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Before King Was a Myth, Martin Was a Man

Fifty years after the civil rights leader’s assassination, America is still trying to figure out how to honor one of its greatest patriots.

A group of demonstrators holding signs reading 'Union Justice Now', 'Honor King: End Racism!' and 'I Am A Man' march in protest soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, TN, April 1968. September 1958: Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama.

September 1958: Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama.

Grey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Why do we look back on the day the bullet entered the body of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shattering his jaw and severing his spinal cord? What are we supposed to feel when we see that image of shouting and pointing witnesses as he bled out onto the Lorraine Motel’s second floor balcony?

Anniversaries are strange things. We deem idle dates significant merely because they fall a certain number of even years away from another day. Days like today can feel even more odd when the event itself is nothing to celebrate.

If we put ourselves through something like this, why not make it productive? Noting the 50 years since King’s assassination should be about more than tribute, or learning lessons lost to history. With some notable exceptions, today threatens to be little more than yet another news cycle of relevant talking-head segments and commemorative documentaries. We already have nuanced and authoritative takes on the complications of his life – in print and on screen, thanks in part to Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Recalling his vaunted legacy today is most useful for young people, I’d wager, but I doubt that King would want us spending all day talking about him, or debating how he’d view today’s America. If he were here today, brimming on the edge of 90, King would see the work yet to be done to achieve racial justice and would be busy working toward it. In his absence, why is this day not about doing just that?

In King’s final speech, one day before he was shot to death, he spoke of an injunction to block a planned April 5 march for Memphis’ sanitation workers. After a March 28 rally turned violent, white residents feared that King – now sanctified for his alleged passivity – would bring further chaos to Memphis. Speaking with regard to the city’s move, King said, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” He was referring to the Constitution, saying that he couldn’t understand the denial of “certain basic First Amendment privileges” outside of a totalitarian regime. 

Fifty years later, well, me, neither.

King’s demand that this nation uphold its guaranteed freedoms remains all too salient today. As scholar Michael Eric Dyson put it in his book Pride when writing about King’s 1961 commencement address at Lincoln University: “Patriotism is the critical affirmation of one’s country in light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it’s in error. Nationalism is the uncritical support of one’s nation regardless of its moral or political bearing.” King was one of our greatest patriots, Dyson argued, and “proved it by giving his life in a fight to defend this country’s best side against its worst.” King and his cohort challenged the white supremacy running through the veins of the United States, threatening to upset and remake structurally biased institutions from the ground up. Until that work was done, King was going to charge this country with false advertising.

A group of demonstrators holding signs reading 'Union Justice Now', 'Honor King: End Racism!' and 'I Am A Man' march in protest soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, TN, April 1968.

Practically from the time we first begin speaking, we are sold the company line on “America the Great.” We pledge allegiance to its flag before we can properly pronounce “allegiance,” and certainly before we understand the meaning of that particular gesture. The National Anthem is little more than a commercial jingle for both military might and the liberties that we do not share equally. The machine that markets the American project runs much more efficiently than the government that our leaders use to sustain it. Naturally, it is easier to sell a truly free and equal United States than it is to build one. That reality doesn’t always attract people willing to die to realize that dream, but the grifters and opportunists who are willing to exploit it.

But enough about him. Back to King.

Fifty years after King’s death, America has indeed made racial progress. But the United States that enslaved black people for hundreds of years will take much longer than these past 50 years to undo that systemic oppression. That is not to encourage patience or apathy; quite the opposite. We see leaders every day who skate by with the most minimal nods toward justice, even as news reports educate us daily about the work of those same leaders in the service of racial division and inequality. Part of this is because we spend days like today forced to correct misinterpretations of the past, many of them willful. The truth is, most of us have been miseducated about the good reverend.

My seventh grade history textbook featured on its cover a giant image of a bald eagle’s head against a black background. The book was called, simply, A History of the United States. It’s been three decades since I took that class, so that eagle and the book’s considerable thickness are about all that I remember. That, and the one-half of one column of one page devoted to the civil rights movement during the Jim Crow era. The only person mentioned was King, naturally in the context of his famous dream. I didn’t learn about John Lewis, or Malcolm X, or Fannie Lou Hamer until I grew older, or until I learned about them from my parents.

Martin Luther King Jr. is flanked by fellow civil rights activists Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, left, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), second from right, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, during a meeting in New York in 1964.

It often feels as though most of America checked out after that seventh grade version of civil rights history. So many of us seem content to subsist on an abridged image of King. That, or so much of the country is pleased with itself – in the “But I voted for Obama twice” kind of way.

It is unfortunate that many writers must, on every MLK Day or on the anniversary of his murder, correct the predominant, whitewashed narrative of King’s life – one that is more often used to admonish black people than it is to compliment us. This pattern is less about examining his radical legacy than supplying correctives. In the past, I’ve felt compelled to do this myself, rejecting the co-option of King’s message by both those who seek to erase his life’s work and those who seek to use it for their own aggrandizement.

Conservatives typically use King’s nonviolence as a cudgel against black agitation, as if those protesting 2018 injustices should “know their place.” They may even have the nerve to cite the portentous ending of that Memphis speech – in which King speaks about having seen the Promised Land, but warns that “I may not get there with you”– without grasping how those allied with their worldview did everything in their power then and since to stand in his way. That they have turned “MLK” into yet another marketing campaign for the flawed nation that he sought to correct is yet another insult.

It is my hope that today may focus a little less on the past than we might on an anniversary such as this. Former Memphis columnist Wendi C. Thomas is leading a new journalism project to refocus the press on the causes that brought King there 50 years ago this spring. Activists from Parkland to Sacramento are employing his strategies for social change. All of them inspire hope that something tangible may yet come of this anniversary.

Today, the progress we have made helps us see the Promised Land more clearly than ever before, but it somehow feels even further away. We are just now realizing how far we must go, and that some of us won’t get there in our lifetimes. But that is no reason to stop trying, or to be comfortable merely with honoring the man without furthering his vision for an America that actually becomes the one that is advertised. We have spent too much time examining King as a symbol, and lately we’ve gotten to know the man for who he truly was. It is well past time that we concentrate fully on completing his work. 

In This Article: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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