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Think Tank

Who is the Real Martin Luther King, Jr.?

What is the Big Idea?

  Some of the most memorable photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King are of him standing behind a podium with his fists clenched and his arms raised. This image of King is further reinforced by his famous I Have a Dream speech where he exudes power and confidence while promoting peace and kindness. He is often compared to Malcom X, another civil rights leader who, unlike King, promoted black supremacy through violent means. Since 1986, every third Monday of January is treated as a federal holiday that honors King's birth and celebrates his iconic brand of leadership. To most people today, he is a hero and a leader and we have the images and speeches to show for it.

Our perception of King, however, is flawed. Michael Eric Dyson, author of April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr’s Death and How It Changed America argues it is King’s death, not life, that made the bigger impact on America’s psyche. His life was transformed by his tragic and untimely death, which made his work more important and heroic. Dyson says that King was “a foul stench in the nostrils of mainstream America. He was a pariah to mainstream white America but once he was murdered the sweet scent of martyrdom swept away all of the foul smell of Dr. King’s social and moral crusades.”

In reality, white Americans resisted him and black Americans turned their backs on him. This had a profound effect on his emotions. Top leaders of the FBI even wrote him letters suggesting suicide in an effort to flush him from society.

“We tend to elevate him to a level of an icon or a demiurge,” said Dyson. “But Dr. King sweated, bled, cried, struggled and was depressed.”

What is the Significance?

What would King think about America’s progress for equal rights if he was alive today? The good news is, racism is no longer embedded into our laws. The bad news is, racial inequality has been replaced by income inequality. If King was a leader Americans took seriously, one that was threatening enough to bring about real social change, we should be living in a society free from any inequalities, according to Dyson.

“If he’s so perfect and beloved, why is it that America continues to fail to both embody his ideals and to employ them and to fulfill the dream he had about America being fair and equal and just for all people regardless of color or race or skin or national origin and he might have added I think sexual origin, sexual orientation and the like?” said Dyson.

Instead, we have a diluted image of King that exists today, an image that makes him safe for white America and inspiring for black America, according to Dyson. Forgotten is his controversial stance against the Vietnam war, his support of the Voting Rights Act and the ensuing harsh criticism from the public and the media for his beliefs.

The danger in asserting King’s flawlessness is that he becomes an icon that young people can’t live up to, says Dyson.

“Sometimes we make him perfect so we can dis Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or whatever figure we happen to turn to now to contrast them negatively to Dr. King,” said Dyson. “But everything negative that was said about Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton was also said about King. So those competing interests make it a very difficult sale.”

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