The one and only time I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was after he had called a press conference to announce that he would lead a massive march in New York to protest the Vietnam war. Another time, I sort of met him. I interviewed a former Mississippi deputy sheriff who had been convicted of conspiracy in the killing of three civil rights workers and, before that, had jailed the future Nobel Prize winner. He pronounced him a great man. "That Dr. King, he had something," said Cecil Ray Price.
I raise these two instances because, as Jesse Jackson has pointed out, the reality of Martin Luther King is being altered and his memory expropriated by people who were, when it counted, his critics and enemy. The truth of the matter is that King went to jail. The truth is that King was a dissenter. The truth is that King was, in some ways, a revolutionary -- a dreamer, yes, but a brawler too. He fought like hell for justice.
This all has to be said because the King praised by Ronald Reagan and Edwin Meese III could take a place on the dais of a Chamber of Commerce lunch and get nothing but pats on the back. They have made him a flag bearer in the giant patriotic parade now marching down the middle of America. The real King, with sadness but with firmness, would have said that this parade is not for him. He would, if you don't mind, have dropped off in the ghetto where things are not going so well.
It is wonderful that Reagan and company have finally gotten around to recognizing King's greatness. More power to them. But if they are to recognize King, then recognize the man he was -- not the man they wish he had been. He was the guy conservatives hated -- the one they called a communist. He was suspected of being in the pay of the North Vietnamese or, variously, the Russians. He was a firebrand and troublemaker -- the supposed catalyst of riots and crime. He was the civil rights leader whom the FBI bugged; they put listening devices in the motel rooms where he stayed, and his most intimate conversations were passed around Washington for the cheap thrills of creeps and racists.
Now, of course, Martin Luther King is being praised as a patriot who would have cheered "Rocky IV," but that, alas, is because he is dead and his cause -- civil rights -- is no longer controversial. If he were alive today, he would be called all sorts of names. At the very least, Jeane Kirkpatrick would call him a "San Francisco Democrat" -- one of the Blame America First crowd who has no place either in American politics or, for sure, at the White House table. Certainly, he would not be called a patriot.
The patriot of today is not someone who questions authority or institutions. The new patriotism, so celebrated by magazines, beer commercials and professional football teams, is always linked to conformity in action -- in particular, the military. Just say that word and you see someone in uniform, maybe saluting, maybe rushing across some rough terrain in an army-recruiting commercial in which war is indistinguishable from a boyhood game of guns -- bang, bang, you're dead. They are milk-and-cookies patriots.
But Martin Luther King was a true patriot. He loved his country enough to challenge it to be better. He broke laws -- bad laws, but laws nonetheless -- and he went to jail for it. He agitated and condemned, exhorted and lambasted. He prayed for his enemies but never shirked from confronting them. He represented an institution -- the church -- but he challenged institutions he thought were doing wrong. He was an authority figure -- a minister -- who did not hesistate to take on the authorities when he thought they were wrong. He started in the South but was turning his attention to the North and, over the war in Vietnam, he was about to battle the very administration that had been his ally.
The real Martin Luther King was a critic, not a cheerleader. The real Martin Luther King appreciated America's ability to do better -- to improvise, improve, make the country work better for everyone. The real Martin Luther King would never celebrate the status quo, and if someone proclaimed that America was standing tall, he would say, yes, but it can stand taller.
Like Albert Camus, Martin Luther King knew that the real subversion is conformity and that the true patriotism is criticism and action. Martin Luther King had a dream, but Martin Luther King, as his achievements attest, was no dreamer.