Few people are more deserving of the praise they receive than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His commitment to social justice and racial equality was unshakable. His belief in nonviolence was unwavering. His courage in the face of danger was inspiring. And his sacrifice on behalf of others was unconditional. But far too often King is praised for the wrong reasons. In death, he is celebrated for espousing points of view that he never embraced in life.
The discrepancy between King’s beliefs and those that are attributed to him stems from efforts to understand the civil rights leader solely through the prism of the March on Washington. In the minds of most, King is frozen in time, stuck in 1963 standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial dreaming about a colorblind society. Indeed, his “I Have A Dream” speech now defines him. It is what schoolchildren recite during Black History Month assemblies, what politicians quote during King Day celebrations, and what corporations emphasize during advertising campaigns targeting black audiences.
“I Have A Dream” is classic King, with its soaring oratory, rich visuals, deep historical analysis, astute contemporary criticism, and lofty goals. But the speech is almost never played, read, or recited in its entirety. Instead, the sixteen-minute address is reduced to a handful of overused sound bites, snippets that are rarely historicized. Treated this way, “I Have A Dream” renders invisible King’s true political self. Lost is his critique of the twin pillars of American society – racism and capitalism, as well as his belief in color conscious approaches to solving the problems plaguing black people.
Shying away from the bitter truths about American society that King offered and the difficult but necessary solutions to change that he championed has become common practice. It is what tends to happen during celebrations of his birthday and commemorations of his death. Outspoken in life on the critical issues of the day, including racism, poverty, and war, he has been silenced in death. Whereas once he was despised for speaking out, now he is honored for saying absolutely nothing. Hero-making in this way, however, comes at a cost, and the price paid in this instance has been King’s relevance to contemporary social justice causes such as ending police violence.
The killing of unarmed African Americans by police has animated social justice advocates in recent years, giving rise most notably to the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), which has adopted traditional civil rights era tactics, from mass marches to nonviolent civil disobedience. In tenor and tone, however, BLM is much more Black Power than civil rights, more Malcolm X than Martin King. But it need not be. King understood that ending police terror, whether emanating from the sheriff’s office in Selma, Alabama or the 72nd Precinct in Brooklyn, New York, was absolutely essential for African Americans to enjoy the full scope of their freedom rights. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” he said in “I Have A Dream.” Like Malcolm, Martin understood that racial terrorists wore blue uniforms as well as white robes.
Reclaiming King requires reimagining him. It involves seeing him as a visionary who conceived of a racially egalitarian society – the Beloved Community, and not simply as a dreamer who thought racism could be wished away. It also requires that parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians do the heavy lifting of spreading the gospel of the reclaimed King.
Parents must talk to their children about King’s life. They must discuss him being born in the Jim Crow South; growing up during the Depression; attending all-black Morehouse College; hesitating before agreeing to take on a leadership role in the Montgomery bus boycott; wavering on nonviolence when racial terrorists bombed his home; involving children in the Birmingham crusade; winning in Selma and losing in Chicago; and being killed while fighting for fair wages and humane treatment for sanitation workers.
Teachers must teach their students about more than King’s March on Washington moment. They must construct lessons on his efforts to end segregation in Albany, Georgia and Chicago; rid Birmingham and Los Angeles of police violence; secure voting rights in Selma and Jackson, Mississippi; stop the war in Vietnam; ensure that all labor had dignity; and eradicate poverty nationwide. They also need to situate King in the larger context of the African American freedom struggle so that he becomes the starting point for broader conversations on movement leaders and leadership, strategies and tactics, ideologies and beliefs, goals and objectives, and victories and defeat.
Preachers must preach about King’s social gospel ministry. They must explain to congregants his embrace of Jesus’ social justice teachings, from his admonition to care for the least among us to his instruction to be an advocate for the marginalized and outcast. Clergy must also be models of action, demonstrating the ways King applied Jesus’ teachings to contemporary problems in education, housing, criminal justice, and employment. A sermon based on King’s social gospel ministry is fine. A community program based on it is better.
And politicians must implement the kind of democratic politics that King favored. They must safeguard the civil liberties of people of color and other marginalized groups by ensuring equal access to the ballot box and due process under the law. They must protect people’s civil and human rights by mandating a livable wage; eliminating discriminatory housing policies and practices; increasing direct investment in public education; and strengthening social safety net programs, including those that make healthcare accessible and affordable. And they must insist that race be considered at all times to decrease disparate racial impacts and increase equality of opportunity and outcome.
Reclaiming King not only corrects the historical record regarding his life and legacy, it also rescues the Civil Rights Movement from nonviolent romanticization and political de-radicalization. Most people have a “Kingcentric” understanding of the movement, meaning they view it exclusively through King’s eyes and experiences. But when his perspective is misunderstood and his experiences are not properly historicized, the movement becomes strictly a nonviolent crusade that started suddenly when King emerged as a national figure in 1955 and ended abruptly when he was killed in 1968. Everything and everyone else are secondary at best and irrelevant or detrimental at worse, from local leaders to self-defense strategies. And similar to the mythologized King who most people celebrate today, this version of the freedom struggle has little to offer contemporary social justice causes. As a blueprint for making change, it is useless.
In life, King spoke inconvenient truths. But in death, his words have been reinterpreted for the sake of creating a convenient hero. As a consequence, the valuable lessons he taught regarding how to organize a more just and democratic society have been lost, reducing his legacy to a collection of feel-good catchphrases. Reclaiming King, therefore, is about more than promoting historical accuracy. It’s about making his life’s work relevant so that everyone can better understand yesterday, can make better sense of today, and can make better plans for tomorrow.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University. Dr. Jeffries earned his B.A. in History from Morehouse College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in African American History from Duke University. He specializes in 20th century African American history and has an expertise in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt (2009), and is the editor of the forthcoming book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement.