Our inconvenient American icon: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jan. 15, 1929-April 4, 1968

Posted 1/21/21

From the 1960s on, self-proclaimed radicals have echoed Malcolm X’s dismissal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “foolish” and even cowardly “modern Uncle Tom.” Current critics interpret …

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Our inconvenient American icon: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jan. 15, 1929-April 4, 1968

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From the 1960s on, self-proclaimed radicals have echoed Malcolm X’s dismissal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “foolish” and even cowardly “modern Uncle Tom.” Current critics interpret King’s nonviolence as reluctance to challenge entrenched power. They interpret his embrace of love as the engine of social change as a sell-out for white approval, failing to note that polls before his 1968 assassination show Dr. King to be one of the most hated men in America.

Meanwhile, contemporary conservatives and neo-liberals often quote Dr. King, painting his views as an endorsement of their own “colorblind” white supremacy and blind worship of capitalism. Less than two weeks after a violent white supremacist coup that left five people dead, President Trump called for Americans “to recommit themselves to Dr. King’s dream by engaging in acts of service.” President-elect Joe Biden packed groceries for a local charity. The holiday’s namesake, however — gunned down among the sanitation workers of Memphis — had not come to that city to ladle soup for them. He came to join their union’s battle for decent wages and safer working conditions, pausing to call for “the dispossessed of our nation” to become a “multiracial army of the poor” and “organize a revolution.” Self-congratulatory ideologues who regard Dr. King as the first mate on America’s Good Ship Lollipop would amuse if they were not such a testimony to our dangerous and deepening social amnesia.

In fact, Dr. King was a pessimistic theologian with a Deep-South sense of tragedy; he saw humanity as mired in a sinful nature and regarded evil as “rampant” in the universe, conclusions that in his view “only the superficial optimist who refuses to face the realities of life” could fail to see. Offered leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott after police arrested Rosa Parks for defying the segregation law, the then-26-year-old King hesitantly consented, but applied for a pistol permit and accepted offers of guns and guards to protect his home.

When Rev. Glenn Smiley, a white Methodist pastor, and Bayard Rustin, a gay Black Gandhian socialist, came to investigate the young leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, they found Dr. King an impressive prospective leader — committed, brilliant, well-educated and eloquent. Dr. King’s sole shortcoming, they reported back to FOR’s national office in early 1956, was that he did not understand nonviolence. Writing from King’s own kitchen table, Rev. Smiley writes, “This place is an arsenal.”

Dr. King’s crucial insight was not so much the power of nonviolence as his insistence that coercion was essential. Dr. King understood that the global struggle for influence and resources between the U.S. and the Soviet Union offered Black Southerners the unique leverage to redeem or repudiate American democracy. He first unveiled this strategic judo in his first speech at Holt Street Baptist Church at the first mass meeting of the bus boycott on December 5, 1955, saying: “God is not just the God of love, but also the God that standeth before the nations and says, ‘Be still and know that I am God — and if you don’t, I’m gonna cast you out of the arms of your national and international relationships, and break the backbone of your power.’”

He stressed that while America ought to listen to their moral appeals, the movement could never rely upon them: “Not only are we using the tools of persuasion,” he said, “but we have got to use the tools of coercion.”

In Albany, Birmingham and Selma, Dr. King launched street-theater morality plays that captured both the brutal social order of Jim Crow and the obvious justice of black demands. Their audiences included federal officials and a mostly-dark-skinned planet torn by Cold War; their goal was to force the federal government to intervene. “Mr. Kennedy is battling for the minds and the hearts of men in Asia and Africa,” he told a crowd in Birmingham, “and they aren’t gonna respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of the color of their skin.”

Any noises Dr. King made about changing things through moral suasion or inevitable triumph were strictly aspirational calls to lift the movement’s hopes and seize the moral high ground, or bouquets tossed to white liberals. The prime example is his constantly quoted truism borrowed from abolitionist Theodore Weld: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King firmly believed that arc of the moral universe bends toward justice only when people build enough power to bend it. His favorite Love, Power and Justice moral framework that plainly shows that he was committed to Black power — the reality, not the slogan— in the mid-1950s. Power without love, he said, was morally bankrupt. Love without power, however, was sentimental and vacant, morally pointless. What must be done, said Dr. King, is to harness Love to Power, and through the force of that power act on love, which moves us toward justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. was no coward. He lived his whole movement career from 1955 to 1968 aware that he could not plausibly hope to die of old age, surrounded by his family. And yet he risked his life every day to build the political power necessary to crush white supremacy, create a new Black sense of self, and force white America to grant Black citizens the full blessings of American life. That none of this has fully flowered is not because he lacked courage or strategic sense. It is a long-haul struggle.

Rather than remember him as he was, we have transformed Dr. King into a kind of innocuous Black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with generic good wishes. These misrepresentations remain convenient for those who are long on words and short on deeds, or who cannot grasp that there is not one correct ideology to address all our dilemmas. The radicalism of Dr. King’s thought, the confrontational nature of his methods, and the public rebukes that he offered to American capitalism and militarism have given way to a sugar-coated caricature that never existed. The real Martin Luther King Jr. remains complex, to say the least, a challenge to his critics in the movement and his enemies in the neo-liberal national security state, and immensely inconvenient to all.

Timothy B. Tyson is senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and adjunct professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina. His most recent book, The Blood of Emmett Till, won the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; made the “long list” of 10 books for the 2017 National Book Award, and was named Best Book of 2017 by both the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.


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