As another year passes with celebrations marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, I worry about the dangers of neutering Dr. King’s life, turning him into a “dreamer” who became a martyr.
We shouldn’t forget that Dr. King was a leader, a man of conscience and of action. He sought to transform America and that forced him to be a disrupter — and to bear the wounds of being unpopular in a just cause.
With segregation the law of the land and voting rights suppressed, Dr. King understood the only way change would come would be by disrupting an unjust system. He believed in nonviolence, but not in passivity. One of my favorite quotes of Dr. King was when he was asked what his favorite demonstration was. “This week’s,” he responded, even as he planned for the next week’s demonstrations.
Dr. King opposed those who equated quiet with peace. We were told to be quiet at the back of the bus, quiet in the face of oppression. He understood that true peace came only with justice, and justice could not be achieved without disruption.
He was not an idle dreamer; he was clear about wanting to amass power. He emphasized the drive for the Voting Rights Act, to protect the power of the vote, because that would give African Americans the power to change their conditions.
Consider the 2016 election, where Donald Trump lost the popular vote nationally, but won the electoral college by the margin of less than 80,000 votes in three key states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, 10,704; 22,177 in Wisconsin; 46,765 in Pennsylvania.
In each state, eligible African American voters could have changed the election if they had turned out to vote. In 2020, Dr. King would be leading efforts to register new voters in numbers larger than those margins as a measure of their power. There are more 18-year-old voters than 81-year-old voters. If they register and vote, they can change the course of history.
Dr. King was fearless in the cause of justice. He realized early that the war in Vietnam was an unjust folly that would not be won. The cost of that war was draining the funds from the war on poverty at home. He came out publicly against the war in a dramatic speech at Riverside Church, publicly criticizing the Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, with whom he had worked to achieve the end of segregation and the Voting Rights Bill.
He was savaged by the establishment media, criticized by leading liberals. Black leaders spoke out against him. At the height of the controversy, he was seen unfavorably by three-fourths of whites, and as “irrelevant” by a majority of blacks. The FBI intensified its covert operations against him, deeming him a national security threat. He was deluged with threats of assassination.
He knew he would spark a fierce reaction but realized that he had no choice but to speak. The Vietnam debacle would divide the country and eliminate any hope of rebuilding at home.
Dr. King, of course, was proved right. He was right about the injustice of segregation and of efforts to suppress voting rights. He was right about the need for economic justice in the United States, for basic economic rights that would extend to people of all races. He was right about the need for a war on poverty rather than war abroad. And he was right that the Vietnam War was a costly, unjust debacle that could never be won. Many more knew that he was right, but too few had the courage of their convictions, the courage to speak out, the commitment to action to make things better.
Let us not censor Dr. King’s life even as we glorify him. What made him remarkable wasn’t his dream, but his willingness to sacrifice, to act, to work to make that dream real. Those who would seek to emulate Dr. King would be well advised to launch voter registration and get out the vote drives. Use the power that he helped provide to build even more power, and more justice.