An evolving King

January 15, 1998|By Elmer P. Martin and Joanne M. Martin

AS we mark Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday today, and through the federal holiday Monday, the nation once again will be bombarded with repeated broadcasts of his ''I Have a Dream'' speech, which he delivered Aug. 28, 1963, during the famous March on Washington.

But the replaying of that speech to the exclusion of others, in effect, freezes King at that historical moment, making him into what distinguished black historian Vincent Harding calls a ''harmless icon,'' a ''convenient hero'' tailored to fit the comfort zone of mainstream America.

The lone speech

Dr. Harding maintains that by associating King with that lone speech, Americans not only make him a superficial hero of less substance, but also deprive themselves of the opportunity to see the more mature King, who was brought down at age 39 by an assassin's bullet in Memphis.

In fact, King himself said, ''I must confess to you that after talking about that dream, I started seeing it turn into a nightmare just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama,'' on Sept. 15, 1963.

In the five years after the dream speech -- the last years of his life -- King was shaped by the forces of history. Civil rights comrades were still being murdered and this man of nonviolence and love witnessed many U.S. cities become racial caldrons.

In groping to make his nonviolent movement relevant to the times, King went north. Although many Northern whites had held Southern segregationists in self-righteous contempt, King observed: ''I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen -- even in Mississippi and Alabama -- mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I've seen in Chicago.'' He was pelted with rocks and bottles in Skokie, Ill.

Northern hatred

He even moved his family into an urban ghetto in the North to get a close-up view of the poverty, alienation, bitterness and despair there. King also sought ways to approach the young Northern black-power advocates, many of whom had been nourished on his nonviolence philosophy but were turning to the freedom-by-any-means-necessary approach of King's rival Malcolm X.

To leave King in the period of his ''dream'' speech is to miss how he became increasingly radical and militant in his critique of the American social order. It is to close the door on the new King who was emerging.

King had ''moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.'' He had declared that ''we are not interested in being integrated into this [American] value structure'' of racism, individualism, materialism. He was interested not only in eradicating poverty in our nation, but also in excising poverty from ''hamlets and villages all over the world.'' And he was no longer interested in ''reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there.'' He wanted nothing less than the ''reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.''

During the last two years of his life, King began planning a Poor Peoples' March on Washington that would extend beyond participants having ''a beautiful day,'' hearing a few speeches and then leaving. King planned for that march to be a springboard for a protracted struggle designed, in his words, to ''interrupt the functioning'' of government until it instituted a huge program of ''redistribution of the wealth.'' King pledged that during such a march, ''there will be no rest, there will be no tranquillity until the nation comes to terms with our problem.''

'Traitor,' 'dupe'

During the final year of his life, King did make one widely unpopular speech, ''Beyond Vietnam.'' It immediately raised the ire of President Lyndon B. Johnson and other government officials. It caused newspapers around the nation to brand King a ''traitor,'' a ''communist dupe'' and a ''troublemaker.'' FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dubbed King ''the most dangerous Negro in the nation.'' Some of King's civil rights movement allies even denounced him as a traitor to the cause. Despite such powerful opposition, King refused to be silent.

The endless focus on King's ''dream'' speech is no doubt a way of watering down the message to make it palatable to a broader section of the public. But to focus on that 1963 speech to the exclusion of others gives the impression that he was a popular figure who died with his work complete. But poverty, racism, materialism, milita- rism and individualism -- all the evils that King fought -- have continued long after the civil rights revolution.

Young people should be encouraged to take up King's causes. And teachers, parents and other molders of young people should use King's birthday celebration to instill in the young the humility, tolerance, dedication to service and love for humanity and God that King represented.

Elmer P. Martin Ph.D. is a social work professor at Morgan State University and co-founder, with his wife, Joanne M. Martin Ph.D., of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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