I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday since 1986, and thinking about what all the people born since then might know about the man. Elders of my generation have taught that he was a Black minister, a civil rights activist who led marches and preached nonviolence, that he had a dream about his children being judged not by their color but by their character, and that he was assassinated.
We have taught that King was imprisoned more than 20 times for acts of civil disobedience and on other charges, many of them trumped up by hostile police and prosecutors. Many young people know that he wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail. If they saw the film Selma, they know that peaceful marchers for Black voting rights in Alabama were brutally beaten and murdered, and that King led 25,000 people to the state capital in March 1965 to demand justice and equality.
But I worry now that we have held back in our teaching. How many know that King denounced the war in Vietnam as a racist adventure that was “taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”? And that the New York Times attacked him in an editorial for his stance on the war? Do they know that the director of the FBI called King “the most dangerous man in America” and that many of his fellow ministers, both Black and white, shunned him during his lifetime?
Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated now as a universally beloved moderate who gave uplifting speeches. The truth is more complicated. In his own time, as Cornel West has written, King was “a radical man deeply hated and held in contempt.” West is depressed by the “spectacle every January of King’s ‘fans’ giving us the sanitized versions of his life.”
It is the sanitized versions of history that we must now resist — and not just the softened stories of slavery, immigration, capitalist imperialism, and Native American genocide, but also the bland tales of private-equity-friendly liberalism that tolerates a racist prison system, an inhumane insurance and health-care system, and a tax structure that enables billionaires to pay nothing.
The unsanitized King titled his last sermon before he was killed “Why America May Go to Hell.” At a low point in his life, in a speech about his Poor People’s Campaign, he said, “I don’t have any faith in the whites in power responding in the right way … they’ll treat us like they did our Japanese brothers and sisters in World War II. They’ll throw us into concentration camps.”
It is almost 54 years now since that April day when King was shot and a hundred American cities went up in flames. I wonder how we would respond to King if he were here with us, a pacifist, but radical and still demanding justice and equality. How far have we come since 1968?