With the recent release of Selma, the historical film based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marches, there’s been a rise in voices and opinions on the way not just Black History is remembered, but also the way in which we remember key actors within the Civil Rights movement. Recent hashtags trending on twitter, such as #MLKAlsoSaid, noting some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s less remembered quotes, and #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool, commenting on the American education system’s lack of substantial material on the Civil Rights movement, have sparked new discussions. This has caused a spread in the idea that there is more to learn and to be told about one of the men who led it.
Born January 15th 1929, as Michael King Jr., Dr. King was raised in a strongly Baptist household, with his father and grandfather both practising Baptist ministers. He attended a segregated school, graduating at fifteen, and afterwards attended Morehouse College to earn a B.A. in sociology, later graduating with a doctorate in theology at Boston University. In 1955, he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, propelled by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who refused to leave her seat on the bus for a white passenger. During the boycott, which lasted 385 days, Dr. King was arrested and his house was bombed. It was this Boycott and its eventual success in ending the segregation on buses that propelled King into the public eye as a key figure in the Civil Rights movement. Now over fifty years ago, King led the boycott, aged at the time only twenty-six. His age is often a neglected part of his story. Dying at only 39, he was a young man during the movement, but is often misrepresented as someone older, neglecting the power youth, especially the role black youth culture had over the Civil Rights movement.
There have been criticisms that the version of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King taught in the mainstream education and spread through mainstream media is a sanitised or a ‘whitewashed’ version of the man who movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Ava DuVerney, the director of Selma claimed that King has become only remembered for a four word catchphrase: a catchphrase that could easily fit into a clean version the ‘white moderates’ King dissented against himself could teach, or neglect to teach, kids in schools across America. Instead of remembering King as an anti-white supremacy advocate; as a man who believed that capitalism was an evil through not permitting an even flow of economic resources; as a man who objected the war in Vietnam and called out against mass poverty in the U.S., he and his beliefs have been simplified. The version taught is a version lacking what King was truly standing for, what he was fighting for and what he believed in.
Firstly, it’s his stance on violence that is often misinterpreted. During the riots caused by the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and the subsequent lack of conviction or even dismissal of the police officer who killed him, there were claims that Martin Luther King would not have resorted to this. That Martin Luther King would not stand for such violence or for riots. After all, King himself stated: ‘I’ve told the kids in the ghettos that violence won’t solve their problems.’ Martin Luther King did not like violence. He was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his non-violent approach to racial inequality. However, only taking this part of a longer quote paints only half the picture. Although he did not condone violence, he understood that when an oppressor is using violence against an oppressed group, such as the American government was doing so against black Americans, it could not go ignored. The whole quote is as follows:
“I’ve told the kids in the ghettos that violence won’t solve their problems, but then they ask me, and rightly so; “Why does the government use massive doses of violence to bring about the change it wants in the world?” After this I knew that I could no longer speak against the violence in the ghettos without also speaking against the violence of my government”.
This quote, as well as King’s insistence that rioting is the language of the unheard – the unheard being the black Americans opposing American government – shows a King who did not mark violence or rioting as incomprehensible. In fact, it is notable how the words ‘riot’ and ‘protest’ could be used to describe the same event but each create a different image and connotation. Rioting, King claimed, is a result of ‘the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society’, which caused those who protest ‘to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.’
King, though non-violent, was no less passionate about the Civil Rights movement. As mentioned previously, he was angry towards ‘white moderates’ who took neither side concerning the movement. He was against white supremacist systems which actively acted against black Americans, stating that the ‘great stumbling block in [our] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice’. Therefore, those who would not take a stand, or would look the other way in terms of how black Americans were mistreated, were ‘as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.’
So, why is a trending twitter hashtag #MLKALsoSaid so important? The quotes that go ignored, or unspoken or hidden behind the more palatable I Have a Dream speech reflect a Martin Luther King who was not so complacent to U.S. government or politics. A man who championed that the riot is the language of the unheard, a man who fought and was killed for his attempts at ending white supremacy in America, a man who dismissed the ‘white moderate’ and criticised their indifference to the cause of black Americans, and who criticised the systems in America which kept 40 million in poverty, as they fought unneeded wars overseas in the name of democracy and freedom, while people in America were not free themselves. When you remember Martin Luther King, remember him for more than one speech in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. He was not complacent in the world of white politics, but fought against it. He did not condone violence, but he did not ignore the violence perpetuated against the black population. He knew what it was to be oppressed, to see oppression every day, and to want to get rid of it. He fought to change laws, and better the lives of black Americans through them. Although he acknowledged there was more to be done in society concerning equality than changing laws, he stated that laws ‘cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.’