We all know what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. He marched, and integrated the lunch counters, and made white people and black people friends forever and ever, and also he opposed affirmative action because he had that one line in that speech that conservatives love to quote.
This is what King did, and it’s a comforting tale. Sure, white people were a bit crazy in the South (and only the South; certainly not the North, were all us white people were already super-nice), and yeah, that whole drinking fountain thing was kind of silly, and it was good that he got rid of it.
But of course, that wasn’t what King did. He — and the many people who worked with him — did far more than that, though we don’t like to admit it much, because admitting it forces white people to admit to sins far more grievous than simply requiring kids to go to different schools based on skin color. Imani has a guest-post up by Hamden Rice laying out exactly what King did do, and while it’s a lot more painful that we care to remember, it’s extremely important that we never forget it:
The reason I’m posting this is because there were dueling diaries over the weekend about Dr. King’s legacy, and there is a diary up now (not on the rec list but on the recent list) entitled, “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream Not Yet Realized.” I’m sure the diarist means well as did the others. But what most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.
So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech.Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Read the whole thing. Really — the whole thing.
Image: Postcard commemorating the 1920 Duluth, Minnesota lynchings.