Abandoned, betrayed, misunderstood, ridiculed and scorned. These are the words that describe Dr. Martin Luther King in the last year of his life. “But it’s MLK,” you might think, “he was adored by everyone; there’s no way this is true.” Unfortunately, it is.
As a nation, we honor King’s birthday by dedicating a national holiday in his name; we know him as the positive, smiling figurehead who was integral to the development and success of the Civil Rights Movement; and we all know his famous words, “I have a dream,” from the 1963 March on Washington. This is the image of King we all understand, yet this image is as obscure as a half-remembered dream.
King lived five long and hard years after 1963, and the last year of King’s life was, by far, the truest test of his character. This is the King we never learn about in school, for in the words of Tavis Smiley, “We demonized him in life and deified him in death.” Nostalgia and martyrdom have completely muffled the extent of King’s character. His final struggles say it all.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Exactly one year before that, on April 4, 1967, King stood before thousands at the Riverside Church in New York City and delivered his thoughts on the Vietnam War. King was staunchly against the war, and on this day, he made sure the entire country knew it. “[Our] own government,” King exclaimed, “is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” In this historic moment, King stepped forward from his “Civil Rights man” image that everyone was comfortable with and dared to expose what he contended were the evils that plagued American society: militarism, racism and poverty. This day marked the beginning of King’s slow, heart-breaking decline in reputation and influence. At a time when the country’s moral integrity desperately needed King’s voice to be heard, the Johnson administration, the media, and even his own supporters turned a deaf ear.
King viewed the three prongs of American immorality (militarism, racism and poverty) not as three distinct issues but as interconnected threads to the same overall injustice. “War is the enemy of the poor,” King argued, asserting that the bombs this country sends overseas land in the ghettos right here in America, and a nation that spends, “more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Life magazine all gave the same talking points – that King’s ego was getting the best of him, that he was jeopardizing both the peace movement and the faltering Civil Rights movement by trying to unite them, that King was tragically misleading Negro America. These barbaric, hostile, and uninformed political attacks were only the beginning of backlash against King.
Even within King’s very own organization, the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, some of his closest advisors were losing faith in him. Stanley Levison, one of King’s close friends and a lawyer for the SCLC, told King that his efforts at and after Riverside were, “unbalanced and politically unwise.” Some of King’s advisors as well as King’s personal physician even asserted that King’s apparent franticness was due to mental illness.
If that weren’t enough, as of 1964, without any question from the Johnson administration, the FBI had been stalking King. There is substantial evidence of the FBI planting secret spies into the SCLC, sending “anonymous” hate mail and threats directly to his house and even wire-tapping King’s hotel rooms. At this point, the media, the government, some of his closest colleagues and White America turned their backs on King. Even Black America began to proceed down the same route.
As 1967 progressed, violence and militancy against the “white man” became more attractive to disconcerted blacks. The newly formed Black Panther Movement and young, outspoken black figures began to profess that violence is the only method to achieve true equality for African Americans. These new leaders openly separated themselves from the “old, negro non-violence,” which King embodied. In their eyes, King, “is out of touch with the times.”
In these dark days, King found himself in a harsh predicament. He understood the anger of Black America, yet he rejected their complacency with violence. When asked on national television on July 6, 1967, about the violence that broke out in summer riots across American cities, King replied that society cannot blame protestors for the eruption of violence – the true cause for blame was the atmosphere of oppressive injustice that inspire such violence. Unfortunately, ignorance and unchecked passion held the majority of the country back from seeing the light of King’s vision.
Militarism, racism and poverty: the three evils King dedicated his entire life to stopping. These evils still, undoubtedly, plague American society. Right now, in April, 2015, one need look no further than our rampant use of drones
throughout the Middle East/East Africa and our return to war in Iraq (militarism); the reports of increased police brutality against black males as well as the almost invisible struggle of Mexican/Central-American immigrants (racism); and the fact that one out of every two American citizens is either in poverty or a paycheck or two away from poverty (poverty). Were King still alive, he would be marching in the streets and organizing rallies, perhaps even more vehemently than he was during his final year. Unfortunately, we lost King almost fifty years ago, and the true extent of his fight for justice has been forgotten.
But, now, today, you’re here, and I’m here. So long as that is the case, it is our responsibility as human beings to realize King’s vision, it is the reason why we are here, and it is the reason why we are obligated to cure our country of its evils. The deadline for change is long past due. This is our moment. We all know those words spoken years ago: I have a dream. It is up to us, here and now, to decide whether it will remain just that, a dream, or if we can shape it into a reality.