Here I am writing about Dr. King on the day AFTER MLK Day, something you won’t be reading until almost a week after the official commemoration. The fact that I have to comment on this timing is another reflection of the ghettoization of Black lives, much like the often-criticized relegation of things Black to the month of February.
Much of what I’m about to say and what columnists said yesterday has been said before, but just like the Haggadah which Jews read at the Passover Seder, the surface content doesn’t change but the context in which we hear it is always evolving, so we are obligated to tell it again.
I spent part of yesterday morning with a friend whose father was the pastor of a Black church near Chicago. When Dr. King brought his Movement and his message to Chicago in 1966, his father was one of the few Black ministers who welcomed his presence in their communities and their churches. Their animosity toward King was a combination of envy for the size of his following and anger over his encroachment on their turf, which they were sure was going to end badly because of his inexperience in the north.
I begin with this detail to remind us from the outset that Dr. King’s elevation to near-sainthood in the last 40+ years conceals the fact that his reputation among his contemporaries was far more complex. From our perch in Mississippi where we lived from 1965-68, we were keenly aware of the impatience shading into disrespect that characterized the views among members of SNCC who found his approach to change insufficiently radical. There too, Black ministers shunned him, in this instance out of fear for retribution from the White people with a monopoly on power, whose views of Dr. King were on display on billboards all over the state showing him at a workshop at Highlander Folk School. The caption read “Martin Luther Coon at Communist Training School.”
Thanks to J.Edgar Hoover’s obsessive efforts to discredit King, we know all too much about King’s womanizing, an unfortunate perk of male power; witness JFK. Heather Cox Richardson dealt with this beautifully in her MLK Day posting:
“And I came to believe that heroism is neither being perfect, nor doing something spectacular. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s regular flawed human beings, choosing to put others before themselves, even at great cost, even if no one will ever know, even as they realize the walls might be closing in around them.”
Yesterday, in honor of the occasion, I decided to print out and reread the speech Dr. King delivered at Riverside Church in NYC on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his assassination. Though most people consider the “I Have a Dream” speech his greatest, I would encourage readers to find this one online to experience the true work of a prophet in our time.
On that day, King spoke with incredible force about the evils of the Vietnam War and the impossibility of addressing the needs of the poor while the country’s resources were being sucked up by this unjust war. Coupling the war and the civil rights movement in the public mind was a highly unpopular move for many, both enemies and allies.
King quotes his detractors: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr.King?” “Why are you joining the forces of dissent?” “Peace and Civil Rights don’t mix,” they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask.
With this speech, as with the Poor People’s Campaign of his later years, he put himself forward as a true threat to the status quo in America, in ways that may have contributed to his own death. We may never know. He saw himself as joining other religious leaders who “have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.” In adopting this stance, Dr. King was violating the prohibitions of the current silencing movement to not “cause discomfort.” His mission, in the best prophetic tradition, was precisely to cause discomfort, which is the wellspring of change. The was a report last week of the banning of even the “I Have a Dream” speech in classrooms on those same “discomfort” grounds.
Once I was addressing a class of fifth graders about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew I would get a rise out of them when I told them that I had met Dr. King in person. “Didn’t he free the slaves?” “Were you there when they freed the slaves?” Kids of this age are not known for their sense of historical time, so I left this remarks in the “Aren’t kid cute?” box and went on to recount the Mississippi marches we participated in with him leading the way. But the most dramatic encounter took place in Washington, DC where a group of us were meeting with government officials to protest the cutoff of funds to our Head Start program which had many enemies in Mississippi’s White power structure. At some point, the door opened and in walked Dr. King to advocate in our behalf. With the help of this fairy godfather our funds were restored. I’m forever grateful to him for knowing how to use his power for the good of the poor children served by our program. In telling those fifth graders these stories, I felt like the Holocaust survivors who are among the dwindling numbers who could bear witness to the events of their time.
I didn’t tell the fifth graders about the day in April 1968 in New York when we went to the concert of the Tougaloo College choir, which included some of the students we had taught during our time there. While we were standing outside waiting to be admitted, a TV reporter arrived with the news that Dr. King had just been assassinated. The choir decided to sing in his honor and the next day the streets all across the country erupted.
Heather Cox Richardson reports that the night before his murder in Memphis, Dr. King told an audience that if God had let him choose an era in which to live, he would have chosen the one in which he had landed. “Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion is all around…. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”