Perhaps, informed by my queerness or my knack for complicating things that are just too simple and binary for my own comfort that my partner calls both charming and maddening, I experience immense amounts of anger when I see how simply MLK is handled in the public imagination.
December 10th will mark the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. winning the Noble Peace Prize in 1964. During his acceptance speech he concluded it by saying:
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education, and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits… I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land… I still believe that we shall overcome!”
Less than four years later, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign which was an anti-capitalist movement that sought to bring justice in the form of economic and human rights to poor people in America, regardless of their background. Less than four years later, King spoke about seeing a promise land, not fearing death and knowing he’d not have longevity in this life. The next day, he was assassinated on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel. King’s family believed James Earl Ray, the person convicted of King’s assassination, was not responsible. Many intellectuals and historians believe King’s death was the result of him attacking Washington D.C. and capitalism.
King said in his “Three Evils of Society” speech:
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
These sets of facts next to each other alone bring up a different idea of the reality King lived in and the promise land he prophesized. King’s approval rating in the 1960’s was horrendous and his more radical positions on wealth distribution, housing, and war left him too radical for white liberals while his non-violent rhetoric left him largely alienated by black people seeking an approach that did not exclude physical retaliation or the idea of not wanting to reform/abolish white-supremacist capitalist systems, but instead focused on creating exclusively black systems and programs. It was not until King’s death that his approval ratings amongst white people changed and his function in the black imagination was one of the martyr rather than the old man with the old ideas.