Sanitizing a National Hero

Jeff Smith

So, we just celebrated another holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. The great civil rights leader, the Dreamer. “The Burrhead.” “The most dangerous Negro in America.” Well, at least that is what former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover thought of King. So, how come this is not part of the official reflections each 3rd Monday of January, when we celebrate the memory of Dr. King? Why is it that we always hear another reading of his “I Have a Dream” speech, or watch news stories about a march for peace (escorted by the police), or a display of multiculturalism with children singing? This has been the version of King for most of us since 1983, when the US government made King’s birthday a national holiday.

Black insurgent scholar Michael Eric Dyson says that the most damaging effect of legislating a federal holiday in honor of King is that “it has sanitized his message.” Indeed, not only his message, but the context and contours of an entire movement. We now have Dr. King’s image plastered everywhere in late January. Businesses proudly display ads to honor the civil rights activist and governments make declarations annually about the Dreamer. Yet, so rare is it to find any critique of this sanitizing of King in the news media, that one would think that there is either complete historical amnesia or collusion with sectors of power to silence his message. So what did King do besides deliver the I Have a Dream speech and advocate for little Black children and little White children to get along?

King was actually a latecomer to the civil rights movement. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, King was recruited to be the main spokesperson, even though he had not made civil rights the subject of any previous sermons. King was part of the creation of the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, even though the SCLC never embraced a revolutionary agenda. As many historians are quick to point out it was the work of groups like CORE, SNCC, and other grassroots groups that pushed a stronger agenda. Dr. King was the more “reasonable” voice by the early 1960s, at least to the establishment. What became known as the Black Power movements forced the government to realize, that if it didn’t deal with King and make the reforms that he was asking, it would have to deal with a more aggressive, potentially violent movement.

Eventually, King began to take positions that even alienated other Black leaders. In 1962, King organized a youth conference that led to a march where all 1,000 youth were arrested. King was heavily criticized by other Black leaders for putting Black children in danger. Black leaders were not the only ones concerned with King’s activities. The FBI began a file on King that would last until his assassination. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even dubbed King “the most notorious liar in the country,” and “the most dangerous Negro in America.” FBI documents show that beginning in 1963, both the SCLC office in Atlanta and King’s home was bugged. However, it wasn’t until King challenged the economic practices and the US war in Vietnam, that King fell out of favor with many liberals and became an even greater threat to the establishment.

Once the Voting Rights Act was passed, King began focusing more on activities and organizing in the north. Here he discovered that many of the tactics that worked against southern White supremacists didn’t effect urban centers in the north where institutional racism flourished. In 1966, while organizing in Chicago, King said “We’ll use something that avoids violence, but becomes militant and extreme enough to disrupt the flow of the city. I know it will be rough on them when they have to get 200 people off the Dan Ryan expressway, but the only thing I can tell them, which do you prefer, this or a riot.” King began to question his non-violent tactics in the north and even felt his message was difficult for urban Black to hear, when they were being drafted to fight in a war thousands of miles a way, while unable to achieve justice at home.

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked – and rightly so – what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”

In 1967-68 King provided some of the strongest denunciations of the US war in Vietnam. He said “We are criminals in that war, and we have committed more war crimes than any other nations, and I will continue to say it.” It was statements like these that got King in trouble, enough so that the NAACP adopted a resolution that said to “attempt to merge the civil rights movement with the peace movement is, in our judgment, a serious tactical mistake that will serve the cause neither of civil rights nor peace.” However, it was the Poor People’s Campaign that not only alienated King from the “acceptable” civil rights groups, it probably got him assassinated.

The Poor People’s Campaign was an attempt to not only draw attention to the economic injustices of the day, but it was designed to advocate for a major economic restructuring of the country. Here is another quote from King to illustrate what the campaign was all about and why he was such a threat to power:

“We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry….Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism…here must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

On April 4, 1968 King was assassinated in Memphis while supporting garbage workers who were on strike. Many sources, most recently William Pepper’s book An Act of State, provide ample evidence to show that James Earl Ray did not kill King. Pepper’s research suggests that the local police in Memphis, the FBI and even the US military had a role in the assassination of MLK. A lone racist didn’t kill King, rather a White Supremacist system silenced him.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? If we are serious about honoring the message of King, of keeping the dream alive, then we better be about the business of organizing against the so-called War on Terrorism. We need to denounce and organize against the corporate takeover of our economy, the racist practices of our “justice system,” and the theft of our civil rights by the USA Patriot Act. Anything less would be a disservice to the memory of MLK.

Jeff Smith, a local organizer, can be reached at He works at the GR Institute for Information Democracy.

Author: mediamouse

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