Unconventional Wisdom About Martin Luther King Jr.
Editors around the country are likely peering at their calendars, noting the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and cringing.
No disrespect to King, his family, or the legacy he left America.
But holidays like the King birthday, celebrated January 19 this year, quickly become the bane of editors who must devise new angles for coverage every year.
The challenge is how to properly honor King, without stupefying readers whose eyes glaze at the thought of hearing yet another recitation of the famous "I Have A Dream" speech.
Through years of reporting, and yes, trying to find new angles for the King holiday, I've found one of the best sources is the work of the Rev. James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary.
Here's a quote from Cone:
"If America really saw the whole person of King, it would be very difficult for America to embrace him the way America does," Cone said. "It is that early King that is easily manipulated. The King of 1967 and '68 realized that white liberals were not as much in favor of equality for black people and other people of color as he thought."
Which is a good place to begin.
Try looking at King later in his life.
Most of the misinterpretations and oversimplifications of King's story are based on overemphasizing the King of 1963.
He didn't die until April 1968.
And to me, King's greatest attribute is how his views changed radically during his lifetime. He should be applauded for how he both struggled with, and later formed, his opinions on race, global issues, and nonviolence.
At the time of his death, King was not the universally popular figure he has become today.
He had begun to speak out against the Vietnam War and the policies in South Africa. He criticized the American government and its global effect. And, he said the refusal of some white people to give up power kept people of all races, not just blacks, from opportunity.
That's a far cry from the peace and harmony message that usually surrounds King's legacy.
Also, near the time of his death, King spoke often about what he had come to believe were the three great evils: war, poverty, and racial hatred. King spoke often of his belief that these three things were intricately linked.
Here are a few ideas that readers, viewers, and listeners might find interesting:
1. Contrary to popular image, King did not always like, much less embrace, white people.
Why would he?
King was raised in the South during the years of segregation. He watched his father endure horrible bigotry, something that made the young King very angry.
At the time of his death, King was not the universally popular figure he has become today.King was eight years old when he was slapped by a white woman in a downtown Atlanta department store and insulted with a racial slur. When he was in high school he stood on a bus for 90 miles after being cursed by the driver and ordered to give up his seat to whites who had just boarded.
It was only when King enrolled at Morehouse College that he began to see whites differently.
"I did not conquer this anti-white feeling until I entered college and came in contact with the white students through working in interracial organizations," Cone quotes King in his book, "Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare."
2. King struggled to become a believer in nonviolence and it wasn't Gandhi that convinced him.
Early on, King saw nonviolence as a practical stance, not a moral obligation.
There were simply more white people than black people in the nation, and if fighting broke out, black people would lose, scholars say.
It took King until the mid-1950's to see the disconnect between leading a nonviolent demonstration and having armed bodyguards.
King's philosophy on nonviolence was guided by the all-inclusiveness of Christian love: the ideal that people should love their enemies. It was not, as many believe, something King came to believe by studying the work of Mohandas Gandhi, Cone and other scholars say.
Early on, King saw nonviolence as a practical stance, not a moral obligation.King visited India, but years after Gandhi's death.
Linking King to Gandhi was a tactic used by Northern supporters of the civil-rights movement like Baynard Rustin and Glenn Smiley, argues David J. Garrow, in his book, "Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."
The spin was necessary, as the movement needed backing financially and philosophically.
King's dependence on nonviolence also coincided with acceptance of his own mortality. He developed the strength to remain unprovoked during violent physical assaults. The learned demeanor is credited with saving his life in 1958 in Harlem when a woman stabbed King, lodging a 7-inch Japanese letter opener's blade alongside his aorta. Later, doctors said King would have died if he had so much as sneezed.
3. King took halting steps toward his views on the Vietnam War and global poverty.
Early readings on King will show he did not understand the situations of black people in the Northern portion of the United States, much less worldwide oppression and the problems it caused for people of all races, not just American black people.
King's Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 came with the role of world leader.
In the late 1950's, he had signed documents calling for no nuclear testing and spoke against colonialism in Africa. But the Nobel Prize increased pressure on King to speak out about world issues.
For a period, King was publically silent on the Vietnam War. That ended when King bought a copy of the January 1967 issue of Ramparts magazine. An article showed pictures of children burned by American napalm and a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby.
King was visibly shaken, unable to finish the meal in front of him. It was then that he committed to ending the Vietnam War.
His nonviolence had become a deep conviction by that point in his life, and King understood it might mean taking unpopular stands, scholars say.
A speech King gave on April 4, 1967 is noted as the first time King openly linked Vietnam to the civil rights struggle.
King explained how his views on Vietnam came into focus as he watched resources once aimed at ending poverty in America shift to the war effort:
Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
Finally, a word of warning from a member of the King family.
I had a conversation several years ago with King's daughter Yolanda. We talked and laughed about questions reporters pose to her.
Her favorite, unfortunately, is one that likely is being discussed in planning meetings now: What would your father say today about...?
Ms. King pointed out that things like affirmative action weren't even a concept, much less a political landmine, until long after her father was dead. So, from her perspective, such questions often lead to un-educated guessing games, but offer little insight into her father.
A better stance, she said, would be to look at what we do know about her father.
Or, as I would rephrase it, look at what America should know about King, but tends to neglect.
- Cone's "Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare." The book is a highly footnoted anthology of the lives of King and Malcolm X. Cone paints an understanding of the men's similarities, especially at the end of their lives.
- King's last book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" Published in 1968, the book has King discussing his philosophical shifts, worldwide poverty, and even his views on intermarriage between races.
- "Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference" by David J. Garrow. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and is considered among the most accurate depictions of King's life. It is also heavily annotated, so it is a great resource for reporters.