Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

My Thoughts On: January 19th, 2007

I recently got into an argument at work about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the man's legitimacy as being a figurehead of civil rights activism. There are real civil rights activists virtually forgotten by the general public, and Martin Luther King Jr. is the sole figure we give a holiday? Well, let's just take a fair look at that.

Remembering a mediocre civil rights activist...

Does anyone really know why Martin Luther King Jr. is a celebrated civil rights activist? Sure, he was made famous during his much-televised "I Have A Dream" speech. While it was good oratory with a good point, it was mostly preaching to the choir. The final closing two minutes of his "I Have A Dream" speech were better given to Congress by Reverand Archibald Carey, Jr. when he gave the original version of the speech at the 1952 National Republican Convention (that King later unattributably "borrowed" for his "I Have A Dream" speech), to the people that needed to hear it.

Far more important than anything else he's done, in my mind, is the role MLK Jr. played in organizing the boycott of the Montgomery transit system, in response to the Rosa Parks incident. The attention garnered because of Rosa Parks refusing a segregated seat got the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where precedent was set against legalized segregation. However, King himself played no more important role than Edgar Nixon, who handpicked the Rosa Parks incident. In a different world, Claudette Colvin would've been the headline, and who knows if MLK's congregation would've even been involved? Much more important to civil rights was the case of Oliver Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, which is fondly remembered by lawyers but few people today could tell you the actual importance of that case and its ruling.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not going to go off on a rant about how King was some kind of subversive Communist, which is a pointless claim in the era of the great Communist scare. I also don't care about his his academic credits (I simply don't care about his rampant plagiarism nor the issue of the merit of his Ph.D). However, I will call to task the merit of King's activist techniques.

King's campaign, mostly in conjunction with his black ministry, was invariably guilty of preaching to the choir. It spoke mostly to black Americans for the sole purpose of encouraging dissent and generating media, which was mostly what all the other civil rights leaders in his position were doing, except of course certain groups who were actually attempting to challenge specific laws and rally support from whites who supported integration and not getting as much media exposure for the added effort. In the meantime, King created a new special interest group, on the presumption that rallying support and engaging civil discourse was not really the best way to alleviate racial tensions.

Now, I in no way mean to diminish cause of racial equality under the law, there was a lot of proper dissent to be leveraged against the government, after all, state laws and civil disorder in the south hadn't improved much for 90 years. However, to pretend that King rallies were a call for civility is silly, they were each planned spectacles for the media, often violent ones, that emboldened supporters of segregation and pushed them into open conflict. The events had to be dramatic and provoke violence by facing off on the great stage the oppressed minority versus the segregationist authority or else they wouldn't garner the media attention King needed. Images of firehoses being turned on crowds of blacks were popular news, but could've been avoided (in most cases) by not deliberately picking protest stages which would provoked these violent conflicts.

The dramatizations culminated in the nation's first mass movement campaign, the March on Washington, which was King's biggest moment. There were 250,000 people - mostly blacks and minorities - gathered to protest in Washington D.C., and it set a precedent for future demonstrations. Civil rights activism was quickly becoming less about human dignity and more about who got the most media attention by raising the biggest fit. The "I Have A Dream" speech echoed the idea that people should be judged by the "content of character" and not the "color of their skin", but it fell on deaf ears as the merits of King was that he was a black figurehead of the black church leading the black civil rights movement, and King wouldn't allow himself to be judged by any other terms. In an equal society, the notion of someone like King is almost a contradiction, real integration isn't about special interests like the kind King encouraged. An activist like King should've been working to make himself obsolete by setting clearly defined goals about what civil rights reforms the nation truly needed to get back on the right foot, not just for the government, but for society as a whole.

What were King's ideas for the future? Mostly wishy-washy, class-based society rubbish. Affirmative action, which came to pass, a poverty bill of rights, and reparations. King didn't have any good ideas, and the strong culture he was creating for his black constituency resembled nothing of the general culture, ensuring that his supporters and those supporters to come would be even further, culturally, from any "dream"-like equality. It's almost as if Dr. King did not understand the words he spoke to the country, and ignorance of this sort is a much worse crime than plagiarism.

I often come back to those terms King popularized when coming back to decide the greatness of historical figures, and that being to judge men on their "content of character" and not the "color of their skin". And what of King's character? Well, in his personal life he regularly cheated on his wife, he was in at least one firsthand account found to beat a woman, and if you believe the reports of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (which isn't to say that I do) he was much worse as a person. The important thing is though, that as a civil rights activist, he paved the way not for future Rosa Parks, or Oliver Browns, or Harriet Tubmans, or Fredrick Douglasses... but instead, Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons. Which, in the long run, probably does more to hurt the rally for equality then it does to help, because civil rights should not be a case of who uses the media the best. It should be a case of who cares the most about the principles and who can best spread a common understanding about them to promote real cultural integration. Given the history of Martin Luther King Jr., it's hard to say he really believed or understood the principles he espoused, and he most certainly contributed to the widening gap between the general community and the modern "black" community, which to me makes him a pretty poor figure to make a national civil rights holiday for. But for a nation trying to appease the black special interest groups that he built positions of power for, it's a fairly widely accepted concession.

Regardless, I'd be wrong to bring up all of these complaints about MLK Jr. without discussing figures in the civil rights history of America that I do admire. So on my next video blog, my personal icons segment will cover the history behind the life of Frederick Douglass, a true civil rights legend. Be sure to tune in.

- Good ol' PA