We like to remember MLK as a hero, a man revered by all except a few white supremacist jerks.
Well. Here’s what I want to say about that. Way too few Americans thought of him as a hero in 1968. Not that he wasn’t worthy of it. I heard him give a talk in upper West Manhattan at Riverside Church. It was April 4, 1967. It didn’t seem like he thought of himself as a hero on that night. Oh he spoke boldly and forcefully. But did he think of himself as a hero? I don’t think so. He anchored his talk on the theme of the forum: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” This very brave man went on to say the silence of America’s citizens concerning our atrocities in Vietnam was betrayal.
Dr. King knew the emotional pain an agent for change always carries. Very emotionally he said: “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men (sic) do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.” And then this: “Some of us who have begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” One wonders how concerned he was for his life that night. He was assassinated exactly one year later.
Because of this speech and other things he was saying at that time, the government of the United States saw him as a significant threat. Here’s just one example:
“We must mark MLK now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro for the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security…”
–William C. Sullivan, head of the FBI Division 5 in early 1968
Martin Luther King didn’t think of himself as a hero. His words were strident, bold, dangerous. But, like all change agents he kept on talking. In this video Dedrick Asante-Muhammad says we need to wake up and “not allow this kind of whitewashed All American Dream King and start dealing with the American reality.” Making MLK a hero today is whitewashing and blurring his legacy. For whatever reason we are attempting to transform him from a leader for racial and economic justice who opposed the war in Viet Nam into a revered statesman. That is a convenient “betrayal of silence.” On this day set aside to honor his life we need to remember why he died. It was because he was leading a very demanding struggle for justice.
I invite you to take a few minutes to watch the video. I think you will learn things that will prepare you to speak boldly about the true legacy of this man.