Since his assassination, the public image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has benefited from a postmortem revival. Forty years after his murder, King is America’s racial symbol of choice. His name signifies progress, racial harmony, and, for many, the standard-bearer of African-American leadership. Within the American cultural imagination, Martin Luther King Jr. now sits comfortably among the pantheon of American male civic gods such as Christopher Columbus, John Winthrop, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.
Cultural memory, however, can be deceptive. It has the telescopic tendency to look beyond the many valleys along the historical landscape to hone narrowly in on what the passage of time has deemed the high moments. Simply put, it allows us to elude being on the wrong side of history. This is particularly true of America, given her affinity toward future-oriented optimism and aversion to acknowledging past sins. Cultural memory becomes a tool to sanctify the present and to assure ourselves of the all-American propensity toward the sublime. And we do this, unfortunately, while mythically revising or outright denying our culpability and capitulation to history’s midnight moments.
For instance, today one would think that all reasonable men supported the women’s suffrage movement, and that every mainstream American steadfastly opposed Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution. It further goes without saying that the vast majority of contemporary Americans would have sided with the abolitionist movement, fought against Japanese American internment, supported anti-lynching laws, and would never in a million years have voted for Richard Nixon! In our minds, we are a moral people—we always will be, because we have always been.
This explains, in part, America’s contemporary love affair with Martin Luther King Jr. We were on his side. We shared his Dream. We, too, desired a more just society. And thus we circle around and feast from King’s murdered carrion like carnivores of cultural cooption. We lay claim to, and even define the boundaries of, King’s legacy in order to vindicate us of any complicity in his murder. Almost as if celebrating his slain body and shed blood represents the transubstantiation that can cast America’s racial sins into the sea of forgetfulness.
But, again, cultural memory can be a stupefying narcotic. Forty years ago today, on April 4, 1968, America was hardly on King’s side. His poetically articulated Dream of 1963 was long forgotten. King’s call for a more just society was interpreted as the fanatical delusions of a Negro radical in the mind of the American mainstream. Let’s face reality. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reputation as an American hero was mortally wounded well before the assassin’s bullet shattered his jaw. In his post-1965 reincarnation, King fatally fell out of favor with America. The reasons are simple yet far from simplistic.
He chose what he regarded as Christian discipleship over racial diplomacy and moral truth over political tact. King essentially decided to no longer be a political bonsai tree pruned in the direction that the white and even black establishments would have him grow. His shift from the language of reform to that of revolution (an American “revolution of values,” to be exact), and from civil rights for Southern Negroes to human rights for the oppressed throughout the globe, effectively sabotaged his career as a “Negro leader.” This is what King seemingly desired. Not that he found masochistic pleasure in vexing his civil rights cohorts, aggravating white liberal allies, and seemingly justifying the concocted claims of longtime opponents. But King did realize that a man of moral conscience could not be a consensus leader. Prophets are neither hand-picked by the powerful nor necessarily popular. Like his ancient Hebrew spiritual interlocutors that served as his moral inspiration, King was prepared to lament from outside the city gates of cultural acceptance.
To be clear, King’s condemnation of America over the war in Vietnam was just one of several issues that undermined his reputation as a moderate Negro “voice of reason.” Remember that when King questioned not just racial inequality but the morality of the American capitalist economy, the donations of limousine liberals began to dry up. For wealthy whites who wanted to provide charitable gifts downward without protesting inequality upward, King refused to confer a spiritual indulgence to absolve them of their sins. Funds that once filled the coffers of King’s organization had, by 1967, dissipated to the point of almost crippling the operational budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition. Yet King remained undeterred.
Recall that when King denounced but refused to disengage from the chorus of “Black Power” emerging from a younger generation of black activists, African American civil rights leaders like Whitney Young of the National Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP grew ever the more uncomfortable with him. Contrary to black bourgeois leaders, King believed that it was too simplistic to scapegoat the radical pleas of black youth for the public policy failings of a federal government that was not genuinely interested in social equality. The all-too familiar tune of “cooperation from below will lead to change from above” had been omitted from King’s intellectual iPod to the chagrin of black elites who were beginning to reach for the economic carrot that the federal government dangled before them. Yet King remained unfazed.
