We Must Defend His Leadership with Actions – Part 2
Only sixty years removed from emancipation, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia to a “middle” class Black family. He was the son of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Dr. King’s father was born “Michael King,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was originally named “Michael King, Jr.,” until the family traveled to Europe in 1934 and visited Germany. His father soon changed both of their names to “Martin” in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther -the foundation for greatness was being set. Dr. King attended Booker T. Washington High School where he skipped ninth and twelfth grade, and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school.
In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse College with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. Dr. King then began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955. King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, and together they had four children. Dr. King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama when he was at age 25, unfolding the journey and evolution of one of the greatest Americans EVER.
Let me be the first to say that much of what I have learned about the “real” Dr. King has come in the past ten years of self-study and I can’t get enough. I’m still learning about the brilliance, tenacity, vision, sincerity, and courage of Dr. King. In fact, I find myself on many occasions with tears running down my face when I listen to his speeches, I also find myself having to pause and reflect when I read his words because of the knots that begin to develop in my stomach. My entire being screams out on behalf of all of our ancestors who suffered so much especially- Dr. King who sacrificed immensely. I’m not an emotional mess -but I become emotional because I fully relate to the MAN, THE MESSAGE, THE HUMAN STRUGGLE, AND THE HUMAN VICTORY THAT HIS LIFE REPRESENTED AND I WANT TO SEE MORE THAN A HOLIDAY RECOGNIZE HIS CONTRIBUTION.
What I’ve learned about Dr. King by attending public schools and what is being communicated about Dr. King to most of us daily through America’s communication infrastructure is nothing like what I’ve come to learn about Dr. King on my own. He was a giant among historical giants. I admire Dr. King greatly and I will defend my previous statement that he represents “human excellence” and his teachings are equivalent to the mines and reservoirs of natural resources buried deep in the earth that we continue to uncover in our pursuit of new energy.
It’s impossible for anyone to have the same opinion that I have of Dr. King if they haven’t studied his whole body of work and the backdrop against which his work was produced. Just listening to his speeches will never give you a real understanding of Dr. King, because his comments must be placed in the context of the oppressor and the oppressed. We must come to understand his strategies and purpose; we must know and understand his strong spiritual beliefs and convictions and how they were developed; we must understand his critics and his supporters and what role they played; and most importantly, we must intimately come to understand his struggle for Black people whom he loved unconditionally and why he put everything on the line to advance our cause.
If we live in America, watch television, go to the movies, read newspapers, listen to the radio, go to the library, read a few books, or just allow the annual “birthday” conversation that typically takes place around Dr. King where we hear excerpts of the “I have a dream” speech, we will develop a softer and somewhat diluted opinion about the MAN, and THE MESSAGE.
It’s almost impossible to really value or understand the importance and magnitude of Dr. King if we don’t understand and connect Dr. King to the historical struggle of Black people in America. A struggle based on the tenets of freedom, justice, and equality. Today, for the most part, the world is getting a “watered” down version of Dr. King and this can only benefit the White supremacist and ultimately hurt the Black community – why? The White supremacist doesn’t want to see any aspect of Dr. King’s life replicated and the Black community is still under the domination of a system that thoroughly entangles them socially and economically and is overly advantageous to the White community – these are the same conditions that were prevalent during Dr. King’s day.
What was the historical struggle that Dr. King was a part of advancing? Millions of our ancestors lived tortured lives and died even more horrible deaths at the hands of White supremacists – there has been no reconciliation, for the most part, they’ve been all but forgotten. Dr. King didn’t forget them and while he fought the new enemy, he understood how they achieved their power and dominance over Blacks. The historical context is the foundation that birthed the spirit of Dr. King. Dr. King is the spirit of our ancestors representing many years of our struggle. The struggle for Black people is not only correcting what we see today but in doing so, we must honor the blood, sweat and dignity of our ancestors. If we could asked them whether they were at war, what do you think the answer would be? What’s even more troubling is that there are no references or acknowledgements today about the millions of unknown slaves – our ancestors have simply been forgotten or ignored.
