Monday, January 16, 2012

The Clash of MLK's Legacy and Modern Image

Today we had a holiday in America. Perhaps you've heard of it - Martin Luther King Day. Perhaps you know the history or the image that is cultivated of our most famous modern day civil rights leader. But probably not.

In today's world, we lionize Dr. King. We think of him as one who led the struggle for equal opportunity, and often times in doing so we forget a few important things: he was a radical, he was not the only civil rights leader of his era, and he wasn't always as popular among Americans or even within the movement.

I remember first learning of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the fourth grade. I suppose it's always ongoing, but the one to which I'm specifically talking about occurred in the 1950s and '60s. But after having gone through college and studied African-American history more in-depth, it amazes me how different white and black Americans have learned of King.

It seems like in the white schools the history gets a lot of white washing. Dr. King was the "good civil rights" leader who preached peace as opposed to the "bad" ones, namely people like Malcolm X, who preached violence and all that stuff. Of course, history is almost never that simple, and in a way because of this, history has been rather unkind to people like Malcolm X.

It was quite the eye opener when I went to college and heard how he was discussed among African-American students. His history became much more complex. Of course, he was lionized; the fact that he is referred to sometimes as simply "Martin" the way Malcolm X is referred to as "Malcolm" is a testament to just how much of an impact each had. But he was spoken of in a much more complex manner.

A more detailed history of Dr. King is that he held radical views. He was greatly influenced by the likes of another radical, Mahatma Gandhi, who led the independence movement in India from British colonization. Gandhi's call for nonviolence and passive resistance was a cornerstone to King's tactics, like the Montgomery boycott. But there was much more to him than that.

He was one of the first leaders to call for a type of reparations for past injustices. He didn't think it was possible to provide for direct compensation for past injustices such as slavery or Jim Crow, but it was possible to provide $50 billion over the course of ten years to all disadvantaged groups (not just African-Americans) to address the needs of poverty, lack of access to education, and to combat other social ills such as broken homes.

He was also a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In a speech delivered exactly a year before his assassination, he said that the war was means for colonization and that the United States was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

Nonetheless, towards the final years of his life, he wasn't the consensus civil rights leader that we think of today. In the years following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, his methods were often in conflict with other leaders who were more vocally hostile discrimination. As the decade wore on, the movement took a more militant tone with leaders like Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Stokely Carmichael calling for black nationalism. Passive resistance was no longer good enough as acts of economic discrimination and police brutality followed African-Americans out of the Deep South and into cities like Detroit and Los Angeles.

Public opinion of him has changed in the time since his assassination. According to Gallup, Dr. King had a favorable rating of 33% in 1966 - last August it was up to 94%. That same year, 50% of whites believed he was "hurting the Negro cause, while only 36% said he was helping, according to a Harris Poll.*

It's an ugly truth, but assassinations have a way of changing our views of someone, regardless of what they stood for (see Lincoln, Kennedy).

* (Thanks to The Monkey Cage for providing those stats).

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