From the content of our characters, to the importance of non-violent protest, to the government’s continued abuses of power, MLK still offers a lot to consider while heading deeper into the second century of the new millennium and our increasingly woke culture.
At the risk of being a white person commenting on a revered black leader, here are five things to think about on Martin Luther King Day. Today, we celebrate the life and legacy of the remarkable and indispensable civil rights leader, whose words, vision, and controversies remain just as relevant over fifty years later.
The content of our characters
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Part of MLK’s famous, “I have a dream speech,” delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, seldom has a single statement had such a hold on our hearts and minds. Over 50 years later, the simple, unadorned words are still subject to controversy, the quote regularly used by conservatives and liberals alike to advance their political objectives.
For liberals, it is a clarion call for social justice, opening the door to racial preferences and other remunerative steps. For example, Martin Luther King III insists, “I don’t think we can ignore race.” He explains further, “What my father is asking is to create the climate where every American can realize his or her dreams. Now what does that mean when you have 50 million people living in poverty?”
Somewhere in the middle, MLK’s daughter, Bernice King, says her father was asking America to “to get to a place – we’re obviously not there – but to get to a place where the first thing that we utilize as a measurement is not someone’s external designation, but it really is trying to look beyond that into the substance of a person in making certain decisions, to rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases that we often bring to decisions that we make…he’s really challenging us.”
Conservatives, of course, insist the quote clearly means MLK sought a color blind society and would be against racial preferences. While we’ll never know for sure how Dr. King would feel about American culture and or any specific policy more than 50 years later, we can look to the other parts of the speech for guidance and perhaps a hope for unity.
“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In addition to revering the Founding documents and principles, MLK also emphasized the importance of white people and black people working together, another topic as relevant now as ever. “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds
Also in the “I have a dream speech,” MLK laid out key principles of nonviolent protest.
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
Unfortunately, despite such unwavering moral clarity, MLK has sometimes been used to justify violence, even as recently as last year. The justification comes from a statement taken wildly out of context, three years after the “I have a dream speech” when Dr. King was interviewed by Mike Wallace.
Like today, the interview took place after a summer of racial unrest and riots. At the time, MLK told Wallace, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
That quote was repeated many times just this past summer, as another wave of racial unrest shook the country. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the rest of the interview.
“I will never change in my basic idea that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the Negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral.” In another speech, he also said, “Now what I’m saying is this: I would like for all of us to believe in non-violence, but I’m here to say tonight that if every Negro in the United States turns against non-violence, I’m going to stand up as a lone voice and say, ‘This is the wrong way!’”
The FBI illegally spied on American citizens then as it most certainly does now
COINTELPRO is the abbreviation for a Counter Intelligence Program that ran from 1956 until an unknown date, likely 1971 at least. The program was conducted by the FBI to surveil, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt American political organizations, from communists, to civil rights groups, to anti-war advocates, primarily on the left yet also including the Ku Klux Klan.
Long-standing FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover provided guidance to COINTELPRO, ordering agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” these movements. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally authorized spying on MLK himself, approving a limited wiretap of his phones, “on a trial basis for a month or so.”
Hoover went further, giving his men “unshackled” ability to pry into every aspect of MLK’s life.
The prying intensified after the head of COINTELPRO, William C. Sullivan reacted to the “I have a dream speech.” “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech…We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
The FBI proceeded to systematically spy on Dr. King, from his homes to his hotel rooms, everything and anything. They even went so far as to deliver a surreptious package urging him to commit suicide. “There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
Though these maneuvers were approved at the highest level of the FBI and DOJ, including personally by the President’s own brother, they were clearly illegal. Regardless, the program continued for years and the leadership continued to justify it. In fact, the effort to besmirch MLK continued even after his death.
As a result, liberals used to have a healthy skepticism concerning government spying and surveillance powers, all of which are even more expansive and intrusive today.
Flawed people can still do amazing and indispensable things
In 2019, David Garrow, a Pulitzer prize winning biographer of MLK, shook the world by publishing an article in a British magazine based on 54,000 documents in the National Archives.
The documents were sealed until 2027, but became available as part of a broader act related to the JFK records. The contents of the memos, taken while the FBI was spying on MLK, are shocking and upsetting to say the least.
The most damning charge is that MLK witnessed a rape in a hotel room, but instead of stopping it, he encouraged the attacker to continue. “The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her. King looked on, laughed, and offered advice.”
Another memo claims that “On January 6 and 7, at least 12 individuals – nearly equally divided between men and women and including King, officers of SCLC, other others bearing the title of ‘Reverend’ — participated in an a sex orgy.”
According to Politico, “Other allegations include that King’s philandering—long known to be extensive—was even more rampant than historians knew; that King took part in group sex; that King may have fathered a child with one of his mistresses; and—less pruriently—that King continued taking money from his onetime ally Stanley Levison, a Communist Party member, even after he was supposed to have broken off ties.”
Though the validity of these claims is disputed by some, Politico notes, “It is Garrow’s decades of expertise in reviewing and analyzing FBI materials about King that gives these startling revelations their weight. Garrow has explained that while not all FBI claims are to be believed, these sorts of summaries of surveillance intercepts are unlikely to have been fabricated or manipulated.”
I obviously do not know the truth, except to say that everyone of us is flawed in some way, and we should be careful about judging the totality of anyone’s life based on their worst moments. Cancel culture would do well to consider this sad truth.
There will always be more work to be done, but the world really is a better place 50 years later
While many of today’s civil rights leaders like to reference MLK’s line about the “fierce urgency of now,” we should all consider how far the country has come in 50 years. From the outright racism of segregation in the 60’s to the more casual racism and sexism of the 1980’s, much has changed for the much better.
Also in the “I have a dream speech,” MLK said, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds…And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
While there remains work to be done, King was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act, effectively barring discrimination in the workplace and government. From MLK’s vantage point in the 1960’s, one wonders if he could even imagine a day fifty years later when America would inaugurate the first black President, and now first black Vice President.
This doesn’t imply that every problem is solved, only that what would have been inconceivable in MLK’s day is now commonplace in ours.
Martin Luther King Day celebrates those achievements and more to come. In my opinion, we should also celebrate how the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” make it possible to keep cashing these checks. That is something we can all, hopefully, unify around.