I know that some Black people will say that terms like “White” supremacist and “enemy” of the Black people are counterproductive and things are different now. I say to those Black people who share this sentiment that you have been co-opted at an unimaginable level and you can no longer contribute to your own liberation because the enemy has fooled you with the “illusion of inclusion” – your utility to the Black struggle and liberation is like a “tit” on a bull. The Black man in America is and has been in a state of war since being snatched from Africa and enslaved in the most morbid and inhumane way and we have the nerve to say we don’t have an enemy and we’re not at war – a war that we didn’t start. Not only are we in a war, we’ve had millions of causalities and we continue to have casualties of the war today. The war will end when Blacks have the same freedom, justice and equality of all Americans.
Dr. King knew we were at war. This is why Dr. King employed a non-violent approach – not because he was weak, just the opposite. Non-violence requires a tremendous level of conviction because it involves the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition, even when you’re violently attacked. When the enemy has demonstrated the capacity for violence at levels never seen before and has the ability to continue this violence – being violence will only play into the enemy’s strength and therefore becomes our weakness. Nonviolent methods of action have been a powerful tool for social protest, and revolutionary social/ political change. During the 60s, a number of strategies were undertaken by members of the Black community to fight White supremacy and racism. Many individuals didn’t agree with the peaceful and non-violent approach of Dr. King including H. Rap Brown whose response was “If America doesn’t come around, we’re gonna burn it down.” Dr. King, responded to the “burn baby burn” comment with:
“Our slogan must not be ‘burn baby, burn. It must be ‘build, baby, build.’ Organize, baby, organize. Our slogan must be learn, baby, learn’ so we can ‘earn, baby, earn.” Dr. King, October 1967 – Barrett School in Philadelphia.
This message is as relevant today as it was in 1967 because many of the issues that Dr. King fought against remain prevalent today including the deliberate destruction of the Black community by any means necessary as evidenced by the mass incarceration of Black men. What did Black people do to deserve this type of horrific treatment and for so long – where is this all coming from? The life of Dr. King is the ABSOLUTE REFLECTION OF THE BLACK STRUGGLE IN AMERICA. Dr. King’s life and legacy has been hijacked and he has been portrayed as a pacifist, dreamer, and as a person who was fixed on integration “judge on the content of our character.”
Dr. King knew and understood the concept of power. While he spoke a lot about love, he also spoke on how Christians have been misled in this area – they have confused power to mean the absence of love. People are people and they will do what they are taught or told to do. If the Black community begins to understand and follow Dr. King, we won’t need or care what people think about us as long as they don’t attempt to “act out” any negative ideas about us because we will have the power to correct them. Dr. King stated that we need both and, in fact, “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
Brothers and Sisters, yes, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. King as a national holiday. This was a huge accomplishment, mainly, because we have other national holidays we celebrate and many of us believed Dr. King’s accomplishments exceed or at least are equal to the accomplishment of the other civil rights giants. However, we must not confuse pageantry and symbolism with CHANGE and TRANSFORMATION. It is human nature to want what others have and it is human nature to want to pay tribute to a person as worthy as Dr. King. By exalting the accomplishments of Dr. King, into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity, his personal and his public struggles which are similar to all of us. By idolizing Dr. King, in many respects, we fail to realize we could go and do likewise.
I contend that our enemies have orchestrated and, in many cases, have fueled these emotions to work against us. Instead of a heightened sense of freedom, justice and equality for Black people, which Dr. King sacrificed his life for, we have more human carnage than ever before. If truth be told, Dr. King would trade all of the honors, titles, awards, acknowledgements in exchange for real change for Black people. Unfortunately, not only has Dr. King’s message been assassinated, we’ve fallen for the okey dokey; we’ve been hoodwinked; we’ve been bamboozled – we’ve been given the trappings of the package versus getting the package itself . We got a national holiday but not even one recognition, let alone the fact that America has not taken responsibility and implemented remedies for the historical and systemic legacy of the American Institution of Slavery. There would be no King if there was no slavery and oppression. A tremendous distinction exists between transformation and symbolism and we have settled for symbolism.
We should never forget Dr. King even though his birthday has come and gone. Dr. King’s contributions are priceless and should be the transformative catalyst the Black community keeps out in front at all times. Why? Dr. King gave his life in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality for Black people. In doing so, he called America into account for the historical and current wrongs perpetuated against Black people by White racists which was supported by every American institution including its laws – THIS FIGHT CONTINUES.
