Raise the Dead: Martin Luther King

“It appears as if the price for the first national holiday honoring a black man is the development of a massive case of national amnesia concerning who that black man really was.”

I think each one of us can pull up an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) upon request. For some, it’s the Montgomery bus boycott. For others, it’s the march on Washington and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. For yet another group it may be the Selma marches or the letters from Birmingham jail. But the image of MLK that I have when asked is one of a man on a balcony, thinking ahead to his next speech, as an unseen bullet enters his cheek and travels down his spinal cord. King’s actual struggles as a civil rights leader have been all but dissolved into a “dead man’s tale” of sorts. It’s the kind of selective story that highlights both the posthumous progress made in his name and the flashbulb phrases, like I have a dream, that keep the truth of his life perpetually rose-colored. I have the burden of reminding you that regardless of MLK day being a national holiday or glorified TV-personalities like Tomi Lahren using King as a pivot point for addressing today’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hated man in his era. He was hated across the country for his beliefs, his practices and his race. He was murdered because of it. And there’s not enough roses in the world to recolor that.

King’s nonviolence has become socially relevant yet again in the white consciousness. So, let’s talk about nonviolent protests for a moment. While the collective narrative of nonviolent protest has been pictured as the peaceful march on Washington, it was far more abusive. Misrepresentative photo after photo is panhandled to the public as a testament to the way nonviolence works. See, it works! Someone is always saying this to black America. But this glosses over the vicious history of white America. In the era of Dr. King, nonviolent protestors were being mauled by dogs, sprayed with high-powered water hoses, dragged through the streets by civilians and police officers alike, and beaten with batons[1]. This abuse was distributed to both men and women. Have we not seen similar ripples among white opponents to the Black Lives Matter movement? Where does it work? Arguably more change came from the death of King and the subsequent riots across America, than the years of his nonviolent protests. In death, he can be hung like banner around the necks of white America as a testament to the right way to do things. Protest like King and we’ll listen! But King is dead. And he died at 39 years old. So, take him from ‘round your neck, pull him from out of your speech, white America. He is not, and could never be, Your Negro.

In this way, he is clearly parallel to the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement. The plight of POC is in the forefront of the movement but leaders have addressed policies, practices and injustices that transcend race. 

Yes, he believed in peaceful resistance. But he was a dangerous man. Dangerous, in the sense that he believed all impoverished and marginalized people needed to mobilize to be able to change their circumstances. This was incendiary during his era and a direct threat to those who held power. His vision was larger than blacks, ghettos, marginalized people, and underrepresented people; he wanted America to raze itself and build anew. In his last public speech, Dr. King said, “'Let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”  [2] From the onset, his vision was more than civil rights. It was a fight to represent all the unheard voices of America. These unheard voices were angry and raw. They were clear and accusatory. They were tired and ready for change. Therefore, his voice became just as angry, raw, clear, accusatory, tired and ready for change. But this is not the Dr. King we see paraded in media. Not only did he believe in this new America, he travelled from needy community to needy community, giving organizational assistance and a strong sense of leadership to every plight. King opposed the wealthy tyranny that lifted itself to stand upon the backs of the downtrodden. This transcended race but did not belittle it. He spoke to the needs that blacks had first as an important stepping stone toward the new future of the country. In that day, no one dared to pretend that they “did not see color”. He was always a black man.

In this way, he is clearly parallel to the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement. The plight of POC is in the forefront of the movement but leaders have addressed policies, practices and injustices that transcend race. They are simply on a long list of complaints that begin with the state of being black in America. The fight begins there. Plenty of white conservatives and liberals alike use the imaginary image of Dr. King to speak to the behavior of BLM. But they have simply bastardized a true story into one that fits the agenda. King did dream of black kids and white kids playing together. But the context of that dream was a world in which black men were killed for looking at white women the wrong way. The context of his dream was a world in which lynchings were still ongoing, where segregation was a way of life, where school integrations had to be monitored by police. So when people say, What would Dr. King say? History has shown that nonviolence gets results! I just don’t see the need to be violent, in Dr. King’s era they had it way worse and they were still nonviolent! These are all small, subversive ways to create a story that has never been true. In the 60s, people were telling King the same thing. Just wait. Change takes time. Protests don’t help anyone. But he didn’t. And the more he mobilized people to action across the nation, the more dangerous he became. Until he was murdered. And now, as a slain civil rights leader, he has become the false prophet of the same people whose parents threw bricks at him as he marched.

- S. R. Hallmen   

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[1] Wendt, Simon. "‘They Finally Found Out That We Really Are Men’: Violence, Non-Violence And Black Manhood In The Civil Rights Era." Gender & History 19.3 (2007): 543-564. America: History & Life. Web. 15 Jan. 2017 
[2] Harding, Vincent Gordon. "Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr., And The Future Of America." Journal Of American History 74.2 (1987): 468-476. America: History & Life. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.