In lifting up the achievements of great African Americans, we generally utter a few bromides and then move on. Rarely do we bother to understand the full breadth and depth of what these notable individuals stood for.
Take Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.
Pastor. Prophet. Preacher. Civil rights icon. These are a few of the words used to describe Rev. Dr. King’s role while on earth.
Many know King as a prolific speaker who preached hope; they also celebrate his commitment to peaceful protests, an approach that would eventually earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. And many have come to admire him through his “I Have A Dream” speech, given at the 1963 March on Washington—through which he outlined his dream of one day living in a country where all children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” With his booming, captivating voice, he delivered an inspiring vision of what America should and could be.
This is the Dr. King—one possessed of unparalleled vision and unwavering hope—that most people are taught, know, and rightly celebrate. But it’s a selective, incomplete picture. The fact is, King was more than just one speech and pleasant, comforting platitudes. He spoke out against military imperialism, racial injustice, and poverty—and was denounced by politicians 15 years after his death for his unapologetically radical stances.
According to theologian Obery Hendricks, the core of being prophetic is “critiquing the injustices, the wrongheadedness, the political and social evils bedeviling the social order … [the prophets] chose where they spoke and made sure they were speaking to whom they should speak, but they did not jockey around to find the safest spots and the points of least resistance.” King, by this definition, was a prophet—he understood God’s calling for him and accepted it without fear.
While aware of the potential consequences for his civil rights work, King remained outspoken until the end of his life in his opposition to the Vietnam War, framing it—along with racism and poverty—as one of three problems plaguing the United States. The war effort, he pointed out in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, was “taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” King called for a rebalancing of fiscal priorities, with anti-poverty programs prioritized over the military and war—a debate that continues today.
Nowadays, politicians shy away from speaking directly about the poor or poverty, as if those were dirty words; they preach instead about protecting the middle class. King, however, wasn’t afraid to stand for the poor and played an active role in planning the Poor People’s Campaign. In his 1968 sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he declared, “Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.”
Admiring news stories on MLK Day and during Black History Month may lead you to assume there was a groundswell of people aligned with King—but don’t believe it. The overwhelming love now was hatred then. Public approval of King declined toward the end of his life—in a 1966 poll, respondents’ opinion of him was only 32 percent positive.
King’s views and commitment to nonviolent direct action were met with contempt not only from his detractors, but from fellow clergymen, both black and white, who thought King was trying to do too much, too fast. In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King explicitly calls them out: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will … We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
We live in a time of deep racial, economic, and political divide. We’re so busy attacking the other side—whatever that may be—that we fail to see how we ourselves perpetuate the status quo and the injustice that comes with it. We fail to realize how often we play the part of the "white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice ... who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom." How many migrant children must be separated from their families before we act? How much longer will the achievement gap persist before we enact bold changes that nurture our children’s talent and learning? How many more people must we lose to gun violence? How many more must live in poverty before we create opportunity and livable wages for everyone?
“This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots,” King declared in his 1968 sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” “The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
Dr. King the Dreamer reminded us that we must have vision, and we must have hope. But the King who stood as a drum major for justice urged us to use everything we have—our voices, our minds, our feet, and our wallets—to fight for a better future.
As Black History Month comes to a close, let us celebrate the true Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—not the sanitized, defanged martyr we learn about in school, but the fiery revolutionary who was willing, time and time again, to stand alone in the face of injustice. Let’s take note of the ways he and so many others sacrificed for change—and honor that in our talk and in our walk.