Martin Luther King’s likeness is one that represents advocacy and peace. The history books will show him marching and making speeches, but never anything that invokes actual rebellion. This mugshot of MLK shows a glimpse of the truth of the Civil Rights Movement and how it was more than peaceful protesting and speeches. It was a rebellion against unjust laws and an unjust American society. It’s important to remember that what people were fighting for was illegal and many of them were punished, beaten, and killed for equal rights. He was arrested and then assassinated. Until his death, he advocated against the structures that uphold poverty, racism, and war. He was a socialist who continuously critiqued events such as the Vietnam War, yet most history books will never touch on that, erasing his true legacy.
Toward the end of his life, MLK began to face backlash because of his views on the Vietnam War. His views would anger white liberals because they became too radical than what they were used to. However, he also began losing more of his base and he was fully aware of that fact. In his sermon titled, A Time to Break Silence, he states:
“Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.” (King 232)
Here, he is addressing other people’s concerns about his advocacy against the war and is admitting that he will no longer be silent about his controversial views. He was someone who had a large following of supporters until his base started shrinking and he began facing a lot more criticisms. This is when it’s important to remember that MLK was his own person and not just a character from the past. Backlash and criticisms create hardships in a person.
Brian Ward makes a point in the About South podcast to mention that right before he received the invitation to Newcastle, he could almost be considered clinically depressed. His hardships and depression after already being considered a leader is another aspect of his life that history hardly mentions. This was a time of his life where he was advocating for poor people and economic equality, topics that he was not supposed to touch. It’s safe to say that if it weren’t for the stage of his life that he was in, he would not have accepted the honorary doctorate from Newcastle University. He was low and he needed to be lifted up, so he accepted the doctorate and went to Newcastle for only 8 hours. As Ward mentions, this doctorate gave him the courage to continue and reminded him of what he was fighting for.
Despite his visit being forgotten by public memory, MLK’s speech served its purpose by engaging in the topic of race relations in England. He makes sure to mention that racism and any form of discrimination whether it be against class or religion, can happen anywhere, even in England. He says, “Get rid of racial injustice, whether it exists in the United States of America, whether it exists in England, whether it exists in South Africa. Wherever it is alive, it must be defeated.” This quote aims at the concept of American exceptionalism, where events such as the Civil Rights Movement and enslavement only occur in America. His words fight that notion as he is consistent to not address the issue as an American issue like many foreigners do. Throughout Ward’s book about his visit and its impact, it is discussed how King took on the topic of racism and eloquently addressed it to a crowd of predominantly white people.
It is also interesting that he was addressing racism in England in 1967, decades after Clotel by William Wells Brown was published, a book that consistently referred to England and the rest of Europe as a place where color doesn’t matter. The theme of American Exceptionalism thrive throughout the book and in real life, so it was important that King himself has never fallen trap to that idea.
King was consistent in what he advocated for. He always addressed the needs of not only Black people in America but also poor people. Even when advocating for such reasonable things and being considered too radical and even a communist, he held his ground and eloquently addressed his critics. In his speech, A Time to Break Silence, he says that “we must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.” This quote stood out to me immediately because he is criticizing the structures of capitalism, where poor people and other marginalized groups are exploited and using the fear that Americans have towards communism to achieve justice. In other words, he is directly telling people that if they are so afraid of the rise of communism, then they need to address the impoverished communities who begin to favor it when capitalism keeps failing them. It’s incredible to think that he said this in 1967, yet if someone influential said this today, it would still be extremely controversial. I tend to resent the idea that American political ideology has shifted more right than the days of the Civil Rights Movement, but this era was a time meant for change and controversial statements.
It’s disappointing that what King and other leaders said in the ’60s is so relevant to today. I blame the continuous erasure of King’s socialist ideologies for the lack of improvement that we have made in the fight for equal rights. If we begin to share his history, exactly the way it happened, we could be closer to a time when everyone is free.
“S04 Episode 2: King, 1967.” SoundCloud, 2019, soundcloud.com/about-south/s04-episode-2-king-1967.
Brown, William Wells. Clotel. Ed. Geoffery Sanborn, Broadview, 2016.
King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin. Washington. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Harper & Row, 1991.
Birmingham, AL Police Department