There is no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted than Martin Luther King Jr.
Every year, in January and April, we commemorate the extraordinary career of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. But there is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message more bowdlerized, whose powerful words are more drained of content than King.
A few years ago, in preparation for a public lecture on 1968, I reread the most important book on King and his politics to come out in the last decade: Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Jackson, a former researcher with the King Papers project at Stanford, has read King’s every last sermon, speech, book, article, and letter. What Jackson finds is that from the beginning of his ministry, King was far more radical, especially on matters of labor, poverty, and economic justice than we remember.
In media accounts, King was quickly labeled the “Apostle of Non-Violence,” and, by the mid 1960s, portrayed as the antithesis to Malcolm X. While King adhered to nonviolence for his entire career, the single-minded focus of the media on the horse race between Malcolm and Martin led reporters to ignore King’s more radical pronouncements. They simply didn’t fit into the developing story line.
Black power advocates also distorted King, focusing on his ministerial style and arrogance (members of SNCC called him “de Lawd”). They branded King as hopelessly bourgeois, a detriment rather than a positive force in the black freedom struggle. White liberals, fearful of black unrest, embraced King as a voice of moderation, hoping that he could stem the rising tide of black discontent that exploded in the long hot summers of the mid sixties. The representation of King as mainstream left observers unable to make sense out of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his call for an interracial Poor People’s Movement, and his increasingly vocal denunciations of class inequality in America.
King, they contended, had been radicalized or, perhaps, was more calculating in his leftward move, changing his rhetoric to remain a legitimate leader in the eyes of younger, angrier blacks. But as Jackson shows, King was anything but a milquetoast racial liberal or a radical-come-lately. Through a close reading of King’s work, Jackson finds deep currents of anti-imperialism running through King’s thought, going all the way back to his days as a student. He finds a consistent thread of anti-capitalism in King’s speeches. And he finds that King was building alliances with the left-wing of the labor movement and allying himself with activists who called for structural change in the economy. King, in other words, was a radical well before he offered his prophetic denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1967 or joined the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968.
King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King Jr’s: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.
First is the commemorative King. Only fifteen years after his death, King won an extraordinary recognition — he became the only individual (unless you count Presidents Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays have been unceremoniously consolidated into President’s Day) with his own national holiday. That a man who was berated as un-American, hounded by the FBI, arrested and jailed numerous times, was recognized by a national holiday is nothing short of amazing. To be sure, the King holiday met with significant opposition, particularly from southerners like Jesse Helms, who contended that King was a tool of the Communist Party, and from John McCain, Evan Mecham, and other conservative Arizonans. But the King Holiday legislation was signed into law after overwhelming congressional approval by none other than President Ronald Reagan, who began his political career as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and who repeated his act by launching his 1980 election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a tiny place whose only claim to fame was that three young civil rights activists had been murdered there twenty years earlier.
But if there was anything at all subversive in King’s life, it is lost in the feel good celebrations of King Day, which has become a day for picking up litter and painting school classrooms. Not that community service is a bad thing, but it’s a long, long way from King’s vision for social change.
The therapeutic King: In American iconography, King is the great healer, the man who called America to be true to its “creed” of equality and opportunity. King’s message, bereft of its hard-hitting political content, is so anodyne that we can all support it, Republican and Democrat alike. The feel good, inspirational message of King’s life has moved front and center in our memories of King. A popular school curriculum intended to build student self-esteem, for example, calls for children to express their dreams. King’s message is to hold hands and join our voices together, ebony and ivory, in perfect harmony.
The conservative King: Devoid of the political content that drove his message, King has also become an icon of racial conservatism. Today’s most unlikely King acolytes are critics of civil rights policies such as affirmative action. King is the prophet of meritocratic individualism. The most articulate proponent of this version of King (and there are many) is Ward Connerly, the leader of nationwide anti-affirmative action campaign who drew from King’s own words to call for a dismantling of race-sensitive admissions. Only one King speech — King’s address to the 1963 March on Washington, matters to Connerly-type conservatives. And only one line in that speech matters: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King speeches should be judged by their content. And there’s a lot in the “I Have a Dream” speech that would make McCain and Connerly squirm. King celebrated the “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community.” And, speaking of the “fierce urgency of Now,” he encouraged the 250,000 strong gathered on the Mall to take more aggressive action. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” At a moment when conservatives (and many liberals) were denouncing the movement for going “too far, too fast,” King sent a clear message. Go further, faster. King went on to support aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws including affirmative action itself. And more than that, he demanded the fundamental reordering of the American economy.
Finally, in perhaps the most American of twists, we have the commodified King — efforts in the last decade, largely spearheaded by the King family itself — to market the words and image of the Reverend King. In classic American fashion, Martin Luther King Jr has become a consumer good. King’s family has engaged in an aggressive effort to market the image of the Reverend King, including a multi-million dollar deal with Time Warner for the rights to King’s speeches, writings, and recordings. The King family sued to prevent companies from using King’s image on refrigerator magnets, switchblades, and on “I have a Dream” ice cream cones. But they quickly turned to their own business in King kitsch. In the mid 1990s, the Reverend King’s son Dexter King, who administered the King estate, took a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of another King, “THE KING,” Elvis at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee to pick up some marketing lessons. Since the mid 1990s, King’s estate has authorized, among other things, commemorative pins for the Atlanta Summer Olympics with the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr, porcelain statuettes of King, and, my favorite, checkbooks bearing King’s likeness.
Whether commodity or conservative icon, suffice it to say that each of these visions of King is flawed. The commemorative King, celebrates heroism and courage, but risks the creation of a one-dimensional character that glosses over King’s subversive, challenging, and upsetting messages. The therapeutic King stands in sharp contrast to a political strategy that demanded the overthrow of American apartheid and demanded great sacrifices from blacks and whites alike. The conservative King is based on a very selective appropriation of King’s words — largely from a single speech — in service of a cause that King found abhorrent. And the commodified King creates comforting images that are wholly drained of their ability to provoke and challenge — and, moreover, stand in sharp juxtaposition to King’s penetrating critique of American capitalism and his deep-rooted anti-materialism.
Above all, King’s contribution was to unsettle power, to challenge the status quo, something that a porcelain statuette or an Olympic pin or an anti-affirmative action law will never do.
Thomas J. Sugrue is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race.
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