Another third Monday in January has passed where we honor the legacy of the late great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched the “I have a dream” speech (or excerpts of it), debated whether his dream has been achieved, and the more adventurous of us participated in the National Day of Service. This MLK day obviously had a greater feel to it because it came the day before we celebrated the first African American President, Barack Obama. As beautiful as these two days were historically, I find myself somewhat disappointed at all of the “from King to Obama” rhetoric. Everyone knows that I am huge fans of both individuals, but I do feel as though the comparisons have gotten a bit out of hand and more importantly, out of context.
The major problem I have is that Dr. King was one of many leaders in a movement. President Obama was the leader of a campaign. A political campaign by default is about the individual at the end of the day for he or she is seeking office. Without Obama, there would be no presidential campaign to elect him. Would there have been a Civil Rights Movement without Dr. King? Of course. The movement was well under way before Dr. King’s involvement. Some say the movement started when black heroes came back from World War II and still had to sit in the back of the bus or even as far back as the days when we first landed on these shores. Either way, we cannot solely attribute the beginning of this movement that drew international attention (and still inspires other movements worldwide) to Rosa Parks refusal to get out of her seat or Dr. King’s great leadership. I know by this time that I may be coming off to some as a hater, but I am far from it.
My point is that I often wish that on the 3rd Monday in January that we would have a Civil Rights Day instead of an MLK day. The messianic complex that so many of us have on this planet always causes us to create these “One man stood up” or “One woman had enough” stories that completely minimize (or erase entirely) the contributions of others. From Cezar Chavez and Nelson Mandela to Mussolini and Hitler (it works in the positive and negative sense), history, often told by others, picks a leader of a movement and that is who is celebrated or vilified. This is wrong. As it relates to Dr. King, many African Americans have unfortunately embraced this philosophy. There are many reasons that this frustrates me but I will only cite one reason here–Malcolm X. Remember him?
I get frustrated when I look at how quickly we forget people like Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, Claudette Colvin, and the many other men and women, black and non-black, who gave their lives and heart to the movement. It is when I remember Malcolm that I get the most frustrated because President Obama admitted in his first book that Malcolm X’s message resonated with him more than any other figure of the Civil Rights Movement. This is also true for me and this is why it bothers me that we have allowed his memory to be forgotten and Dr. King’s to be pacified. I believe that Dr. King would not have risen to such prominence if Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were not present with their self-defense mantra or Kwame Toures militiancy or the Black Panthers. The list goes on and on. Malcolm’s contributions to the movement are no less significant simply because he did not have a title like “Dr.”, “Reverend”, “Nobel Peace Prize Winner”, or “President” before his name.
We who either came through the Civil Rights Movement or who are students of it should not continue to allow America to forget what the true meaning of the movement was and the massive involvement of so many groups. We should not allow the country to turn Dr. King into a “Kumbaya” singer who only had a dream. He was a hardcore soldier who spoke about police brutality and was as opposed to the Vietnam War as many of us are to the war in Iraq. Though it is important to remember King’s American dream, it is also equally important to remember that he had this dream while living an American nightmare.
So let us continue to celebrate the life of Dr. King. Let us never forget the momentous inauguration of the first black President. Let us also not forget, however, that Dr. King was one of many who helped bring the first black President into existence. There can only be one president at a time, but a movement for equality, whether gay rights, Muslim rights, etc. have many leaders, As great a man as Dr. King was, our struggles in this country have been too long and too complicated to only credit one individual for a movement that existed, in my eyes, before he was born. As the African proverb goes, “until the lion tells his story, history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”