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Mourning Martin Luther King: the life and legacy of the civil rights leader

by Benjamin Houston, History Extra.

This month, a range of tributes, commemorations, and soul-searching will rightfully mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder. Gunned down outside his hotel room in Memphis, where he was in town to support a refuse workers’ strike, it was his last effort to broaden his work beyond race and call attention to the deserved dignity of all people, regardless of poverty and social status.

Plucked from a quiet minister’s life in Montgomery and thrust onto the national and global stage as a result of the surging black freedom struggle; awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and gunned down on a hotel balcony in Memphis – in a decade and a half King lived a life of activism that few could match over an entire lifetime. That life, and the symbolic and substantive importance of his role in the civil rights movement, is so rich and varied that most cannot help but oversimplify him – sometimes benignly, sometimes wilfully. Yet either does grave injustice to his legacy. His message needs to understood in its fullest capacity to honour its meaning.

Rather than rely on a few isolated images, sentences, and moments from King’s career, it is far better to understand the contradictions that Martin Luther King embodied in his life. As is written in a posthumous 2001 autobiography drawn from King’s own writing: “In my own life and in the life of a person who is seeking to be strong, you combine in your character antitheses strongly marked. You are both militant and moderate; you are both idealistic and realistic.”

Contradicting perceptions

Even as most people worshipfully recite a few isolated and decontextualised lines from “I Have a Dream” – King’s most famous speech, delivered to a quarter of a million civil rights supporters in Washington DC in August 1963 – scholars now regard King as having consistent and insistent radical beliefs about class, imperialism, economic injustice and more throughout his career. The fact that so few people know about these consistencies speaks to the differences in the public and private King – the former an image necessarily crafted in support of the civil rights movement.

To take one example: King’s commitment to a life of nonviolence was not instantaneous. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, which electrified the world as African-Americans protested segregated practices and racist treatment on the local bus system, he had armed bodyguards and even applied for a gun permit. Only after he chose to absorb and internalise the advice of mentors with extensive backgrounds in nonviolence did he fully awaken to the possibilities of nonviolent direct action, adapted from Mohandas K Gandhi’s example used to oppose British imperial rule during the 20th century. Over time he would come to refine those insights for the US context into so-called ‘Kingian’ nonviolence. The point suggests not only that nonviolence is a learned philosophy, one subscribed to with only a great deal of forethought, but also that it was hardly the norm among African-Americans at the time. But it also speaks to the evolution of King, thrust into one leadership role, an increasingly public one, subsequently overshadowing the work of many other local leaders and grassroots contributors who had nurtured the boycott into being. It was not necessarily foreordained that he would become a civil rights leader, much less the so-called ‘American Gandhi’.

Other paradoxes linger: King was born in 1929, into the degrading conditions of racial segregation. By law and by custom, interlocking racial practices [often known as Jim Crow] confined and controlled black people in all phases of their existence and encoded white privilege into all facets of life. It governed movement in public spaces by banishing African-Americans to separate toilets and water fountains, and by insisting that they surrender seats to whites on public transport. But it also stifled black aspirations by supporting discrimination in employment, housing, education, voting, and all other spheres of life, even in transgression of rights supposedly protected by the US Constitution. It was a system that constantly deemed King and other black people ‘inferior’ while devising ever-new and ever-cruel ways to reinforce that notion.

And yet the Jim Crow system created the cocooning protection of a separate black world, armed with internal resources personified by churches, schools, universities, mentors and networks. That community nurtured King, educating him on the values and tools to survive and challenge segregation. It taught him that a sense of love and community could give energy to tired souls, sustain a greater good, and move towards a brighter future. He preached the gospel of love because that was what fortified him. Freedom was not just an abstract concept, but something felt and lived, and so the context that created King also shaped his ability to change that context.

Another dichotomy comes from King’s intellectual core. He was fundamentally rooted in the black church: it was the very polestar of his thinking, guiding him through his early life and undergraduate education at historically-black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. And yet his immersion in other theological traditions at Boston University, which yielded him a PhD in 1955, meant that he could also discuss the work of leading theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Rauschenbusch, familiar names to American religious intellectuals, who grappled with issues of sin, social justice, and the human condition. His ability to distil those insights into simple but profound language, and to mingle those insights with traditions from the black church, meant that he could speak to wildly different audiences with power and grace. Merging these influences helped him find his voice and spread the import of his message far and wide.

A global symbol of the civil rights movement

Similarly, his civil rights work was yoked to the local but with a breadth of vision that spanned the globe. He was a southerner, by virtue of birth and by a deeply steeped sensibility tied to that region’s particular racial history (although thanks to his education outside the South, he knew that racism infected the US far beyond Dixie’s borders). But despite those roots in the raw racism of the American Deep South, he peered far beyond that world in diagnosing maladjustments and seeing underlying links in different forms of oppression. Not only had he “come to realise that racism is a world problem” (an idea underlined when white supremacists shouting “Keep Britain White!” heckled him at Westminster City Temple Hall during a 1964 speech), but he also understood the lived connections between the realities of segregation. He knew the effects of humiliation and apathy among people not always conscious of their inner and collective power.

