Monday, January 18, 2016

Not A Hero But a Villain: Never Forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was Hated While He Was Alive

We do no honor to Brother Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy by forgetting how much he was hated during his life. Through the propaganda machine of public memory it is far easier to engage in self-congratulation about Dr. King the patriot and hero, than to own how many of us who embrace his memory at present may very well have considered him a scourge if we were one of his contemporaries. And of course there are those folks who are alive today that were in fact Dr. King's contemporaries and now lie, distort, or conveniently forget in order to put themselves on the right side of history.

There is a great piece by Obery Hendricks over at Salon that puts the hostility to Dr. King--as magnified by his stance against the Vietnam War and American militarism--in proper perspective:
Suddenly, those he was willing to die for turned their backs to him; to legions of former supporters – both black and white – King became persona non grata almost overnight. 
He was savaged from every side as an ingrate, a traitor, an enemy of the state. One White House official declared that King had gone “all the way Communist.” J. Edgar Hoover, the nefarious head of the FBI, smirked that his appraisal of King as “the most dangerous man in America” was now conclusively confirmed. The formerly supportive white liberal media also spurned King, while the black press unceremoniously deserted him. America’s most influential periodicals, the New York Times and the Washington Post, both strongly berated King, with the Washington Post claiming that King, “has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper and a former King stalwart, now lamented that he was “tragically misleading” black Americans. In all, 163 American newspapers almost simultaneously codified their scorn for King in print. 
But it did not stop there. Even his civil rights compatriots, his supposed brothers in arms, deserted him. The Urban League’s Whitney Young spoke out against him, as did the powerful congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who publicly derided him as “Martin Loser King.” Ralph Bunche, the venerable diplomat and the first African-American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, disavowed King’s “radicality” with all the dignity befitting his station. Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP and King’s full-time competitor, opposed him openly and derisively. Journalist and former ambassador Carl Rowan angrily chided King in his syndicated column and in the pages of Reader’s Digest for offending President Johnson — whom he apotheosized as “the greatest civil rights president in history” — by daring to call Johnson’s increasingly deadly Vietnam foray what much of the world eventually saw it to be: “madness,” charged King. “[A] demonic, destructive suction tube.”
As Obama departs office, the color line remains the problem of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, and the long arc of justice deeps bending. It is easier for most Americans to love the decontextualized Dr. King than the radical anti-poverty, anti-war, pro slavery reparations, and incisive critic of white supremacy and white privilege full and whole human being that was the real and complex man.

Last year, I wrote a post about how Dr. King was one of the most disliked figures in American public life. I return to it today as helpful reminder of how public memory sanitizes the truth in order to build a sense of community for the mass public. We who know better have an obligation to push back against empty gestures that oversimplify and distort the past as a means of supporting lies in the present.


Selma will likely replace the TV miniseries Roots or the documentary Eyes on the Prize in the obligatory Martin Luther King Jr. viewing rotation. Selma is a fine movie. It is also a product of the culture industry and racial capitalism. While Dr. King is praised as American royalty in post civil rights era America, he has been robbed of all of his radicalism, truth-telling, and criticism of white supremacy and white privilege, the latter constituting a deep existential and philosophical rot in the heart of the American political and civic project. The best way to kill a revolutionary or a radical is to give him or her a monument and a public holiday. James Earl Ray murdered Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. The milquetoast version of his radical politics as processed through the white racial frame and the American myth-making machine have murdered him a second time. Ultimately, it is easy to love a dead man. 

We cannot forget that Dr. King was hated by most of White America while he was alive. Once more and again, racism is not an opinion. To wit. Public opinion polling data from the 1960s highlights the high levels of white animus towards Dr. King, and the basic claims on human rights and citizenship made by African-Americans in the long Black Freedom Struggle and the civil rights movement. Political scientist Sheldon Appleton offered this analysis and summary of Gallup polling data from King's era in an article published in 1995:

Appleton cites this data on animus towards Dr. King as measured by Gallup, here presented in its original form on the survey instrument:

While there have been great shifts in white Americans' public attitudes on race and racial equality, white animus in the form of a belief that African-Americans are "too demanding" about racism, and that black people are treated "fairly" in America, echo in the present. The latter is bizarre: in 1968 Jim and Jane Crow was still very much alive in America, the Civil Rights Movement continued, lynchings, anti-black state violence, the KKK, and American Apartheid were not dusty memories--its victims and perpetrators were still alive...the past was not even past. Appleton continues, highlighting the power of the white racial frame, and how whiteness and white privilege distort reality for too many White American in this summary of Gallup's data:
In 2014, Pew's public opinion polling data echoed decades-earlier findings regarding racial attitudes and black "responsibility" for social inequality along the colorline:

Matters are also complicated in the post civil rights era. African-Americans have internalized the logic of colorblind racism and symbolic racism:

A 53% majority of African Americans say that blacks who don’t get ahead are mainly responsible for their situation, while just three-in-ten say discrimination is mainly to blame. As recently as the mid-1990s, black opinion on this question tilted in the opposite direction, with a majority of African Americans saying then that discrimination is the main reason for a lack of black progress.Racial attitudes and public opinion exist along a continuum in the United States. The past echoes in the present; the present is a function of the past. It is easy to worship and memorialize the dead Dr. King. Moreover, going to see a movie like Selma on Dr. King's holiday is not a substantive political act. In the era of Vaudeville postmodern politics, the central question thus becomes, how are Americans, across the colorline, using his life examples and struggle to confront (or not) the culture of cruelty, white supremacy, terrorism and torture as state policy, and police murder and thuggery against black and brown people, as well as the poor?

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