To understand Martin Luther King Jr., don't rely on the highlights reel
January 20, 2020 12:57 PM   Subscribe

Reducing King to a teddy bear of a civil rights figure robs him of how much he risked and makes it easier to vilify modern activists, experts said. Perspective on Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy including links to several seminal speeches.

King's modern-day political opponents frequently quote him and misappropriate his ideas, experts said. And his philosophy of nonviolent resistance — organized boycotts, sit-ins, rent strikes and other forms of collective action and civil disobedience — has been inaccurately recast as passive, inoffensive, even widely supported during his lifetime, Shelby said.

Watch the HBO documentary, King in the Wilderness to find out more about the pressures and struggles that Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement faced in the last years of Dr. King's life.

King in the Wilderness chronicles the final chapters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, revealing a conflicted leader who faced an onslaught of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. While the Black Power movement saw his nonviolence as weakness, and President Lyndon B. Johnson saw his anti-Vietnam War speeches as irresponsible, Dr. King’s unyielding belief in peaceful protest became a testing point for a nation on the brink of chaos.

Dr. King’s leadership during the bus boycotts, the sit-ins and the historic Selma to Montgomery marches is now legendary, but much of what happened afterward – during the last three years of his life – is rarely discussed. It’s a time when Dr. King said his dream “turned into a nightmare.” From the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to his assassination in 1968, King remained unshakably committed to nonviolence in the face of an increasingly unstable country.

The documentary debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is directed by Peter Kunhardt (HBO’s Emmy-winning Jim: The James Foley Story). Drawing on conversations with those who knew Dr. King well, including many fellow members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King in the Wilderness reveals stirring new perspectives on Dr. King’s character, his radical doctrine of nonviolence and his internal philosophical struggles prior to his assassination in 1968.

The documentary also features archival footage, behind-the-scenes video of Dr. King’s private moments, intimate archival photographs and phone conversations recorded by President Johnson, who was both ally and adversary in King’s fight for civil rights.
posted by jj's.mama (13 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Never forget that the civil rights movement was an absolute bloodbath and the US has largely whitewashed (ugh) that from history.

Never forget COINTELPRO. Never forget the FBI sending MLK death threats. Never forget Fred Hampton murdered in his own home by the FBI.

For those fighting for rights today. Be prepared. It will get ugly.
posted by deadaluspark at 1:32 PM on January 20, 2020 [33 favorites]

Adding to the above comment: it has always been ugly, some of us are just more distracted than ever before
posted by elkevelvet at 1:34 PM on January 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think simplification (and commodification) are prime tools in the counterrevolutionary tool bag. Sanding off the nuance and details, degrading arguments and the reality of his time until he’s just a man with “a dream.” That’s nice, and it’s certainly no challenge to the status quo.

Kind of like the way Rosa Parks gets reduced to a nice lady who wanted to sit down. That looks nice on a tote, right?
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:55 PM on January 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Never forget the FBI sending MLK death threats.

Every year, on MLK, Jr. day, the official FBI twitter account tweets out an appreciation of MLK, Jr. (here is this year's). And, like clockwork, the replies to that tweet remind us all that the FBI once tried to get MLK, Jr. to commit suicide. It's like a new annual tradition.
posted by mhum at 2:47 PM on January 20, 2020 [17 favorites]

Thank you for this post. I'm sitting down with some of his speeches tonight.
posted by esker at 3:01 PM on January 20, 2020

And his philosophy of nonviolent resistance — organized boycotts, sit-ins, rent strikes and other forms of collective action and civil disobedience — has been inaccurately recast as passive, inoffensive, even widely supported during his lifetime

I reread Letter from a Birmingham Jail this morning and was struck, again, by how many people -- supposedly on the side of civil rights -- fought against King.

And, again, I thought about the ways that King's Letter challenges me. Perhaps "implicates" is a better word. It's not a comfortable read for me, nor should it be.

jj's.mama, thank you for posting this. It's given me more tools to push through the "teddy bear" image of King to get to the harder, more demanding, more radical truth of his work and his legacy.

(edited to add: I think it's important to say that I'm a white person living in the United States and am reading King from that perspective.)
posted by mcduff at 3:07 PM on January 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

An FPP about King in the Wilderness from last year.
posted by XMLicious at 4:44 PM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thank you for this. I am white and not American so sometimes it is hard to understand the broader context of the Civil Rights movement, but I want to learn.

I remember a realisation that I had a while ago- that I had been brought up to think that we had "solved" racism, especially looking at the stories of the Civil Rights movement. "Teddy bear" is a good way of putting it, the warm fuzzy "look at what they won, yay it's all better now". I don't know if that idea was explicitly taught, absorbed or the product of childish naivety (or a mix of those!) But it shook me when I realised that this wasn't the case. (In addition I definitely got the vibe that racism was something that was exclusively experienced by black people, and wasn't challenged to examine my own attitudes towards other POC.)
posted by freethefeet at 4:45 PM on January 20, 2020

Dr King’s speech to students labeled Life’s Blueprint on YouTube is by far my favorite. He was such a respectful and respectable man. What a beautiful intelligent soul.
posted by ascrabblecat at 5:40 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

"During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it."
- Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)
[emphasis mine]
posted by likethemagician at 5:44 PM on January 20, 2020 [17 favorites]

Link follows link follows link -- I was taken from the "Life's Blueprint" video to MLK's last sermon, at the end of which he told what he wanted as his eulogy.

As far as I know, MLK was the finest US citizen ever.

I wasn't aware of who he really was until perhaps 20 years ago, I would have gone with Lincoln, with high marks for Benjamin Franklin, and high marks also for FDR, and JFK.

I was at that time mentoring a younger black man, we were in my pickup on a day in January, and downtown Austin had put up many signs about MLK day but I had him pegged as a great man but hey, a Teddy Bear.

This young man I mentored, goddamn, he was/is so intelligent, and so sensitive, and so graceful, and he questioned me on this. And because it was him, and because he didn't push or rant or go on in any way, and because I knew him to be wide awake, I began to question my certainty. And I began to seek out MLK. And I began to find him.

If you have never listened to his speech against the merciless US war against the sovereign country of Vietnam you have not heard MLK. You will *not* hear this speech on NPR on MLK day, they'll trot out the Teddy Bear. This sermon -- Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam -- was given one year to the day prior to his assassination. I absolutely believe it was this speech that ensured his death.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:24 AM on January 21, 2020 [10 favorites]

I just finished listening again to MLK "Why I Am Opposed to the War In Vietnam" sermon.

My cheeks are wet with tears, joy and pain, knowing how beautiful this man was, knowing also that this stand would cause his death.

I defy anyone to listen to this man speak his heart without tears.

The best US citizen. Ever.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:24 AM on January 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Three not entirely related points:

I absolutely love Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Also worth seeing in Alabama: the Rosa Parks Museum. The tour gets into what exactly was going on on the day in question, her history with that particular bus driver, the works. For a museum that doesn't have a lot of physical objects in it, it's amazing.

Finally, some of the twitter responses to the FBI's post are pure gold. You have to wonder what's going on with their social media person on MLK day every year.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:55 AM on January 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

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