Dr. King was a human being; he had a wife and family whom he treasured that he had to spend long periods away from. He loved life and we must remember while Dr. King was making history he was a very young man and like all young people, he was trying to balance his passion and purpose (struggle) with the pains of just growing up. After all, how many people in their 20s and 30s would we actually follow? He felt the pain both physical and spiritual – no one likes to lose and in the struggle sometimes we take a step forward, we sometimes have to take two steps back; and he had his faults, human faults -he wasn’t a saint. This is the distortion of his life when we don’t recognize Dr. King as a human being – then the great works and super-human accomplishments aren’t put into context and therefore unachievable. Some historians have tried to focus on Dr. King’s faults with the goal of attempting to blemish his reputation – but his faults were simply him being human.
Dr. King was not only one of the greatest orators in modern history, but also he was the example of being a “change agent” and a “doer.” In studying his life, Dr. King was arrested more than 30 times doing what we’ve come to know most about him – his civil disobedience. Practicing the non-violent philosophy coupled with civil disobedience, he suffered much physical harm (i.e. beating, hosing, stabling, etc.) and ultimately he was assassinated – his sacrifices are enormous. His leadership was extremely costly. Because he was so good at what he did and he was such a great person, he made his extreme level of struggles and sacrifices look easy – but it wasn’t. There is a big difference between the man and the myth. If we follow the myth, we never put his contributions into human context and we don’t believe that are able to replicate what he stood for -this is a trick played by the historians who are motivated by hate.
Dr. King wasn’t this beloved leader as he is portrayed today. In fact, many people despised him (Black and White). Dr. King was closely scrutinized by his own colleague, other Black civil rights leaders, and by a number of agencies within government, most prominently J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI (spying and wiretapping). Dr. King even faced disagreements with his lieutenants and advisers regarding organization, tactics, and campaigns. Within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, King was not universally accepted as its leader and spokesman. The NAACP, and its strategy of seeking change through legislation and court action were in constant competition with King, the SCLC, and its nonviolent direct confrontation for the support of blacks and white integrationists.
In spite of what Black leaders did and said to derail him, for many Black Americans, Dr. King was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation and their battle cry for human dignity. He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of pure racism. To White extremists, not bothering to make distinctions between degrees of Negro militancy, Dr. King was perceived as a communist, non-patriotic, and just an uppity “n” that needed to be silenced. Dr. King was a warrior and fighter for the voiceless people and his efforts were real and substantive. This leadership was on full display during the last days of his life, specifically the activities that would bring him to his assignation in Memphis. This aspect of Dr. King’s life has been completely overlooked and merits special attention.
In February 1968, more than 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike, demanding decent wages, better safety standards and an effective grievance procedure, better treatment, and recognition of their union, and protesting poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker – two sanitation workers crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. As the community got involved, the issues expanded to include police treatment, affordable housing, and access to jobs, wage scales, and justice in the schools. On March 18, 1968, Dr. King, invited by local organizers, addressed more than 17,000 people at the Mason Temple in Memphis. At the time, Dr. King and other organizers were organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, a national campaign demanding $30 billion annual investment in anti-poverty measures, a government commitment to full employment, enactment of a guaranteed income, and the construction of 500,000 affordable homes.
“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. . . . Now you know when there is vast unemployment and underemployment in the black community, they call it a social problem. When there is vast unemployment and underemployment in the white community, they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression…. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our cities, and the hotels of our highways, when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes? So we assemble here tonight to say we are tired. We are tired of being at the bottom. We are tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. We are tired of our children having to attend overcrowded, inferior, quality-less schools. We are tired of having to live in dilapidated, substandard housing conditions where we don’t have wall to wall carpet, but so often end up with wall to wall rats and roaches. We are tired of smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with the daily basic necessities of life . . . . We can all get more together than we can apart. We can get more organized together than we can apart. This is the way to gain power—power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to affect change. We need power……..Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure, and the white forces imparted with making decision will voluntarily hand down on a silver platter while the Negro furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.” – Dr. King – Sanitation Workers Striking in Memphis, March 18, 1968
THIS MESSAGE AND THIS INSTRUCTION AND ACTION IS PERFECT FOR TODAY