The international span of that understanding led him across the world. He supported African liberation movements throughout his career, voyaged on a pilgrimage to India in the late 1950s, and continually mused on how the plight of developing countries could be conjoined to the black freedom struggle at home. Indeed, when he visited Newcastle upon Tyne in November 1967, for an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University, he warned that poverty and militarism had joined racism to become the three ‘great evils’ that threatened the world. He insisted that the profound links between these issues all combined to destroy the inherent feeling of ‘somebodiness’ that all human beings deserved.

The nature of this overseas recognition celebrating his role as Christian pastor and social revolutionary was a small but real balm for the civil rights leader fretting about burning cities back home and wounded by a critical American media, an openly hostile federal government, and the dismissive rhetoric of Black Power advocates. His home nation had turned on him for broadening his calls to issues of poverty and violence in the world run amok. His allies were aghast that he would alienate the federal government by criticising the Vietnam War. The media wanted him to stick to the race issue. And he was considered quaint and washed-up by new forms of black militancy that cared not at all about integration and the brotherhood of man, but only achieving equal resources and power “by any means necessary”, as the Black Power phrase of the time put it.

We must – as King did – make sense of these apparent contradictions. He was obsessed, intellectually speaking, with finding middle ways to reconcile supposedly mutually exclusive notions, and continually wrestled with how to do so. Thus he spoke of both love and justice, and that faith by its nature commanded humankind to enact God’s love on earth. Indeed, he highlighted the imperative that either element was lost and inadequate without the other. The contradictions underscore a fuller appreciation of his leadership: how he could countenance law-breaking because of a higher redemptive belief; how he could warn against Black Power but comprehend and empathise with the energy that fuelled it, and how he could be immersed in radical beliefs but still work in the confines of the American political system to reform it from within. If the tightrope he walked meant his choices were often compromising, overly conscious of tactical exigencies, it was only in sacrifice of an overarching goal, what King called ‘the Beloved Community’, encompassing the full dignity and humanity of all people.

Balancing King’s legacy

Perhaps equally importantly, a good start to understanding King requires grasping how easily people mischaracterise him for their own purposes. The same King approvingly (if mistakenly) cited by contemporary conservatives calling for colour-blindness was the same man who excoriated white moderates for inaction in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (1963). The Martin Luther King exalted today was passionately loathed by many – indeed, most – Americans at the time of his death; a public opinion poll in 1966 recorded negative views from two-thirds of the country. One historical account captures the moment King’s death was announced to a meeting of southern white ministers from a theologically conservative denomination; they responded with applause.

It was not just the wider public, but people in power. When King publicly denounced the Vietnam War, one year to the day before his death, President Lyndon Johnson ranted in response, “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?… We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?”

Before that, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been wiretapping, surveilling, and harassing King, to the extent of sending him a letter encouraging him to kill himself. In mid-1967, he tried to mobilise the black ghettos of Cleveland, Ohio, in an ultimately successful attempt to elect Carl Stokes as the first African-American mayor of a major American city. This led the incumbent mayor to demonise King, which the minister sardonically commented on: “This Mayor Locher here in Cleveland, he’s damning me now and calling me an extremist, and three years ago he gave me the key to the city and said I was the greatest man of the century. That was as long as I was safe from him down in the South.”

And so we see how the process of pernicious mistruths attached to Martin Luther King began even as he still lived. He remains safe as long as you venerate him from afar, preserve him in a noble amber, quote him selectively to keep him unthreatening. When we sand off the rough edges of King’s critique, when we cite him selectively, when we cherish his vision but ignore his obstacles, we misunderstand. But when you read him, hear him, study him holistically, and as his message speaks to your world and the society you live in, somewhat more uneasy feelings emerge. So instead we elevate him into an American hero: bestow a national holiday, quote his Dream rather than his righteous anger, use him to confirm American greatness and the country’s ability to remake itself, to reach consensus, default to equality, and to heal its worst sins – even when all proof to the contrary exposes that notion as a lie. Or we disrupt his global legacy as we study him in the UK and across the world, viewing him as a solitary leader from a history now resolved. We ignore his contemporaries from the global black freedom struggle who worked around the world. We decline to reflect on how his insights apply to the racial, class and social conflict that torment and stagnate the UK and other countries from within today.

He becomes, in short, a false myth. As African-American scholar C Eric Lincoln put it precisely, in linking how Americans view King with how they treat race: “It was inevitable that we would have to kill Martin Luther King, and it was just as inevitable that we would make of him a myth…. We do not have to be serious about a myth, and if the myth obscures the reality behind it or in some ways qualifies that reality, we do not have to be serious about the reality either.”

More powerfully, African-American theologian-scholar Vincent Harding distilled it simply: “At our best, we know that the fundamental question is not what we shall do with Martin Luther King, but what shall we do with ourselves?” In cloaking King in mythology, we lose the chance to echo his ability to fashion harmony out of dissonance, to avoid muting the deeper, more lasting chords that sustain us. Our own ability to be both moored in the local but connected to the global atrophies. We lack the chance to destroy other myths that trap us in old ways of thinking and acting. When King remains only a caricature, we lose our grasp in reaching towards his Dream.

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