It’s that time of year again, the third Monday of January, when we come together as a nation to commemorate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with church services, elementary school skits, and civic club speeches—much of it seemingly rote tribute.
Every MLK Day we trot out the same old platitudes, mouth the same old sentiments, and repeat the same old stories. We go through the motions of honoring not so much the man but the myth he has become. We’ve recast King, making him fit into a reshaped American narrative—one that airbrushes an ugly and vicious not-so-distant past into a less than “enlightened” time in history.
The Martin we celebrate today is more pabulum than protest, more anecdote than agitation. It’s as if we decided to fuse Martin Luther King with Rodney King, morphing the former’s radical message—“freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed”—into the latter’s accept-the-status-quo plea, “Can we all get along?”
It’s time that we free Martin. Unshackle him from a rose-colored past, a reconstructed history that never was. What the world needs today is Martin unchained.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical, in-your-face revolutionary who was all about troubling the waters. He was, as one biographer termed him, an “apostle of militant nonviolence.” Martin wasn’t afraid to inflict pain, no more than he shied away from enduring it. But the hurt he brought to America was of the emotional variety—the kind that comes from snatching back the covers on ugly truth and holding up for view a nation’s collective, institutionalized sin and forcing acknowledgement and honest self-reflection.
And let’s be clear: Many who celebrate him now would have condemned him then.
We’ve diminished King’s worldview—a man who, before he was snatched from us in the cruelest of ways, fully engaged what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” Toward the end of his life, he embarked on his Poor People’s Campaign demanding economic justice and human rights for the poor of every color. And he was a leading antiwar activist who made a stand early against the Vietnam War—taking Congress to task for spending lavishly on war while ignoring the nation’s poor.
Likewise, we’ve elevated King to such a level that all we can do is marvel in awe. But we need to dismiss the notion that he was some sort of movie superhero, riding into southern towns and northern cities, guns blazing, taking up the cause of a bewildered and frightened citizenry. That’s the contemporary, Hollywood version. The reality was something quite different.
Black folks weren’t waiting for a hero to save them. They had long been fighting for freedom individually and collectively, striking thousands of sparks of resistance for more than 100 years. Sometimes the sparks caught flame; more often than not, however, the smoldering embers were cruelly stamped down. And then came a woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to give up her bus seat. King was there. His soaring words and vision, combined with the determination of thousands of unheralded men, women, girls, and boys, formed a mighty bellows to coax that tiny spark into a blaze that burned away the past and lit the way to a better future.
I see Martin Luther King Jr. not so much as a drum major but as a fire tender—stoking the flames of outrage, demanding justice and fairness.
It’s time for us to unchain Martin and let his spirit of righteous resistance burn bright.
Carl Chancellor is the Senior Editor at the Center for American Progress.