Forgotten: MLK’s Edge

king in jail

By GORDON GLANTZ

GORDONVILLE — MLK DAY, the 2019 version, means a lot of feel-good service projects in the suburbs – making PB&J sandwiches for the hungry and scrubbing away misunderstood graffiti — while U2’s “Pride (In The Name of Love)” plays on a loop.

It beats the alternative – reducing the minister turned activist into a faded footnote in American history – but each passing year seems to do less justice to the real man and what he actually stood for when the times they were a-changing.

While his wax figure has since found a safe space in the mainstream memory banks, he had enough of an edge to him that he was a far cry from the antithesis of, say, Malcolm X.

Just like the founding fathers were more radical than now portrayed, so too was MLK.

King – the person, as opposed to the icon — needs to be put in a real context all over again to truly understand the significance of his impact.

Consider that he was just 26 years young in 1955, the year he rose to national prominence as a leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began with the likes of Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat, and ended 381 days later (with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 bus fares lost).

Deeply moved by the deaths of young people, like 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four young girls, King was radicalized.

When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, not long after giving a speech where he practically predicted his own fate, it was presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy who famously addressed – and quelled — a largely black crowd on the streets of Indianapolis.

In the era before instant news, many were not yet aware of what happened in Memphis, and the gasp as he makes the announcement remains as haunting as his words afterward where moving.

Ironically, it was earlier in the decade, when RFK was attorney general under his brother, that he gave the nod to tap King’s phones.

Jailed 29 times, King was considered that much of a radical.

The Kennedys – and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – suspected him of having communist leanings. Keep in mind that this was in the height of the Cold War era, so it’s a pretty heavy suspicion – if not all-out accusation.

MLK was more than just a rebel. He was a rebel of the most frightening kind to the powers that be – a rebel with a cause.

And a rebel with followers with everything to gain and not much to lose.

What gets virtually dropped from the history books was King’s staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. While he decried all casualties of the war he called “madness,” King couldn’t help but note that the soldiers on the frontlines were disproportionately black.

King began speaking out in 1967, with his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. At the time, and in stark contrast to generalized remembrances time period, being outspoken against the war was still a few years away from being commonplace.

Consider that he said the following: “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

That was not exactly what those in mainstream America, who could call in favors to have their sons diagnosed with bone spurs to get out of serving, wanted put out into the universe.

This is supported by a 1965 Gallup poll showing that 64 percent of Americans supported the war.

This, and the Civil Rights activism, did not make MLK beloved on Main Street. His approval rating in 1965 was 45 percent, and it slumped to 32 percent in 1966.

Recent polling consistently has MLK approved at a rate of over 90 percent.

What accounts for this about-face? Not his radical side as much as the whitewashing of it.

A good number of those polled likely don’t even know much more than the snippets of the “I have a dream” speech and the day off on the calendars.

From the mid-1950s until his death, fighting for the equality of blacks in a white-dominated society made him a pariah.

But once you are a martyr in death, all bets are off.

Some of us always heard a bit of an angry edge to the “I have a dream speech” and his doubts that his vision would or could come to pass.

It is important to note that, at the time of his assassination — under suspicious circumstances — MLK was only 39 and was not really talking about breaking down barriers of Jim Crow laws.

He was planning what was called the “Poor People’s Campaign,” which was going to be highlighted by a march on Washington, D.C. demanded better access to housing, employment, and health care through legislation.

While an approximate 50,000 still people attended the march, the revolutionary idea faded and was never addressed in a way that MLK envisioned.

Kind of like the one of racial harmony.

And it makes me wonder if creating his holiday, with days of service and what not, is not just a way to the dull the edge of what was in his heart and soul.

This column first appeared in The Times Herald on Jan. 20, 2019.

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