And we should recount the manner in which King’s scathing criticisms of US foreign policy became fodder for the FBI and King’s most ardent critics. Media sources that were “friendly” to the Johnson administration peppered their pages with depictions of an unpatriotic radical who was influenced by those who sought to overthrow the American government. As President Lyndon B. Johnson declared from the White House, “what does that southern Nigger preacher want?” the mainstream media machine, including the so-called liberal New York Times, contributed to a verbal castigation of King that conflated American dissent with disloyalty and moral challenge with treason. Yet King remained unbowed.
These, I argue, are the aspects of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life that are often overlooked in favor of our national celebration of King, the innocuous colorblind dreamer! To linger too long in the historically accurate land of King’s contentious politics is to find the American mainstream, black and white, guilty of throwing stones at the martyred leader. For it was the American mainstream, which both the Gallup and Harris polls of 1967 viewed King as outside of, that undeniably helped to orchestrate the concert of terror in which alleged triggerman James Earl Ray struck the decisive chord. So despite our sanctimonious January celebrations each year, we were the ones who preferred the Barabbas of the status quo over the radical King in 1968. And not even the grandest monument on the Washington mall can erase the fact that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI regarded King as “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”
Even here the feds were only half right. Yes, King was dangerous. His commitment to parrhesia positioned him as a danger to the status quo, white supremacy, economic injustice, and, most importantly, to himself. But these are the very reasons it is impossible to regard him as an “effective Negro leader.” The adjectives “dangerous” and “effective” are oxymoronic in the substantive realm of Negro leadership. To be a Negro leader meant to serve as an intermediary between one’s race and the white power structure. Being an effective Negro leader meant conforming to the restrictive racial ethos of America’s social mores by fulfilling the triumvirate tasks of inspiration, appeasement and accommodation; inspiring and appeasing their African-American constituency while accommodating the powers that be.
Think Booker T. Washington who, with his famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise Address, appealed to the economic aspirations of African Americans with his Tuskegee model of vocational training and gospel of entrepreneurialism. Yet it was this same Negro leader who was willing to assuage the anxieties of poor white Southerners and wealthy Northern philanthropists by eschewing the goals of social equality and civic participation for his own race.
Think Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who was able to give political power a seemingly “authentic” black voice by securing expanded rights and services for African Americans as the very productive chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. Yet this same “President of Black America” effectively insulated the Democratic leadership from massive black protests.
And even think the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His proto-nationalist prescriptions successfully inspired a sense of black pride and carved out a petit-bourgeoisie niche for his urban followers. Yet his political sectarianism was psychologically grounded in a racial avoidance tendency that allowed fiery though fatalistic rhetoric to obscure what was essentially black self-segregation and political disenfranchisement.
These are examples of “effective Negro leaders.” But King broke the mold. After 1965, King eclipsed the prescribed racial limits of the job description. He was not good at double-speak as he courageously addressed all audiences with the same moral clarity and consistency. If Jim Crow was wrong when practiced by Bull Connor and Sheriff Clark in Selma, it was just as wrong in its de facto forms in Chicago and Cleveland. If high unemployment affecting white America is called a Depression, then high unemployment affecting black America should not be called pathology. And if the federal government denounced violence when it involves poor African-American youth in Detroit and Watts, then it should denounce its own propensity for violence in resolving conflict abroad. It is safe to say, therefore, that Martin Luther King Jr. died as an ineffective Negro leader, even as he lives on as a successful moral leader.
As persons across the country discuss King’s legacy today, few will fail to employ the language of love. This makes sense since the word love poured from King’s lips as much as any other. Toni Morrison writes that, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, and stupid people love stupidly.” If this is true, and I believe it is, this tells us something about Martin Luther King Jr.’s demeanor and disposition. He was unselfish because he loved unselfishly, he was courageous because he loved courageously, and he was consistent because he loved consistently. If we, as Americans, had the disposition to love and appreciate his sacrifice and one another in equal measure, then Beloved Community would be more than a euphemistic platitude or annual catchphrase on the third Monday in January. It would be our world.