As I went from event to event Monday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, I was struck by both the tribute and the distortion.
The tribute is remarkable. Martin Luther King held no public office. He amassed no great fortune. He led no victorious armies. He was arrested, harassed by the FBI, denounced and defiled. Yet today, we devote a holiday to his birth. Schoolchildren study his life and learn of his “dream.” No matter how much the culture seeks to domesticate him, the lessons are inescapable.
Standing up for justice is honorable. Racism is unacceptable. Nonviolence — challenging unjust laws and practices with nonviolent protest — is honorable. It is a testament to a confident country that we would so honor Dr. King.
But the distortion is real also. Martin Luther King grew revered once he was martyred, but he was the center of controversy when he was alive. Gallup polling showed that he grew more unpopular over the course of the 1960s. By 1968, a Harris poll showed that three-fourths of Americans and 55 percent of African Americans had negative views about him.
Why? King was always a drum major for justice. Without justice, he argued, there could be no peace. Nonviolence was not a prescription for acceptance or for passivity, but a demand for confronting injustice, for putting one’s body on the line to disrupt business as usual.
Americans rallied to the civil rights movement against segregation, stirred by the pictures of nonviolent protesters getting beaten by white sheriffs. But King was not satisfied with the end of legal apartheid or the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
He posed an economic challenge to America, decrying those who lived in poverty in a sea of affluence. He called for every person to have a right to a job, to a minimum income to health care — a floor beneath which no American could fall.
And he alienated editorial writers, the president and his own allies when he spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War in 1967. He was slurred as a traitor, denounced for speaking out about issues where he was not an expert, condemned for weakening the cause of African Americans.
On his last birthday, he was more unpopular than ever, but he would not stop marching for justice. He spent that birthday in planning meetings for a massive poor people’s campaign, bringing together leaders from across the country: whites from Appalachia, Latinos from the farm-workers, inner city blacks, religious and labor leaders.
He planned a massive march on Washington, where the poor could camp in a Resurrection city of tents demanding action.
King wanted to be loved and respected, but that was not what drove him. What drove him was an unquenchable thirst for justice — and an unwillingness to accommodate to injustice.
We should remember not just how revered he is today, but how reviled he was before he died. He calls us to stand for what is right, even if it is neither popular nor expedient. That is a lesson that we should not let the holiday tribute obscure.