As the 2014 celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., draws nearer and nearer, we are soon to be granted yet another opportunity to imagine one of history’s brightest stars. Martin King offered his mind—that beautiful mind—and his voice—that soothing bass and inherent vibrato—quite literally for the sake of humanity. He went about his life as an activist with eerie sense of calm characteristic of other vocal, African American humanists of his time, for he knew he was likely to be stricken from America’s social forecast. Martin Luther King, Jr., imagined an all-inclusive American future, and with virtue, he concluded his life was an adequate cost of bringing that future to a head. Thus, it is ever important to retain brother Martin’s legacy—to ensure that our remembrance of Martin King is both accurate and as adequate a repayment we may offer him for making the priceless transaction he made.
To truly understand Martin Luther King, Jr., is to imagine him beyond the context in which he is so often framed today. Commonly, we are introduced to “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Poetic Patriot,” who is so frequently invoked strictly for political purposes. This imagination of Martin King, however, is characterized by an overemphasis on his oratory skill, as well as a misinterpretation of his allegiance. Martin King was bound only to the principle of humanism and its demonstration to all shades—all types—all countries of people. To depict him as a patriot is to rewrite history and align Martin with the warped ideals of the very country which lodged a bullet in his brain. Martin was not a patriot, but rather a humanist in the truest sense of the word, committed to the resonance of life rather than its expulsion by racism, acts of war, or any other means. In fact, in a speech delivered in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30th, 1967, Martin spoke explicitly of patriotism as he indicted the United States for its involvement in Vietnam. Speaking of the millions of Americans who had not thrown their support behind these war efforts, Martin said, “[T]his reveals that millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
The frequency with which Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name is mentioned by politicians and media outlets alike far exceeds the frequency with which Malcolm X’s name is mentioned. One may presume this is because Martin’s story—rather, the story often peddled since his assassination—is far more palatable to the racially hypersensitive American public than is Malcolm’s story. The story of a Black, patriotic reverend who loved his country enough to endure its dejecting abuse without raising a finger is a much easier sell than is the story of a Black Muslim minister who laid claim to human rights while promising to defend himself and his brothers “by any means necessary”. The common imagery of Malcolm and Martin, however, offers the perfect example of a false dichotomy. That is, it demonstrates how easily two things can be made to seem in complete conflict. Again, a true understanding of Martin Luther King, Jr., requires that we imagine him beyond the context in which he is usually framed. The cause of political expedience leads many to profess that Martin’s activism was more lax than that of other activists of his time, and furthermore, that he enjoyed absolute solidarity with all but a few racists in high places. Truthfully, Martin Luther King, Jr., offered scathing critiques of the United States’ policies both foreign and domestic, and these critiques were the main sources of his waning popularity at the time of his assassination.
Just as there exists an ample amount of King folklore intended to diminish and dilute Martin Luther King, Jr.’s causes, there exists an equal amount of well-intentioned folklore designed to deify him. To deify Martin, however, is to detach him from the very humanity with which he ought to be associated. Martin King, Jr., was not a god—he expressed no desire to be a god—but instead, a man; a beautiful, complex, occasionally-troubled, fascinating man. A human. And in order for his legacy to prevail over the test of time, we must tell it as is. Martin Luther King, Jr., is forever etched in the vast continuum of Black poetic expression; he is enshrined among none but himself as a global humanist; and his story needn’t any embellishment from us in order to retain its majesty.