By Michael Harriot, 4th April 2018. This week, America will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous and beloved civil rights leader in the nation’s history. Lost in the remembrance of the death of our nation’s most heralded warrior for social justice is the fact that—at the time of his death—King was a man in exile.
Originally published in The Root
There is a recipe for making a hero.
Greatness is neither the singular nor most necessary ingredient. Fame is important because no matter how benevolent or worthy someone’s actions may be, people must know about them. And though it might seem antithetical, hate is a crucial factor.0
Abraham Lincoln was disliked by many Americans when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. John F. Kennedy only had a 58 percent approval rating when he was killed in 1963. People even lined the streets to hurl insults at the man called Jesus of Nazareth as he carried the cross on which he would eventually be crucified—which brings us to the most important ingredient in the making of a martyr:
There must be blood.
This week, America will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous and beloved civil rights leader in the nation’s history. Lost in the remembrance of the death of our nation’s most heralded warrior for social justice is the fact that—at the time of his death—King was a man in exile.
Contrary to popular belief, when King died, he was not an icon of freedom and equality. In fact, most of the country disliked him. Sadly, on April 4, 1968, a bullet splattered bits of Martin Luther King Jr.’s brains and blood across the balcony of Memphis, Tenn.’s Lorraine Motel.
Then, and only then, was white America ready to make him a hero.
In 1987, a Gallup Poll revealed that almost 75 percent of Americans had a favorable rating of King. That same year, when the Roper Center asked which American they respected and admired the most, Americans named King more than any other person (pdf), living or dead. Even now, if you ask any black person whose name do white people bring up whenever black anger gives them the heebie-jeebies, “Is that what MLK would have wanted?” is second only to “What would Jesus do?”
White people love Martin Luther King Jr.
For them, he is the standard-bearer for resistance while negotiating the minefield of white sensibilities. In the rewriting of history, King has been fashioned into an apologetic freedom fighter who carefully sidestepped white ire while pointing out inequality. They have cunningly backdated their admiration for King and the civil rights movement to prove that they have always stood on the side of justice.
It is bullshit.
In August 1966, less than two years before King was gunned down, when a Gallup Poll asked Americans for their opinion of King, 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the civil rights icon. In a Harris Poll that same year, 95 percent of African-American respondents gave King a favorable rating.
In that same Harris Poll, 54 percent of whites said that they would not march or protest if they “were in the same position as Negroes,” and two months later, in October 1966, 85 percent of whites (pdf) said that civil rights demonstrations hurt Negroes more than they helped. By December, many whites had changed their minds, but 50 percent told Harris pollsters that Martin Luther King Jr. hurt “the Negro cause of civil rights.”
Why did King cause so much consternation among white people?
Despite what they would have you believe, Martin Luther King Jr. never embraced “all Americans.” He was as pro-black as they came and spent much of his time calling out white people. Not only was he critical of the population of active racists, but he reserved much of his scorn for those who sat on the sidelines doing nothing.
King explicitly stated: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
And when Atlanta’s white businessmen gathered to celebrate King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, he stood at the podium and told them, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King called out organized religion, politicians, the black church and even the Constitution. But there was one group that raised the ire of King more than any other:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season …
I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
King was not only an activist for racial equality but also a thorn in the side of white America when it came to the Vietnam War, capitalism and poverty. During his last days, King was working on the Poor People’s Campaign and insisting on a radical redistribution of economic and political power.
Then they whitewashed him and turned him into a martyr.
To be fair, this is not just white people’s fault. Because America is great at rewriting history, black people have accepted the narrative without challenging it. We have swallowed their sugarcoated version of Martin Luther King Jr. that paints him as someone who fought hate by lying down, sitting in and silently taking his beatings.
We regurgitate the narrative that King and Malcolm X were on opposite sides of the fight. We don’t seem to remember that both men were targets of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.
We have conveniently forgotten that both men were considered “Negro radicals.” We like the phrase “Black Power” because history has reduced the term “nonviolent resistance” to “nonviolence.”
They have erased the most important ingredient of King’s civil rights struggle:
He resisted like a motherfucker.
On the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, it is important to remember this because—if we are not careful—white America will have transformed our freedom fighter into the light-skinned lead in a Tyler Perry movie.
People will redress the protesters of Black Lives Matter for obstructing traffic by asking if it is what King would have done, as if he never led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Some will condemn downtown business district demonstrations while ignoring the sit-ins and boycotts organized during the civil rights struggle.
Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero and a martyr. He was beloved by us and hated by everyone else. We must remember that it was not until he was taken from us that white America conceded his greatness. There is no harm in pointing that out.
It is a valuable lesson in understanding the nature of protest. Being beloved is incongruous with disrupting any entrenched system, and the very nature of resistance means that there must be something to resist.
So when anyone tries to tell you what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted, remind them that we likely could have known his true feelings if a white man hadn’t put a bullet in his brain.
White people do not love Martin Luther King Jr.
And by “white people,” I do not mean it as a blanket statement. I mean it as a historical, statistics-supported fact. I mean it to describe the majority of whitepeople who did not support the abolition of slavery, the civil rights struggle, the Black Power movement, Black Lives Matter, or any other American movement for justice and equality.
King was a living, breathing man with children, a wife and a heartbeat. America never loved that. They love the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. They love the dead, black, bullet-riddled thing.
That’s who they’ll be commemorating.
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