The third Monday in January represents the annual reminder that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is truly an American icon. But such status may not be for the reasons many would readily assume.
In order to become an American icon, one must first undergo a scouring process by which one is transformed into a nonabrasive mythologized hero that bears little semblance to reality.
This is profoundly an American pursuit, which is to distort the figure in question until he or she is unrecognizable. In King’s case, he has been defanged and neutered so that the holiday that honors him, though richly deserved, possesses little relation to the man who lived.
You cannot be, as A. Phillip Randolph dubbed King at the March on Washington, “The Moral Leader of our Nation” by making everybody comfortable. The administration of President John F. Kennedy held King partly responsible for the violence that ensued in Southern towns, until public sentiment, thanks to the evening news, said otherwise.
The shrewdness of King was to devise a formidable strategy that combined nonviolent civil disobedience along with the values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, carried out by countless foot soldiers. They were willing to stand proxy for a nation that had ignored its committed values.
The Martin Luther King who headed the Montgomery Improvement Association as it engaged in a year-long struggle to desegregate the bus system in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, was not the same leader who went to Memphis to aid sanitation workers in 1968. But that does not negate the fact that his prophetic radicalism was always present.
Along that trek, there were victories in Birmingham and Selma that culminated in landmark civil rights legislation, a Nobel Peace Prize, as well as being named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
By signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, respectively, President Lyndon B. Johnson naively believed he had purchased King’s unwavering support.
Johnson wrongly assumed that doing more for the aspirations of equality than any other U.S. president in the 20th century should have at least muffled King on issues and policies where there was disagreement, specifically Vietnam. Johnson’s calculation was naïve because it was politically based, while King’s perspective was rooted in America’s public morality.
King stated at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967: “This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”
King’s public opposition to the conflict in Vietnam cost him support in black and white communities alike. The same Time Magazine that four years earlier had named King as its “Man of the Year” called his speech opposing American involvement in Vietnam “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” and The Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
But King had a ready response:
“Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, ‘Be nonviolent toward (Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner) Bull Connor’; when I was saying, ‘Be non-violent toward (Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff) Jim Clark.’ There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,’ but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.’ ”
But America collectively has become an unindicted co-conspirator by embracing a King void of the radicalism that was present throughout his 13-year career on the public stage. He is largely defined by the closing refrain of his keynote address at the March on Washington that many erroneously refer to as “I Have a Dream.”
I wonder if there would be a holiday to honor King if we gave more attention to his observation of America that suffered from the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism — a searing critique that remains relevant in the 21st century. Would there be a holiday for King had he preached the sermon he called in to his church the day he was assassinated, entitled, “America May Go to Hell”?
So as King is remembered with annual breakfasts, mock marches and retail sales, let us be reminded that the person we honor has been systematically cherry-picked for public comfort, while the radical man who lived dwells in antiquity, largely forgotten.
It is the price that must be demanded for one to become an American icon.