Today is Martin Luther King Day.
In Atlanta there will be a march down Auburn Avenue to Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached. The media will be there, while social, civil and entertainment leaders will appear and give speeches. No mainstream politician can hope to gain support in the Black community without showing up at a Black church and invoking Dr. King’s name.
As a child, my image of Dr. King was the one most Americans have; the round determined face in black and white photos and films shown every February; the rich, resonant, unmistakable voice giving the “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington; the tragedy of his assassination. Since his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King has become an American saint, revered, paid homage to, universally recognized as an icon of the struggle of Americans forcing America to honor it’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
As a teen I became less of a fan of Dr. King’s nonviolent approach. I was deep into Malcolm X by way of Spike Lee’s film of his autobiography. I was listening to Public Enemy, NWA and the Geto Boys and the idea of allowing a mob of savage racist whites and redneck cops to beat you while you don’t fight back or defend yourself seemed like the definition of weakness to me. I was much more receptive to Malcolm’s Self Defense Self Determination philosophy. But at the time I wasn’t aware of the deeper meaning and objectives of the approach that Dr. King advocated.
On Christmas day I saw Selma. It was fascinating to see that film as a resident of Atlanta, a city where the power of MLK’s legacy is more physically tangible than anywhere else. Aside from being a mastetfully done film, it inspired me to reexamine my assumptions about MLK and his movement; what I found caused me to revise a lot of what I thought I knew.
The genius of the SCLC was in framing their concept of nonviolent resistance as a moral crusade against the ugliness of segregation and Dr. King’s genius was to gamble, rightly as it turned out, that Americans would be so shocked and disgusted by the sight of Jim Crow’s hateful true face that they would sympathize with and come to assist those fighting to destroy it.
I had forgotten, and history often overlooks, just how radical MLK was. He has been deified but the depth of his message has been obscured by that deification. People quote “Free at Last” and his “Mountaintop” speech without exploring the full range of issues he touched on like Vietnam, economic opportunity, and black power. He also made speeches about Black manhood and America’s systematic economic disenfranchisement of the Black working class that lined up with the teachings of Malcolm X and emerging nationalist groups like the Black Panthers.
Something the film touched on was King’s ability to get different groups to unite against a common enemy. It would be great if organizations dedicated to social justice could find common ground without surrendering their respective visions. I would love to see more cooperation between Black, Latin, LGBT and Women’s Rights groups amongst each other, and with any group that wants to see all people respected equally.
The struggle is still necessary. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice have made that very clear. In Ferguson, in Paris, in Nigeria, young people are still having to take to the streets to call out and expose evil.
For me, rediscovering MLK reminded me that a fight against an evil system doesn’t always have to be a physical one. I will always believe in self defense, but I realize that there are many ways to defend yourself. The pen and the voice are powerful too.