This article originally appeared in In Motion
Every year, millions of Americans pay tribute to the memory of
Dr. Martin Luther King. We often forget, however, that King was
the object of derision when he was alive. At key moments in his
quest for civil rights and world peace, the corporate media treated
King with hostility. Dr. King's march for open housing in Chicago,
when the civil rights movement entered the North, caused a negative,
you've-gone-too-far reaction in the Northern press. And Dr. King's
stand on peace and international law, especially his support for
the self-determination of third world peoples, caused an outcry
and backlash in the predominantly white press.
In his prophetic anti-war speech at Riverside Church in 1967 (recorded
and filmed for posterity but rarely quoted in today's press) King
points: 1) that American militarism would destroy the war on poverty, 2) that
American jingoism breeds violence, despair, and contempt for law within the
United States, 3) the use of people of color to fight against people of color
abroad is a "cruel manipulation of the poor," 4) human rights should
be measured by one yardstick everywhere.
The Washington Post denounced King's anti-war position,
and said King was "irresponsible." In an editorial entitled "Dr.
King's error," The New York Times chastised King for going
beyond the allotted domain of black leaders -- civil rights. TIME called
King's anti-war stand "demogogic slander...a script for Radio Hanoi." The
media responses to Dr. King's calls for peace were so venomous that King's
two recent biographers – Stephen Oates and David Garrow – devoted whole
chapters to the media blitz against King's internationalism.
Dr. King may be an icon within the media today, but there is still
something upsetting about the way his birthday is observed. Four words – "I have
a dream" – are often parroted out of context every January 15th.
King, however, was not a dreamer – at least not the teary-eyed, mystic projected
in the media. True, he was a visionary, but he specialized in applied ethics.
He even called himself "a drum major for justice," and his mission,
as he described it, was, "to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed." In
fact, the oft-quoted "I have a dream" speech was not about far-off
visions. In his speech in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963, Dr. King confronted
the poverty, injustice, and "nightmare conditions" of American cities.
In its totality, the "I have a dream" speech was about the right
of oppressed and poor Americans to cash their promissory note in our time.
It was a call to action.
printer friendly version of the digital painting of Dr. King
In 1986, Jesse Jackson wrote an essay on how Americans
can protect the legacy of Dr. King. Jackson's essay on
distortion, the emasculation
of King's memory, is one of the clearest, most relevant appreciations in print
of Dr. King's work. Jackson wrote: "We must resist the media's weak and
anemic memory of a great man. To think of Dr. King only as
a dreamer is to do injustice to his memory and to the dream itself. Why is
it that so many
politicians today want to emphasize that King was a dreamer? Is it because
they want us to believe that his dreams have become reality, and that therefore,
we should celebrate rather than continue to fight? There is a struggle today
to preserve the substance and the integrity of Dr. King's legacy."
Today, the media often ignores the range and breadth of King's teachings.
His speeches – on economlc justice, on our potential to end poverty, on the power
of organized mass action, his criticism of the hostile media, his opposition
to U.S. imperialism (a word he dared to use) – are rarely quoted, much less
discussed with understanding. In fact, successors to Dr. King who raise the
same concerns today are again treated with sneers, and their "ulterior
motives" are questioned. A genuine appreciation of Dr. King requires respect
for the totality of his work and an ongoing commitment to struggle for peace
and justice today.
Paul Rockwell, formerly assistant professor of philsophy at
Midwestern University, is a writer who lives in Oakland, California.