So in case you were not aware, yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday. Were he still alive, he would have turned 87. Sadly he never made it to that age and was shot down in Memphis in 1968. Today, we celebrate his legacy around this time of year. In fact schools are closed Monday in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
With this time of year upon us, I would like to remind people of an important thing as they recollect what Dr. King’s legacy is: Understand the man before you idolize him. See, people have several assumptions about Dr. King. You do, I do, we all do. But to understand him and his legacy, that should be your task, not to idolize him. See, several people when they see protests and things going on today for some reason call upon the ghost of Dr. King and say, “Why can’t you be like him, he did things the ‘right’ way.” What those people seem to forget was, well, everything about Dr. King. MLK was a powerful orator and stood fast by his values. He was educated, moving, and quite a figure. He became the face of the Civil Rights struggle and he was hated for it. See, Dr. King was pushing for rights for African Americans. He knew that standing by and letting the system work was the wrong approach because the system was obviously broken. He called that into question and his particular approach was non-violence. This idea seems to be one that many people hold him to and why he is such a popular figure among anti-protesters today. There is a problem with their arguments though. Non-violence, that was something Dr. King struggled with himself. Read his writing and he spent years debating with himself if it was the right approach and it could actually work. His approach involved children in a way many disagreed with, including Malcolm X. Of course, Dr. King and Malcolm X were seen as opposite sides of the coin with one saying “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” and the other saying, “By any means necessary.” Of course near the end of their lives, both men were closer than anyone realized in their approaches. Dr. King even wrote from the Birmingham Jail that he would not put down those who used violence to seek justice without more harshly calling out those creating the injustice. This was the message he had for the 9 white clergy who called on him to stand against violence.
See, here is the thing. You must take into account the entire legacy. You must take the good (Civil Rights) with the bad (Adultury and otherwise). Also understand that were he alive today, it seems unlikely that Dr. King would agree with those who use him as a way of putting down protesters. Dr. King was a man, not one piece or one action. He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, yet he distanced himself from Bayard Rustin for possible connections to the GLBT community (this could have been a thought based on the publicity and little to do with MLK’s actual belief on GLBT rights).
His Legacy is more complex. So once again, I challenge you today to reflect on his entire story, not neatly edited pieces that fit your image of him. Understand what he did and what he means for this country. Pay your respects.