Boyd: King embraced ‘tension,’ being labeled ‘extremist’ and was ‘drum major for justice’

January 12, 2023

By: Oseye Boyd

Do you know who the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was? I mean really was.

Not this sanitized version of “a man who had a dream” that “his four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I’m not sure how this whitewashed version of King has proliferated our culture, but it does his legacy a disservice to reduce someone who stood for so much to so little. But this is the Dr. King, who died at 39 on April 4, 1968, most will remember and celebrate on Monday. King even pivoted from that dream, saying it “turned into a nightmare.”

Over the years, I’ve realized people who love to quote this speech, and in particular, this part of the speech, don’t know who King was and don’t understand America at the time. First, King wasn’t talking about a race-blind society. He was talking about one where being a Negro, the word used at the time, didn’t automatically mean second-class citizen, didn’t mean that you had to work twice as hard to get into the same position as a white person, didn’t mean you had to sit at the back of the bus, use the back entrance of a business or get up from your seat because a white person wanted you to. He wasn’t saying don’t see black people. He was saying don’t treat black people differently based on simply being black.

Second, the fact that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is so often quoted and his birthday a national holiday would make one believe he was treated well during his lifetime. He wasn’t. A Gallup poll in 1966 found 63 percent of Americans had a “negative opinion” of King.

King also was under FBI surveillance — the same type of surveillance tactics used against Soviet agents were used against King, according to William Sullivan, who was head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division at the time. To the FBI, King was “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from a standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”

I also find it ironic — and a tad bit disgusting — that many of the people who love to quote King would have been anti-King during his short lifetime. And, they would be anti-King today, if they took time to know who he truly was.

King was radical. He was revolutionary. Yes, he was nonviolent, but he wasn’t afraid of going against the status quo. Nonviolence was a chosen strategy, and just like protesters today who use nonviolence, King was told there were better ways to go advance social justice.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King replied to eight white religious leaders who made a public statement of concern and caution about his tactics. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was written today.

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

These words brought to mind the racial and social justice protests in 2020, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. So many were quick to condemn the protesters without trying to understand the reasons for the protests.

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’”

That nonviolent “creative tension” made me think of athletes kneeling during the national anthem to bring awareness to police brutality and work toward change. It was hijacked and turned into an anti-American sentiment. King was an advocate for using nonviolent, dramatic and drastic means to get attention. King’s use of tension reminded me of how I agitated some when I used the word “agitation” in my first column. Change doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable.

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”

King doesn’t hold back. Seems like King knew white privilege existed. No, he doesn’t explicitly call it white privilege, but what other group in the United States of America during this time could he be referring to? It certainly wasn’t Native Americans.

“But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’”

While this King may seem different from the King paraded around on Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations and remembrances, he’s not. You can find him in “The Other America.” If you delve deeper into the “I Have a Dream” speech, you’ll see this King there, too.

“This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. … America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. … We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

He asked to be remembered as a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. Instead, he’s often remembered as a dreamer. Passively instead of the man of action that he was. That’s shameful.