Today Dr Martin Luther King Junior would be ninety-five years old. Since the mid nineteen eighties his birth-date has been a public holiday in the US, marked with celebrations and marches in many states. His heroic story is taught across the world to millions of schoolchildren, and he is celebrated as the key figure who stood up for a ‘dream’ and subsequently won rights for black citizens in the US.
We must remember the Gone with the Wind reality in King’s childhood, with segregated schools, housing, parks, buses and barriers, meaning many black people could not vote. King’s achievements make for a positive narrative, but the reality is far more complex and should not be confined to history books as an open and closed story. Martin Luther King matters now.
Key figures in his life
King’s wife – Coretta Scott King – was his equal and influenced every decision he made. She was determined to be by his side despite the mortal risk to her and their young family. She knew that only he had the oratory and diplomatic skills to hold the delicate civil rights movement together under huge strain. Politically, she was perhaps more radical than King, and their wooing consisted of long and testing political discussions led by Coretta.
When King was reluctant to confront the political establishment over Vietnam, she persuaded him he had to speak out and condemn the war despite the expediency of staying quiet.
She very likely knew that privately he was a flawed man and had affairs, but she never showed this publicly. Her legacy after his death was continuing his work and spreading into new areas such as leading opposition to apartheid, LGBT activism and rights for women.
Perhaps King’s most significant enemy was J. Edgar Hoover. Released FBI files reveal the sheer extent that Hoover went to undermine King – it was very personal. Hoover was pathologically convinced King was a closet Communist intent on overthrowing the United States. No doubt, at root, racism played its part in his prejudice. Hoover bugged King’s home and fed salacious rumours to the newspapers – fortunately these were usually dismissed by the press because there was little evidence. Most damaging of all, Hoover frequently reported at length to President Johnson and told him not to trust a word King said.
King was deeply influenced by Gandhi and how his philosophy of nonviolent resistance had finally led to the end of British rule in India. In a similar way King used words and example to convince fellow activists that non-violence was actually the best way forwards in the face of constant physical and verbal abuse and danger. In fact, his new biography records how many death attacks he suffered, including bombs at his house, punches and a knife plunged into him that had to be surgically removed. In all cases he refused to press charges. King’s eventual death is not the surprising part; it was how long he survived.
King’s ‘dream’ has still not been realised
King would surely not consider his work to have been realised. He was very aware that civil rights on paper does not equate to civil rights in reality. Today black people in America are six times more likely to be imprisoned and are still often segregated in practice.
The murder of George Floyd demonstrated yet again how racism is endemic, and the reaction by Trump defending white supremacists was even more telling. One of King’s aims was to stop states restricting the black vote through voter-suppression tactics, but this is going backwards now. Above all, Trump has undermined a presidential election with threats and lies, and even inspired insurrection. King never would have imagined the very foundation of American democracy itself would be in such peril more than fifty years after his death.
The real strength of King as an agitator for radical change is that he always saw the bigger picture and was never content, not even after forcing through civil rights legislation, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming the first African American to become Time Man of the Year. The day after he was shot, King was due to lead a major march on poverty to Washington culminating in a camp similar to Occupy Wall Street in 2011. He argued that if we have the money to send bombs to Vietnam and a man to the moon, we can solve poverty. In fact, in his final book he said he had come to the conclusion that a basic income was necessary.
Above all, King’s was a message of cooperation and peace. In the final chapter of Where do we go from here? he employed a metaphor that serves as a fitting epitaph:
“We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Eastener and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
If he were alive today, King would undoubtedly conclude we have yet to learn this most fundamental of lessons.