1.27.2010

belatedly celebrating king: "there's something wrong with that press!"

I get really annoyed at the way Martin Luther King, Jr. is portrayed and celebrated in the US, how his message has been dumbed-down and sanitized for mass consumption. This is typical of US society, which vilifies, demonizes and sometimes criminalizes people working to make the country more egalitarian, then later puts their image on a postage stamp. King has a lot of company there, from abolitionists to early feminists and probably current environmental activists.

King is especially subject to this treatment, since through King's image the US can congratulate itself on desegregating, which is falsely equated with equality and justice. And because King advocated non-violence, the media can dish him out as a public pacifier, conveniently omitting the rest of the phrase: disobedience.

Here's a quote you won't hear on CNN.
Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they've applauded me.

America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, "We can't do it this way."

They applauded us in the sit-in movement--we non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.

Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, "Be non-violent toward Bull Connor"; when I was saying, "Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark."

There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, "Be non-violent toward Jim Clark," but will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children." There's something wrong with that press!

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., April 30, 1967, at Ebenezer Baptist Church [Found here on FAIR]

Here's a quote from myself, on the eve of a certain fraudulent inauguration in 2005.
King was not just a brilliant orator and an organizer of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. He was a revolutionary. He understood - and acted on - the connections between human rights, poverty, segregation and war. He steadfastly opposed US involvement in Vietnam. He knew that justice must come hand in hand with jobs, and that democracy on paper is not good enough.

King was persecuted by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which went after him with a fervor unrivaled for actual criminal conspirators. And Hoover was able to act with impunity, because he was blackmailing the President. He had so much dirt on Kennedy - including that one of his many girlfriends had turned out to be a Soviet spy - that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was helpless to stop the wiretapping, surveillance and, yes, death threats.

For more about the life and legacy of the great Reverend King, I highly recommend the two massive books known as "the King books": Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize- winning Parting the Waters and Pillar Of Fire. (They are the first two books of a planned trilogy; I eagerly await the third.) They are absolutely fascinating histories of the American civil rights movement, told through the prism of a biography of King.

These books are both epic in scope and rich in the details that make history vibrantly alive. Among its many eye-openers, these books will demolish your image of Kennedy as "the civil rights president", not because the author has an ax to grind against Kennedy, but because he cares about historical accuracy, as opposed to myth.

JFK did everything he could to ignore the entire civil rights movement, since championing it would cost him the precious Southern vote. As civil rights workers were attacked with bombs, shotguns and bullwhips, and an entire population lived in daily terror, the Kennedy Department of Justice turned their backs, interested only in appeasing the white Dixiecrat vote. JFK was dragged kicking and screaming into the civil rights era, and only because he could no longer count on the press to keep a lid on what was boiling over south of the Mason Dixon line.

If you haven't truly imagined what life was like for African-Americans living under Jim Crow, these books are endlessly revealing. You will come away filled with admiration and wonder at the moral (and physical) courage of ordinary citizens challenged to find their greatness against impossible odds.

In addition, I personally came away with disgust that such conditions were allowed to thrive in the United States well into the second half of the 20th Century. King is now hailed as a hero, but let's not forget he was denounced from the floor of the US Senate as the most dangerous man alive.

I still highly recommend these amazing books, although I got stalled halfway through the third. It was dense to the point of unreadable. But I intend to tackle it one day.

8 comments:

James said...

This is typical of US society, which vilifies, demonizes and sometimes criminalizes people working to make the country more egalitarian, then later puts their image on a postage stamp.

To be fair, if what they were doing wasn't the sort of thing that would get you vilified or demonized, then it wouldn't have been the kind of thing that would merit recognition later. It's the fact that King accomplished what he did in the face of his oppoisition that makes him worth celebrating.

L-girl said...

To be fair, if what they were doing wasn't the sort of thing that would get you vilified or demonized, then it wouldn't have been the kind of thing that would merit recognition later.

Not necessarily. Many non-controversial acts get recognition. Astronauts, inventors, explorers, other people considered "great Americans". King is remembered in that bland, non-controversial way, in The Official Story (so to speak).

Mike said...

Well if the history weren't sanitized they couldn't say the system actually worked could they?

L-girl said...

Well if the history weren't sanitized they couldn't say the system actually worked could they?

Bingo!

deang said...

These days too in the US, you see King not only sanitized but misrepresented, say, as someone who would have opposed affirmative action or as someone who would today be focusing only on Christian evangelism and thus supporting the agenda of today's Christian right.

L-girl said...

Oh yes, good point. The first time I heard anti-choice protesters singing "We Shall Overcome" I thought I was going to hurt one of them.

M. Yass said...

King was not just a brilliant orator and an organizer of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. He was a revolutionary.

Hmm. In another time and another place, he would have been called an "insurgent," no?

Tom said...

I have always admired Corretta Scott King and wish she was given more of the spot light during his life and after his death. What she endured is beyond anything I could imagine. She held to their principals her whole life. Unlike her nasty homophobic daughter.