politicians and others who claim to support Dr. King, but write legislation and public policy diametrically opposed to his politics. We can also 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 should we interpret and respond to escalating acts of police brutality and corporate malfeasance?
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, homelessness and the prison system? Has America truly become “post-racial,” or does white supremacy and discrimination still dominate the landscape?
In closing, I urge everyone to listen to Dr. King’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” 35 minutes into the sermon he concluded by explaining how he wanted to be remembered in the event of his death. His words, like his life, are moving…
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei 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. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.