Before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the iconic speech he delivered at the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963 (from which generations have remembered mostly the ad lib refrain about his dream at the end), King spoke and wrote extensively about a massive revolution of peaceful resistance occurring across the country. Sadly, this is an enormous part of King’s legacy that has been sanitized. The unfortunate whitewashing of MLK’s legacy as a woke warrior has covered over the peaceful direct-action blueprint he designed and put into action as a process toward building his dream of a Beloved Community. We can do better, starting in 2022.
Each year, Americans honor MLK Day in a huge national celebration that misses the point. There are rote speeches, marches, classroom projects, reports and recitations. Politicians attend events and offer acknowledgements while journalists write stories that frame King and his legacy in a way that reinforces widespread ignorance of King’s true legacy. This revisionist conditioning of the minds of youth has been passed down and reinforced through several generations by schools, universities and politicians.
I hope to help correct the record for 2022 by introducing an accurate understanding of King alongside a public call to action: to educate and activate generations of empathetic societal change agents who will collaborate in the work of disrupting the status quo 20th century segregationist society King battled against, which we all inherited and unwittingly sustain today.
More than 50 years after his assassination, no schools in the nation portray King as a non-violent warrior leading a revolution in a war against segregationist policies and practices that protect white supremacy. But that’s how King described himself, specifically invoking the war motif.
“To the Negro in 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice. In addition to being consistent with his religious precepts, it served his need to act on his own for his own liberation. It enabled him to transmute hatred into constructive energy, to seek not only to free himself but to free his oppressor from his sins. This transformation, in turn, had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so.
“The argument that nonviolence is a coward’s refuge lost is force as its heroic and often perilous acts uttered their wordless but convincing rebuttal in Montgomery, in the sit-ins, on the freedom rides, and finally in Birmingham.
“There is a powerful motivation when a suppressed people enlist in an army that marches under the banner of nonviolence. A nonviolent army has a magnificent universal quality. To join an army that trains its adherents in the methods of violence, you must be of a certain age. But in Birmingham, some of the most valued foot soldiers were youngsters ranging from elementary pupils to teenage high school and college students.
“For acceptance in the armies that main and kill, one must be physically sound, possessed of straight limbs and accurate vision. But in Birmingham, the lame and the crippled could and did join up.
“In armies of violence, there is a caste of rank. In Birmingham, outside of a few generals and lieutenants who necessarily directed and coordinated operations, the regiments of the demonstrators marched in democratic phalanx. Doctors marched with window cleaners. Lawyers demonstrated with laundresses. Ph.D.’s and no-D’s were treated with perfect equality by the registrars of the nonviolence movement.
“In the nonviolence army, there is room for everyone who wants to join up. There is no color distinction. There is no examination, no pledge, except that, as a soldier in the armies of violence is expected to inspect his carbine and keep it clean, nonviolent soldiers are called upon to examine and burnish their greatest weapon — their heart, their conscience, their courage and their sense of justice.”
King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” was published in 1964. It chronicles in detail the revolution that rose up suddenly in 1963 on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. As White America was preparing to commemorate the pretense of Black freedom at the hands of a White savior (Lincoln), and offer platitudes to placate the masses, Black America was organizing and mobilizing for a series of nonviolent direct-action peaceful protests in hundreds of cities across the country.
“Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life throughout the land.
Explosively, America’s third revolution – the Negro Revolution – had begun.
“For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface.”
King’s legacy, from 1963 to his untimely death by assassination in 1968, which Coretta Scott King characterized as retribution for King’s priority focus on economic equity, was unequivocally his leadership of the Negro Revolution. The significance of this revolution cannot be overstated. Certainly, the federal Department of Labor’s division of policy and research took it seriously. In 1965, it published a report titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The first chapter of that report is titled, “The Negro American Revolution.”