I was raised with KPFA, and every year on MLK’s birthday they would trot out the usual “the-popular-media-gets-King-wrong” themes – airing his more economically radical speeches, his stand against the Vietnam War, etc. It’s not that I disagree with them, it’s just a theme that’s been repeated so many times in the same way I just kind of roll my eyes when I see them. Yes, he had radical political positions. He also took conservative approaches at times, often leaning towards his Andrew Youngs as much as his Stokely Carmichaels for advice. And his “I Have a Dream” speech might seem almost trite after hearing it 500 times for those of us who weren’t even born when he gave it, but when you look at it and consider the context and the prose, the brilliance of the speech can’t be oversold really. It was for a larger audience, but its scope was grand and the fact that it’s really the only speech that 95 percent of the public will remember, that takes nothing from its significance.
So I kind of sighed when I ventured over to Daily Kos this morning and read a title post: Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.
Well, I sighed and clicked on the link, and found that it wasn’t your typical lefty deconstruction of the watering down of King as distance lends sterilization of the message. In fact, the post wasn’t about message. It was about the actual accomplishment of King and the Civil Rights Movement – what it means to African Americans. And why they bristle when we on the left, or even some younger African Americans, say that the “dream” was not accomplished. That progress was temporary or exaggerated. What is emphasized, even by the left, is the universality of the causes King represented, and the failure to obtain “true equality” or fully economically emancipate the African American communities. The actual accomplishments are more significant to black people than to white people, and perhaps more to older people than younger. The post was written by an African American. This is the heart of the piece.
So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.
That’s a taste, and it’s something we forget. Something I wasn’t alive to see or hear about as it unfolded. But it is not the grand message of a unified race that is the core of what he represented, at least not to the older generation of African Americans. Read the whole very powerful post, right down to the postscript, which appeals to a little bit of perspective for bloggers:
PS. I really shouldn’t have to add this but please — don’t ever confuse someone criticizing you or telling you bad things over the internet with what happened to people during the civil rights movement. Don’t. Just don’t do it. Don’t go there.