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10 Historians on What People Still Don’t Know About Martin Luther King Jr.

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While Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday has become a national holiday and schoolchildren across the nation and the world know the words of his most famous speeches, there are still many aspects of his life and work that remain lesser known. Some of those facts are perhaps avoided because they are uncomfortable, others are merely lost in the great expanse of information available about the man.

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TIME put the question to 10 experts whose recent or forthcoming books touch on the topic: a half-century after his death, what is something that most people still don’t know about Martin Luther King Jr.?

These are their answers:

Gary Dorrien, author of Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel:

Dr. King, in his last years, was more radical than everyone around him. He dragged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to campaign in Chicago, where his lieutenants did not want to go. He got pelted with rocks in Chicago and admonished his staff that white Americans had never intended to integrate their schools and neighborhoods. He added pointedly that white Americans “literally sought to annihilate the Indian.” He defied the Civil Rights establishment, the Johnson Administration, and his closest advisors by opposing the Vietnam War. He campaigned for a minimum guaranteed income and bitterly regretted that he could not speak in public about democratic socialism. At the end he dragged SCLC into the Poor People’s Campaign, now outflanking even James Bevel, his usual barometer of going too far.

After he was gone the memory of King taking the struggle to Chicago, railing against the Vietnam War and economic injustice, emphasizing what was true in the Black Power movement, and organizing a Poor People’s Campaign faded into an unthreatening idealism. King became safe and ethereal, registering as a noble moralist. It became hard to remember why, or even that, King was the most hated person in America during his lifetime. But the King that we need to remember is the one who keenly understood what he was up against.

Andra Gillespie, author of Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols and Hope:

Historians, theorists and African American Studies scholars who remind us to be skeptical of the comfortable, sanitized versions of Martin Luther King Jr. often point to Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War or to his late-in-life anti-poverty crusade as evidence of his radicalism. That critique is important, but by focusing on those late-1960s positions, we fail to realize how King demonstrated radical behavior even earlier in his life.

In his book Why We Can’t Wait, which was written in the afterglow of the 1963 March on Washington, King demonstrates that the simple and eloquent dream he articulated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was really informed by a multicultural sense of America that transcended the black-white binary and by a class consciousness that was critical of conspicuous consumption and deeply aware of structural inequality. In the book, King provides needed perspective on nonviolent resistance, and prods readers to foreground their political attitudes and actions in ethics and intellectual consistency. The King of 1963-4 was just as radical as the King of 1968.

Michael K. Honey, author of To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice:

Many people still identify King primarily as a “civil rights leader” and fail to understand his Christian Social Gospel. As a follower of Jesus, he adhered to nonviolence and a vision of “the beloved community.” King strongly criticized America’s racial form of capitalism that “gives luxuries to the classes and takes necessities from the masses.” He stood strongly with unions, which he called the strongest antidote to poverty. In his Poor People’s Campaign, he sought to reorder our national priorities from funding war, tax cuts and bailouts for the rich to insuring every person the opportunity for a good education, health care as a human right, a decent job, and a viable income. In Memphis, he called for “economic equality” and died fighting for workers to have union rights. Beyond civil and voting rights, he pursued a nonviolent, moral revolution and a vision of a world without violence, hatred, war, poverty and oppression. Many still do not understand the fullness of King’s dream and our society has failed to live up to it.

Steven Levingston, author of Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights:

What most people don’t know is that Martin Luther King Jr. played the role of unacknowledged, behind-the-scenes adviser to President John Kennedy. One of my favorite examples of King’s influence came on Mother’s Day, 1963, after a night of rioting in Birmingham, Ala., that had been ignited by white supremacists’ bombings of the headquarters of civil rights demonstrators and the home of King’s brother. As Kennedy met with his advisers at the White House to discuss possible deployment of federal troops, he dispatched Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to another room to get King on the phone. The president didn’t want King to know his advice was being sought right in the middle of crucial consultations. Nor did he want the public to know; the President couldn’t afford the political repercussions of appearing too close to King. On the phone, King told Marshall that the president should condemn the bombings and King, for his part, would do everything he could to contain the violence. Kennedy went on TV that night, the troops stayed in the barracks, and Birmingham fell quiet for several weeks. The following month, Kennedy announced plans for civil rights legislation in a speech that echoed some of King’s oratory. As Congressman John Lewis told me: “The very being, the very presence, of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the conscience of John F. Kennedy.”

Shayla C. Nunnally, author of Trust in Black America: Race, Discrimination, and Politics:

Dr. King acknowledged the complicity of American political institutions in racial discrimination, but he also believed in their power to facilitate democracy in theory and practice. One way King felt that equality could be institutionalized was through enforcement powers of the American presidency. As he explained in an article for The Nation in 1961, the new President John F. Kennedy could use executive orders, enforcement powers, and presidential appointments to advance societal change. The President could link federal funding to racial nondiscrimination requirements, and could also appoint a “Secretary of Integration,” who King envisioned overseeing such processes across the country. Complemented by the president’s appointment of an Attorney General dedicated—as Robert F. Kennedy was—to challenging legal violations of racial discrimination, King viewed the chief executive as a salient leader in enforcing civil rights policies.

