Death is ironic. Through death, one can emerge as an immortal being, transcending the his/her human nature. Although he was never adorned with the title “Mahatma”, since his assassination, Martin Luther King has been elevated to the status of a demigod in the minds of the American populace. King’s legacy is so polished and immaculate that it would be social suicide for anyone to criticize him.
Therefore, in order to lend credibility to their often ill-conceived ideologies, politicians and media pundits alike are inclined to project their ideas onto the persona of Martin Luther King. After all, if Martin Luther King himself supported their perspective on a certain sociopolitical issue, they’re instantly immuned from critique.
Conservative pundits continuously claim that Martin Luther King was a Republican who staunchly opposed the insidiously subtle racism of the Democratic Party. If Martin Luther King was alive today, he would be appalled by the antics of the Black Lives Matter movement. If Martin Luther King was among us, he would bluntly admonish Barack Obama for his supposedly Marxist leanings. If Martin Luther King was still living, he would chide those shamelessly slothful welfare queens living off the teat of the government. Since his untimely passing, Martin Luther King has been resurrected as the token Black mascot for the American Right Wing.
When the leaders of historically-influential populist movements pass away, we have this inexplicable proclivity to hoist a halo upon their legacies and present them as demigods in our national folklore. Similarly for gods, Saints, and biblical heroes, we carve statues of them in line with an image to our liking. For example, the medieval European Christians saw Jesus Christ as one of their own. So they painted him as a sexy White-skinned adonis.
Martin Luther King was not the conservative folk hero heralded by Fox News. Nor was he the whitewashed character whom we read about in elementary school. It’s time we remove our rosy-tinted goggles and acquaint ourselves with the real Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King was born to a Baptist pastor named Micheal King and his wife, Alberta. The child was named after his father, Micheal. Five years later, after attending the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Conference in Berlin, the reverend decided to change both his and his son’s names to Martin Luther in honor of the Protestant Reformer.
Martin Luther King was a precocious child. He skipped two grades on account of his high intelligence. At age 13, He became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station. During his junior year of high school, he won an oratory contest which foreshadowed his future career. In addition, he went straight to Morehouse College after his junior year.
Although he had profound doubts concerning the Christian doctrine during his adolescence, Martin Luther King, electrified by his faith, enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary to fulfill his pastoral ambitions. He was deeply influenced by the Social Gospel movement, which proposed applying Christian principles towards alleviating social problems including poverty, crime, alcoholism, inadequate labor conditions and racial tensions. Although taboo during 1940s, King was involved in a relationship with a German immigrant who worked as a cook for the college cafeteria. Unfortunately due to pressure by his friends and parents, King was forced to call off the relationship.
King had to settle for a Black woman named Coretta Scott, whom he met through a mutual friend. King would find himself at odds with most feminists today. During the Civil Rights struggle, King expected his wife to stay out of the public eye, expecting her to be a stay-at-home mother to their four children.
Martin Luther King received his doctoral degree in 1955 from Boston University with his dissertation entitled The Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillach and Henry Nelson Wieman. Although he is universally praised for his impressive educational credentials, in 1991, it was revealed that portions of King’s dissertation was plagiarized. Although the academic inquiry at Boston University didn’t revoke King’s doctorate, stressing that the dissertation still made “an intelligent and original contribution to scholarship”, the inquiry concluded that numerous passages were included without appropriate citation of sources. Obviously, this unsavory truth of King’s academic career does not negate his leadership in the Civil Rights Struggle. But we need to understand that King was, at the end of the day, a human being burdened with his own flaws.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott launched Martin Luther King into the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, a young woman was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in compliance with Jim Crow regulations in Montgomery, Alabama. Her name was Claudette Colvin. She was a fifteen year old local schoolgirl. Meanwhile, the local chapter of the NAACP was waiting for an opportunity to launch a public protest in respond to the racially-discriminatory policies in the American South. Colvin’s case presented the perfect opportunity. Unfortunately, Claudette Colvin was a unmarried, pregnant teenager so it was imprudent to use her as the public face for a protest demonstration.
A few months later, the NAACP decided to ochrastrate a confrontation, similar to Colvin’s. Rosa Parks, secretary of the local NAACP chapter sat in one of the front seats of a bus. When she refused to comply with orders to move to the back, Parks was immediately arrested. A public protest ensued for third hundred and eighty days, which was later christened “The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955”.
