Reclaiming King’s legacy

By Shaun Robinson

Tomorrow marks a very significant date in American history. April 4, 2008 is the fortieth anniversary of Dr. Martin King losing his life in Memphis. Since his passing, King has been canonized as a hero of epic proportions. He is no longer looked upon simply as a man devoted to righteous work. Instead, he is characterized as an immortal, messianic figure whose accomplishments are beyond the realm of possibility for imperfect souls.

This phenomenon is a problem on many levels. King’s legacy is one to be remembered because it offers a foundation and template for those who wish to continue his pursuit of social change. By depicting the man as some sort of mythological demigod we make King into an idol, an entity to be worshipped rather than emulated. On this fourth decade of his passing, we as students must restructure our understanding of Dr. King and rescue his memory from the grasp of myth.

It is a well known fact that the deceased cannot speak on their own behalf. Dead men cannot confront the distortions of their actions, ambitions, and motivations made by the living. In this regard King is no different from innumerable social actors who have been ideologically castrated by gross misperceptions about their work and thoughts.

Those in power, many of whom had interests conflicting with those of King himself, have done an excellent job recreating him in their own image. A man who was once a great voice of dissent has now been reduced to a dreamer. People of great influence including teachers, leaders of government and the media have dissected King’s career and extracted the convenient and removed what didn’t fit their narrow portrayal.

We must ask ourselves: Which depiction of King are we being given? And is this depiction true to the essence of the man or is a diluted portrait suited to benefit those he opposed most? Like most students, I started hearing about Dr. King in elementary school. Our studies did not go into great depth. We learned that he was a great man that wanted justice for all and of course we were introduced to the “I Have a Dream” speech. Sadly enough, in growing older I’ve come to the realization that as revered a man as King is, most Americans still maintain this elementary school level understanding of his work.

It’s come to the point that I cringe every January on King’s holiday when the networks show clip after clip of the same overplayed excerpt of this speech.

I cringe not because I no longer appreciate the gifted oratory. I still hold it to be one of the finer speeches I’ve heard thus far. The displeasure stems from the fact that we are force fed the most romanticized excerpts of the speech but omitted are the sections where King indicts hypocritical nature of America.

We hear a steady repetition of King foreseeing a day when “my four little children will live 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.” I have nothing against this statement; it is quite noble given the circumstances. To not juxtapose this with more critical observations, however, is doing an immense injustice. The American public hears the aforementioned statement but is not aware of King warning that “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”

This is likely the most misquoted statement in the history of American rhetoric. I have heard individuals, who endorse policies contradictory to everything King stood for, co-opt his words for their own selfish gain. On quite a frequent basis ultra-conservative right wingers, many of whom were adamant segregationists a few decades back, select from King’s dialogue on equality to reject everything from reparations to affirmative action.

It is also especially important to refresh King’s legacy as we enter the fifth year of an unnecessary war.

As the more innocuous aspects of King’s work are highlighted, the manner in which his nonviolent philosophy influenced his views on war is greatly neglected. During the 60s King used his position as a civil rights leader to become one of the Vietnam War’s most vocal opponent. In a very direct speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” he indicted the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” That’s a far cry from the innocuous, tame and sedated representation of King we see on television today.

This Friday, when we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King forty years later, we should make it a point of duty to address these misconceptions.

He was not simply an idealist who had a dream. Instead, he was someone who diligently worked for change in this country and harshly criticized this nation for its faults. He was not a messianic figure head who descended from atop Mount Olympus. Contrary, to common wisdom King did not single handedly start and lead the civil rights movement. It is well documented that his position as drum major was chosen for him by his peers, and not the other way around.

So we must ask ourselves, as King did: Where do we go from here? How do we provide a proper understanding of the true Martin Luther King? We must remember the man that lived – not the caricature created by the media – and insure that his legacy remains a living one, not just idle history.

Shaun Robinson is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]