Comment: The Myths of Martin Luther King

‘Martin didn’t make the movement. The movement made Martin’ – Ella Bake

January 16th is traditionally known in America as Martin Luther King Day. It is a federal holiday designed to mark the birthday of America’s most famous civil rights leader. Often the holiday proclaims the majesty of Martin Luther King; a man whose inspirational prowess united the entire African-American community. A man who successful and radically reversed centuries of oppression and led African-Americans into a new era of freedom. Such noble aims exemplified in the civil rights chant of “We Shall Overcome”.

But this is a myth. Much like President Kennedy, Martin Luther King has been “Dianified”. He has been transformed into this superhuman who single-handedly united African-Americans into freedom, glorious freedom. Criticism of Martin Luther King is met by indignation from well-meaning liberals.

Of course that is not to say that Martin Luther King was useless or detrimental to the progress of civil rights in the USA. His March on Washington in 1963 utilized full media attention and convinced many white Americans to support the civil rights movement. His March on Selma in and the shocking violence that it met from Southern police officials hastened the 1965 Voting Rights Act which permanently enfranchised millions of African-Americans.

Yet, we must understand that Martin Luther King was human. Every event he organized was not a roaring success. Every African-American was not attracted to him. Every piece of civil rights progress was not due to him.

For a start, Martin Luther King was notoriously bad at organization. Historians have considered this his major weakness. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was poorly funded and organized. It was constantly scraping at the barrel despite gaining national media attention. This poor organization and funding would inevitably have an effect on the efficiency of civil rights campaigns.

Indeed, King was not a universally popular African-American civil rights leader. King was most interested in tackling the problems that African-Americans in the Deep South faced. These included the segregation laws, voting restrictions and job discrimination which disenfranchised and disillusioned millions of African-Americans. Yet this was to the detriment of African-Americans in the North of the USA. Unlike the South, such voting restrictions and discrimination laws were not enshrined in state legislature. Rather, the main problem was conditions in the ghettos. Several centuries of oppression had led to the formation of ghettos in urban cities such as Chicago. These ghettos represented hotbeds of crime, deprivation and hopelessness.

Initially King was hesitant to tackle the ghetto problems. His group, the SCLC, by virtue of its name was designed for Southern issues. His initial campaigns were all based in the South. The desegregation campaign in Albany, the March on Birmingham, and the March on Washington were all displayed to solve “Southern problems”. Inevitably, this led to a backlash among African-Americans in the North who chastised King as an “Uncle Tom” character who was happy to coalesce with the federal government. This anger at King is best displayed in the Watts Riots of 1965. These riots were carried out mere months after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It represented a cry for help from African-Americans in the North who had been abandoned by King.

When he eventually started to address the problems in the ghettos, he was completely unsuccessful. The Chicago Campaign of 1966 only led to increased tensions between African-Americans and White Americans with little success. Indeed, he was even hit with a break to his head during one march. The failure of this campaign was the final straw for Northern African-Americans in ghettos who increasingly viewed King as irrelevant to their concerns.

Black Radicals who espoused socialism and violent overthrow of the federal government began to increase in popularity. These included figures such as Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton of the “Black Panthers”. King’s policy of discussion and negotiation was increasingly regarded as too slow. By the mid-to-late 1960s Black Radicals were in vogue, as reflected by the “Black Power” slogan. This conflict within the civil rights movement is best shown in the 1968 Meredith March. The sight of moderate African-Americans and Black Radicals arguing with each other during the March for freedom greatly debilitated the civil rights cause.

Yet the most astounding phenomenon is his almost invisibility in civil rights campaigns. Martin Luther King had little impact in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, the first unified action by African-Americans to overturn discriminatory legislation. It was students under the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) who set off the “sit-ins” in Greensville which stopped segregation in restaurants. It was the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) that set off the “freedom-rides” which ended state legislation on segregation in public transport.

Even though King has been praised to high heavens for his role in the civil rights campaigns, one fact must be made clear. There were hundreds of thousands of African-Americans. They were the “unsung heroes”. They did the paperwork. They made important calls. They kept the civil rights campaign afloat. Without them grassroots action would have been impossible and the civil rights legislation that enshrines American democracy would have been much delayed.

Martin Luther King’s mythical importance diminishes even further when a long-term view of the civil rights campaign is taken. Who has heard of Booker T. Washington, the man who set up the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 thus allowing hundreds of African-Americans the opportunity to learn technical skills? What about W.E.B. DuBois, a man who found the first civil rights group in 1908 (NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) which subsequently went on to overturn segregation in schools? Where is the luminous praise for A. Philip Randolph, the man who founded the first trade union for African-American and pressured President Truman into desegregating the army in 1948? King’s success was not unique; it was built on a century of tireless work by numerous civil rights campaigners.

Yet Martin Luther King Day does offer us a chance to reflect on the status of African-Americans in American society today.King, and the rest of the civil rights campaigners, left an incomplete legacy. In 2012 African-Americans still face numerous problems. There are those languishing in the ghettos, victims of broken families, dependent on welfare and seemingly almost destined for a life in prison. Where is the civil rights revolution for them? The election of Barack Obama in 2008 has not led to the end of ghettoisation. It’s time that the civil rights revolution was completed.

By Anirudh Mandagere


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