Throughout the protest demonstration, Martin Luther King, as a dynamic speaker with an erudite mind, emerged as the muscles and brains of the movement. He gained nationwide fame, launching him as the public face of Civil Rights.
A year after the Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the collaboration of Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery and Baynard Ruskin. The SCLC harnessed the organizational abilities and cultural influence of Black churches to conduct protests for civil rights reform.
Baynard Ruskin is a long-forgotten figure in the Civil Rights Struggle. He was a veteran activist for Civil Rights, long before Martin Luther King came into the scene. He organized the first March on Washington with A.Philip Randolph in 1941 to demand equal employment opportunities for Blacks. He immersed himself in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Southern Asia. He led a protest demonstration against the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. And he was involved in the first Freedom Ride to challenge the Jim Crow regulations of the American South.
Despite Ruskin’s open homosexuality Martin Luther King accepted him as a close aide and was influenced by his nonviolent strategies, which Ruskin, in turn, learned from his involvement in the Quit India Movement. However, due to pressure from other activists, Martin Luther King was forced to distance himself from Baynard Ruskin.
Contrary to claims made by certain political pundits, King thought it was more prudent not to endorse a political party. In fact, he reasoned that a position of non-alignment would enable him to look at both major political parties with objectivity. King was equally scathing of both the Democratic and Republican Party on their poor civil rights record and disregard for the plight of Black Americans.
Martin Luther King was a ardent proponent of Democratic Socialism. In fact, if he was alive today, King would have found himself to the left of Bernie Sanders on the political spectrum. King stated that capitalism had failed to provide the basic nescessities for working class people, particularly Blacks. However he was reluctant to be outspoken about his economic views due to the sheer anti-communist sentiments during the Cold War era.
One viewpoint of King’s that would have ostracized him from the current political arena was his advocacy for reparations. King stated that Blacks should be compensated by the federal government for historical atrocities. In fact, he proposed a compensatory passage of $50 billion over ten years!
In addition, King’s views on Planned Parenthood would have isolated him from conservative Christian circles. In 1966, he was awarded the Margerat Sanger Award and during his acceptance speech, he lauded the work of Planned Parenthood saying “Family Planning, to relate population to world resources, is practical and necessary”.
In school, we never learn about King’s socioeconomic views. If we did, we would have quickly realized that Martin Luther King would not be accepted in today’s political arena. He would have been lambasted as a “Radical Marxist”, “a Reparation-seeking Opportunist”, an “Abortionist” etc. etc. So instead, we’re presented a sanitized version of Martin Luther King, palatable to our conservative sensibilities.
As a representative of the SCLC, Martin Luther King was one of the “Big Six” instrumental in the March on Washington in 1963, along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Young Urban League, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters(who also led the 1941 March), John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech (which he also delivered in Detroit six months previous). The positive reception of that speech echoed across the nation, leading to the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Tt
After the March on Washington, King continued his fiery activism. In 1966, he and Ralph Abernathy moved into the slums of Chicago’s South Side to express solidarity with the economically marginalized. King and Abernathy relentlessly fought against redlining and other discriminatory housing practices. This led to the 1968 Fair Housing Act
It’s no secret that King was vehemently opposed to American involvement in Vietnam. However, he was also critical of certain elements within the Anti-War movement, most notably, the hippies.
In April of 1968, King had joined Black sanitary workers in Memphis in their protest rally. He delivered his “I’ve been on the mountaintop” at the rally. The following day, on the eighth of April, King was murdered by James Earl Ray.
Martin Luther King left behind a wife and four children. Despite his laudable public image, King was not the ideal family man. Ralph Abernathy revealed in his autobiography that King had a “weakness for women”. His womanizing reputation was somewhat well-known, even among his enemies including J. Edger Hoover. Lyndon B Johnson often accused King of being a “hypocritical preacher” in light of those accusations. In fact, it is rumored that on the night before his assassination, King was having an affair in his hotel room!
It’s a classic preacher-in-a-brothel situation. We’ve all heard news stories of holier-than-thou clergymen getting their freak on with some loose broad. Many of them were even forced to remove the collar. However, I’m sure none of us would imagine one of our national heroes being in the same company as Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker!
Nevertheless, King’s moral failings in his personal life does not tarnish his public legacy. The only people burdened by King’s infidelity are his wife and children. In other words, it’s a personal family matter and we don’t have the right to judge.
This is the real story of Martin Luther King, the man. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary legacy. But he was a man nevertheless. We should acknowledge that if we truly want to pay him homage.