Separating Myth and Reality in the Legacy of Martin Luther King


January 15, 1991|By PAUL ROCKWELL

OAKLAND,CALIFORNIA — Every year, millions of Americans pay tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King. We often forget, however, that King was the object of derision when he was alive. At key moments in his quest for civil rights and world peace, the corporate media treated King with hostility. His march for open housing in Chicago, when the civil-rights movement entered the North, caused a negative, you've-gone-too-far reaction in the Northern press. And King's stand on peace and international law, especially his support for the self-determination of Third World peoples, caused an outcry and backlash in the predominantly white press.

In his prophetic anti-war speech at Riverside Church in 1967 (recorded and filmed for posterity but rarely quoted in today's press), King emphasized four points:

* That American militarism would destroy the war on poverty.

* That American jingoism breeds violence, despair and contempt for law within the United States.

* That the use of people of color to fight against people of color abroad is a ''cruel manipulation of the poor.''

* That human rights should be measured by one yardstick everywhere.

The Washington Post denounced King's anti-war postion, and said King was ''irresponsible.'' In an editorial entitled ''Dr. King's error,'' the New York Times chastised King for going beyond the allotted domain of black leaders -- civil rights. Time called King's anti-war stand ''demagogic slander . . . a script for Radio Hanoi.'' The media responses to King's calls for peace were so venomous that King's two recent biographers -- Stephen Oates and David Garrow -- devoted whole chapters to the media blitz against King's internationalism.

Martin Luther King may be an icon within the media today, but there is still something upsetting about the way his birthday is observed. Four words -- ''I have a dream'' -- are often parroted out of context every January 15.

King, however, was not a dreamer -- at least not the teary-eyed, mystic projected in the media. True, he was a visionary, but he specialized in applied ethics. He even called himself ''a drum major for justice,'' and his mission, as he described it, was, ''to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.''

In fact, the oft-quoted ''I have a dream'' speech was not about far-off visions. In his speech in Washington, August 28, 1963, King confronted the poverty, injustice, and ''nightmare conditions'' of American cities. In its totality, the ''I have a dream'' speech was about the right of oppressed and poor Americans to cash their promissory notes in our time. It was a call to action.

In 1986, Jesse Jackson wrote an essay on how Americans can protect the legacy of King. Jackson's essay on the trivialization, distortion and emasculation of King's memory is one of the clearest, most relevant appreciations in print of King's work.

Jackson wrote: ''We must resist the media's weak and anemic memory of a great man. To think of Dr. King only as a dreamer is to do injustice to his memory and to the dream itself. Why is it that so many politicians today want to emphasize that King was a dreamer? Is it because they want us to believe that his dreams have become reality, and that therefore, we should celebrate rather than continue to fight? There is a struggle today to preserve the substance and the integrity of Dr. King's legacy.''

Today, the media often ignore the range and breadth of King's teachings. His speeches -- on economic justice, on our potential to end poverty, on the power of organized mass action, his criticism of the hostile media, his opposition to U.S. imperialism (a word he dared to use) -- are rarely quoted, much less discussed with understanding. In fact, successors to King who raise the same concerns today are again treated with sneers, and their ''ulterior motives'' are questioned. A genuine appreciation of Martin Luther King requires respect for the totality of his work and an ongoing commitment to struggle for peace and justice today.

Mr. Rockwell is a writer and librarian.

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