Too often, those satisfied with the status quo use Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory to silence people. He’s become a symbol of peace and moderation, a reminder to be nice to people who hate you. Figures of his magnitude often have pesky rough details smoothed away through the soft lens of history lessons. But it’s malicious to wrap King in respectability in order to deny it to others.
Of course, King’s nonviolent approach to racial injustice was notable and effective. He received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for it. But to focus only on his methods and not his message is to be satisfied with an incomplete picture. People love to speak of his peaceful approach, but not why it was necessary.
Yes, there is a religious and loving aspect to King’s choice to never respond to violence with violence, and it comes through in his speeches and correspondence. However, it was also a savvy method to force tension and change, which was his purpose.
In King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he responds to a group of clergymen who wrote an open letter to Birmingham citizens urging them not demonstrate with him. These same clergy members signed off on a similar more forcefully worded open letter earlier that year to supporters of segregation asking them to let their frustrations be known legally and through the legal system and not through violence. Their critique of King was that while his methods were technically nonviolent, he was disruptive and he broke laws. These men of faith, even today, would probably be considered high-minded, equitable, fair, and moderate.
King, however elegantly and compassionately, tells them where to stuff their moderate stance. He tells them, “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” And after attempts to negotiate with a government that did not keep its promises that “[w]e had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.” He then expresses disappointment with the so-called white moderate for being a greater stumbling block for black freedom than the KKK as they chose absence of unrest over justice.
King is intense and uncompromising in both the expectation that demonstrators would not perpetrate violence (mainly for spiritual reasons, but also not the cede the moral high ground) and that treating blacks with anything less than sister and brotherhood as soon as possible was unacceptable.
He also notes that the time of the Birmingham demonstrations was chosen specifically to disrupt the economy of Easter shopping. He intentionally created a crisis situation to force meaningful negotiation. He did so without proper permits or government approval. There’s a currently a bill filed in Washington that would make such civil disobedience a felony. Indeed, King himself was arrested thirty times because he decided for himself which laws were just and which were unjust and followed or broke them accordingly.
To call King’s demonstrations nonviolent overshadows that fact that he counted on violence occurring to the very people he was organizing and himself. It’s unsettling to think about getting a group together, however scrupulously prepared, to have the ever-loving shit beaten out of them for their own rights without fighting back. King’s actions were disruptive, and they did bring out the worst in some people. He was hated for it. You and your family don’t get constant death threats because everyone loves you.
You also don’t have the FBI following your every move because the government believes in your goals and methods.
It started because of King’s involvement in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and his close friend and advisor, Stanley David Levison, was a Communist Party leader. (He stopped Communist Party activities in 1957, but it’s not like that would prevent further monitoring.) President Kennedy apparently told King to break off contact with Levison, so King pretended that he did. Of course, the FBI found out and began intensive monitoring to see what else King was hiding.
The FBI feared that black nationalist and black civil rights groups were being infiltrated by communists, which wasn’t completely absurd considering the atmosphere at the time. But the FBI also feared the groups themselves, lumping them all together as “Black Nationalist Hate Groups.” (For the record, the Southern Poverty Law Center does consider some black separatist groups to be hate groups.) To them, a man like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dangerously powerful, especially if he should give up on integration and embrace black nationalism.
King’s stature, charisma, and influence were enough to be dangerous. So much so that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was on a mission to discredit him, specifically through audiotape of extramarital affairs. Hoover considered King to be a liar and a hypocrite, and treated him accordingly.
From this side of history, it’s easy to make Hoover into that bad guy. King had to depend on FBI investigations of racially motivated violence while also being watched. It’s a horrible situation. But King was a radical during a time of great upheaval. If you consider how even the most peaceful of political disruptions are viewed today, King would still be a radical in 2017.
The concept that nominal legal rights are not enough, that tolerance is not enough, that live and let live is not enough, is still radical. King’s goal was complete and utter equality in all aspects of life for all races based on mutual respect and even love. We’re told that this is the kind of thing that loses elections.
On King’s birthday, a national holiday, you will likely hear parts of his “I Have a Dream” speech. His most famous speech describes his hope and his vision, how every corner of America will ring with freedom. It is beautiful and moving. Everyone seems to love the idea that we should be judged not by the color of our skin, but the content of our character.
But I urge you to listen not just to the pretty parts, but to the hard parts as well. King also describes injustice, oppression, a faithless government, and righteous, founded anger. He speaks against the comfort of gradualism and extols “the marvelous new militancy” in the black community. He does all that, while still emphasizing that Americans are all linked, one people, and that only through an intractable desire for justice and freedom for all, will the nation truly prosper.
Yes, he wanted peace, but not at the cost of dignity. He abhorred violence in the civil rights movement, but not because he didn’t understand the root frustration. To focus solely on his peacefulness and desire for a society beyond race without addressing what he fought for besmirches his memory and hobbles those who follow in his footsteps.