America began perverting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message in the spring of 1963. Truthfully, you could put the date just about anywhere along the earlier timeline of his brief public life, too. But I mark it at the Birmingham movement’s climax, right about when Northern whites needed a more distant, less personally threatening change-maker to juxtapose with the black rabble rousers clambering into their own backyards. That’s when Time politely dubbed him the “Negroes’ inspirational leader,” as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff point out in their excellent book Race Beat.
Up until then, King had been eyed as a hasty radical out to push Southern communities past their breaking point — which was a far more accurate understanding of the man’s mission. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is in fact a blunt rejection of letting the establishment set the terms of social change. “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,” he wrote, later adding, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Shame that quotation rarely makes it into the sort of King remembrances that will mark today’s 40th anniversary of his assassination. Generations after the man’s murder, our efforts to look back on his life too often say more about our own racial fantasies and avoidances than they do about his much-discussed dream. And they obscure a deeply radical worldview that remains urgently important to Americans’ lives. Today, I don’t mourn King’s death so much as I do his abandoned ideas.
We’ve all got reason to avoid the uncomfortable truths King shoved in the nation’s face. It’s a lot easier for African Americans to pine for his leadership than it is to accept our own responsibility for creating the radicalized community he urged upon us. And it’s more comfortable for white America to reduce King’s goals to an idyllic meeting of little black boys and little white girls than it is to consider his analysis of how white supremacy keeps that from becoming reality.
Take, for instance, his point that segregation’s purpose wasn’t just to keep blacks out in the streets but to keep poor whites from taking to them and demanding economic justice. There’s a concept that’s not likely to come up in, say, the speech John McCain was rumored to be planning for today. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King lectured from the Alabama Capitol steps, following the 1965 march on Selma. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”
It’s thoughts like those that made him decidedly less popular at the time of his death than today. The bloom started to wear off King’s media rose when he turned his attention to Northern racism. The central defense Southern segregationists offered when thrust on the national stage was that their Jim Crow was no more of a brute than the North’s. King agreed, and in announcing his organization’s move into Chicago, he called the North’s urban ghettos “a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.” And he named names, pointing to racist unions as one of a dozen institutions conspiring to strip-mine black communities. So much for “inspirational.” But then, like now, nobody wanted to hear such talk — only the black press paid any attention.
Later, when a white mob hurled bricks and cherry bombs at marchers in Chicago, King told reporters that the scene outdid anything below the Mason-Dixon Line. “I have never in my life seen such hate,” biographer Taylor Branch quotes him as saying. “Not in Mississippi or Alabama.” Today, we hear little about the ideas that experience provoked for King: His deathbed blueprint for changing America’s caste systems included a three-pronged attack on racism, poverty, and war.
It’s that last charge, to fight war-making, that got him in the most trouble during his time and that gets most readily ignored today. Despite grenades of criticism from his fellow civil-rights leaders, his erstwhile ally in the president, and the press, King declared he had no choice but to stand up against the Vietnam War. But what’s striking is the still red-hot relevance of his reasoning, a perspective also likely to be left out of the dreamy platitudes delivered on days like today.
King called the armed forces a “cruel manipulation of the poor” and likened war funding to “some demonic destructive suction tube,” siphoning off resources needed to deal with pressing domestic issues. And he warned that our zeal for the fight reflected “a far deeper malady in the American spirit,” one which drives us to consider the protection of our “overseas investments” to be a greater imperative than the preservation of life. The 1967 speech bears quoting at length:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
It’s to our detriment that we whitewash all of these valuable ideas from our national memory of King. But the greatest tragedy may be that African Americans have morphed his belief in the power of community into a follow-the-leader obsession. Each King holiday and memorial spawns another round of “Where’s Waldo?” pondering over who our new leader is, or should be, or if one exists at all.
I suspect King’s answer would be who cares? Indeed, while the rest of the civil-rights establishment cringed when black college students launched their own, amorphous movement of sit-ins, King applauded it. He called the student movement “a revolt against Negroes in the middle class who have indulged themselves in big cars and ranch-style homes rather than joining a movement for freedom,” according to Branch. Today’s preoccupation with naming King’s successors seems similarly trivial.
Black America first anointed King its savior after he stormed onto the national scene in Montgomery, holding together the prolonged 1954 bus boycott with nightly speeches in which he exhorted everyone to stay the course. Jet magazine called him “Alabama’s Modern Moses.” We’ve been waiting for another prophet since he was gunned down on April 4, 1968. I just wish our last one would come back and remind us that our power lies not in leadership but in a collective refusal to be oppressed.