by Dr. Boyce Watkins – Your Black World
As I leave the Martin Luther King Unity breakfast being hosted by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in Huntsville, AL, I am reflecting on the legacy of Dr. King himself. In the midst of my airport inner-ranting, I realized something that I should have understood more thoroughly in the past: Martin Luther King was nobody’s hero.
Dr. King achieved extraordinary things, no doubt. But for some reason, we have turned him into something that he would not want to be: A bionic, all-powerful, unstoppable civil rights machine who could leap tall racists in a single bound. In a few years, Dr. King will be shown wearing a cape and punching out evil villains, while the rest of us simply watch in admiration.
Dr. King, according to legend, is only meant to be worshipped on your wall, studied in class and honored at an annual dinner. In no way, in your right mind, should you EVER have the audacity to believe that you can achieve even a fraction of what this man accomplished during his life. He was an icon, a symbol, a prop in a McDonald’s commercial; he never felt fear, he never made mistakes, and he never had moments of weakness. Martin Luther King was perfect.
This modern-day rendition of Dr. King, quite honestly, makes me sick.
To allow one of our greatest freedom fighters to be politically neutered and turned into a product of Marvel comics is downright shameful. Dr. King was not Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk. Dr. King himself would say that he was not even intrinsically great. In his quest for equality of all mankind, Dr. King never wanted us to think that he was any better than the rest of us. He propelled himself to greatness by boosting up the rest of us, not by standing on top of our heads.
Dr. King quite simply, was something that all of us can be: an average man who put extraordinary effort into nearly everything he did. He faced his challenges head on and confronted the ostracism, humiliation and danger that came along with doing what was right. When God told him to do something, he didn’t ignore the message. Even when he felt fear, Dr. King didn’t allow this fear to cause him to buckle toward that which was most comfortable, convenient and socially acceptable.
Dr. King was human, just like the rest of us. But he made the conscious effort to take his limited years on this planet and turn them into something worth celebrating. He also ran the first leg of a long relay race, and some of us have dropped the baton entirely. When we choose not to continue what Dr. King started, we are disrespecting the depth and breadth of his sacrifice. It took our nation 400 years to get here, and no one person, speech or presidential election is going to get us to the promised land overnight.
When you go to an MLK dinner, you’re likely to hear a speech that sounds something like this: “Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream about unity, harmony, coming together, loving one another and serving others. He believed that all of us should be kind toward our fellow man regardless of the color of his/her skin. He taught us that we are all God’s children, and that America is the land of opportunity.”
This statement is not incorrect, Dr. King did believe all these things. But when we tell the story about the peaceful, sweet, kind little man who was nice to those who tried to kill him, we must supplement the remarks with an even more accurate speech that sounds like this: “Dr. King battled tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed, fought against the establishment when necessary, demanded socio-economic equality, faced controversy head-on, endured tremendous unpopularity for his beliefs, openly confronted white supremacy in America and put his life on the line for black people. He demanded that the American capitalist war machine be altered and that African Americans be given access to economic and social equality by any means necessary. In other words, Dr. King was not a passive little punk.”
As it stands, Dr. King would see almost nothing about America that reflects the essence of his dream. He would see a country where the rich have hoarded the wealth at the expense of the American worker, where we are declaring war on other nations just to take their oil, where black men are being herded to prison like cattle, and where 40% of all black children are in poverty. This is no great society, at least as far as Dr. King is concerned, and to suggest otherwise would be downright delusional and disrespectful of what this man stood for during his life.
Let’s not let Dr. Martin Luther King be taken away from us. Reconnecting with Dr. King means remembering that he was no better than what the rest of us can be, and it also means not allowing others to rebrand him as a soft, polite, eternally gleeful corporate puppet used to sedate the masses. Dr. King’s modified legacy is used to control African Americans in a manner that is similar to how the bible was used to control slaves on the plantation. Martin Luther King was a fighter, and there’s no getting away from that. We must start finding ways to honor this man properly.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.