Martin Luther King Jr. has a new monument on the Mall, but he might not recognize the person so often lauded in public today.
Corporations use his quotes and likeness to sell their products. Most often, he is remembered for his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, particularly the references to judging people by the “content of their character” and the “table of brotherhood.”
That day, he also said: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
It’s easy to see either the tea party or growing Occupy movements taking up the slogans. But I guess revolt is not so good for business. Nor were King’s exhortations against war, the hypocrisy of the media, American arrogance and corporate greed. It seems that we have whittled away the outrage and righteous indignation from King’s popular image.
Lawrence Guyot led the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party during the civil rights movement. He first met King in 1957. Guyot said King was reluctant to distance himself from communists or socialists or anyone who was loyal to the cause of justice.
“King called himself a democratic socialist,” said Guyot, who lives in Northwest Washington. “He took the position that we were operating against terror and that was our responsibility.”
On the 25th anniversary of King’s assassination in 1993, civil rights pioneer Julian Bond wrote in the Seattle Times:
“Today we do not honor the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself. We do not honor the man who linked apartheid in South Africa and Alabama; we honor an antiseptic hero. We have stripped his life of controversy, and celebrate the conventional instead.”
Want to see King, the revolutionary? Look no further than the speech he gave against the war in Vietnam a year before he was killed. It was a full-throated lecture against everything that he abhorred about his country. Many in the black community thought he was diluting the message of equal rights for black people by entering the debate over the war. But King said: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
And so he spoke. King said he could no longer ask the youths rioting in the streets to lay down their weapons without also asking “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” — the United States — to put down its weapons in Vietnam. He said that, as a nation, we had become so arrogant as to believe that we had everything to teach the world but nothing to learn.
He took a brickbat to the media, which had applauded him for nonviolence against Southern racists who beat and murdered innocents. But those same papers, King said, cursed and denigrated him for urging nonviolence “toward little brown Vietnamese children.”
“There is something wrong with that press,” King said.
Newspapers and magazines did not take the criticism kindly. After the speech, The Washington Post said King had made a grave error. “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
His people. Ponder that for a moment.
King did not cower at his critics, whether they sat in the White House or the country’s most powerful newsrooms. Throughout his life, he urged men and women of good conscience to “straighten up their backs.”
Let’s be clear: King saw across international borders and color lines and indeed hoped for a society in which his children would be judged by the “content of their character.” But to get there, he made people uncomfortable. He spoke truth to power. And, when necessary, he used words such as terror and revolt to remind the powers that be that he wasn’t asking but demanding.
“Heroes and icons,”Guyot said, “had the right to express anything they chose to express.”
There are plenty of warm feelings flowing now about King as his memorial on the Mall is officially dedicated. But remember, the reason it’s there is because his words and actions — along with hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers — forced people to listen.