King’s optimism about democratic political institutions, however, declined over time, as he witnessed the increasingly violent opposition to racial justice, complete with challenges to the scope of federal power over state governments. Nonetheless, King’s assessments of the American political system speak to his perceived belief (eventually a reluctant belief) in the American political system to advance racial justice.

Barbara Reynolds, an author of My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King as told to the Reverend Dr. Barbara Reynolds:

People are missing the fact that Coretta Scott King was a co-partner with Martin in the greatest and most successful human-rights drive of our era. While she lived she was most often referred to as a wife, and after his death as a widow, but she was more than that. They functioned as a team.

When the movement was getting started, she would give concerts to help fund the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When the SCLC started in 1957 she presided and gave the first speech. When they were doing the Montgomery bus boycott, one night she was at the house with the baby and there was a thud and the front porch exploded. The next morning Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. came—and he was a very impressive man—and he said he was taking her to Atlanta, that he wasn’t going to let his grandchild get killed in Montgomery. She was only in her 20s, but she looked up at him and said, ‘You don’t understand. I may be married to Martin but I’m also married to the movement.’ She had the courage to stay and lead and raise four children without fear. She knew this was history in the making.

Joseph Rosenbloom, author of Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours:

Martin Luther King Jr. famously asked to be remembered not for the many honors he received but simply as a “drum major for justice.” The metaphor evokes his legacy as the leader of campaigns for racial justice in many cities.

Many people might imagine that he initiated the campaigns just as a drum major heads a band from the outset of its performance. Actually, King was not a prime mover behind any of the civil rights campaigns between 1956 and 1968 for which he is known, except the first one. That was the Montgomery bus boycott that began in December 1955. He was not involved at the beginning of protests in Albany, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Selma, Ala., St. Augustine, Fla., Chicago or Memphis. In each case he joined campaigns already well under way. Once a campaign was in progress he infused it with his charismatic leadership, oratorical power and nonviolent principle – a legacy of another kind.

But when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was on the verge of launching a campaign to end poverty in America. He himself conceived of what he was calling the Poor People’s Campaign, and he was leading it from the get-go.

Tommie Shelby, co-editor of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Everyone knows King was a Baptist minister, movement leader, and master orator. But he was also a philosopher. Many wrongly interpret King’s disagreements with Malcolm X and Black Power advocates as essentially a series of debates about strategy. However, King thought as much about ends as he did about means. In his books and speeches, he was asking, as philosophers since Plato have, “What is justice?”— and often coming to surprising answers, such as the need for a radical redistribution of wealth and guaranteed basic income. In essays like “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King examined the true meaning of democracy and its connection to the duty to obey the law.

Even when the question is about means, this shouldn’t be understood in a narrow cost-benefits sense. King insisted that not all effective means are morally acceptable or praiseworthy. Self-respect, solidarity, sacrifice and fortitude are among the virtues of the oppressed. Despair, bitterness, rage and cynicism are tragic vices. King was concerned to identify the values that should guide our resistance to injustice. His teachings on love, dignity, nonviolence, dissent and hope must be understood in this light.

Brandon M. Terry, co-editor of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

After the 1965 Watts riot, King spent much of the next year in Chicago, moving his family into a tenement apartment to dramatize unjust conditions in northern cities. There, he attacked residential segregation, poverty, consumer exploitation, joblessness and government malfeasance. It has become common to declare King’s efforts in Chicago an abject “failure,” a defeat at the hands of white resentment, militant defection and machine politics—but that misses the subtle legacy of supporting the political agency and power of the urban poor.

With a coalition of local residents, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) extra-legally assumed “trusteeship” of a tenement on behalf of its residents. SCLC not only provided needed repairs and support, but also established collective bargaining agreements with landlords, including power to conduct rent strikes. After King’s death, activists involved in this work helped pass the Fair Housing Act of 1968, founded a national tenants’ rights organization and reformed tenant law nationwide. King also held that even those presently involved in the underground economy or in gangs could become vital partners. Violating conventional norms of “respectability,” King and SCLC staff invited gang affiliates into King’s apartment and on demonstrations, patiently debating racism, poverty, politics, and violence into the early morning. This thread of challenging constraints to political imagination connects King’s work from Montgomery’s bus boycott to the Memphis sanitation workers strike.

Jeanne Theoharis, author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History:

One thing we get wrong about Dr. King’s work is our assumptions about his popularity among Northern white people. In our popular imagination, while white southerners might have opposed King, most Northerners did not. The reality was much more complicated. Many Northerners, even those who came to support King and the Southern civil rights struggle, did not support King when he called out Northern racism. From the beginning of the 1960s, when King joined with movements from Los Angeles to Boston challenging school and housing segregation and police brutality, he was resoundingly opposed and regularly heckled, lambasted as “anti-American” and even hit by a thrown rock in a march in Chicago. We’ve constructed this idea King was acceptable in the 1960s to most Northern white families and political officials and only when he began speaking out against Vietnam and advocating for a Poor People’s Campaign, did he lose their support. Looking at King’s civil rights activism across the Northeast, Midwest, and West across the 1960s reveals this not to be the case.

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