The whitewashing of King’s message and legacy

Library of Congress Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 27, 1967 \\ Library of Congress

News Analysis

It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while giving a speech in Memphis, Tenn. For those who heard King speak, word of his assassination was tragic but unsurprising. Dr. Wornie Reed, who marched with King and saw him speak  30 or 40 times, noted that King would often say he did not expect to live a long time.

However, Reed said, the last thing King or anyone who worked with him anticipated, along with many other Blacks of the time, was that 50 years later there would be little civil and Black rights progress — even some regression.

A large deterrent to continued progress is propaganda painting King as a sweet guy with a catchy speech device (dreams are nice) instead of as a skilled and calculating social philosopher torquing deep-rooted gears of American governance and culture to rapidly bring attention to the urgent matters of poverty, racism and war.

Precipitating King’s death in 1968 were huge milestones in the Black movement for rights and respect, like the passing of the Voting Rights and Fair Housing acts, among others.

Reed, who is now a professor of sociology and Africana studies and director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech, also pointed to the 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission).

This was essentially a commission on Black riots, said Reed, that had only a few Blacks on it (including Roy Wilkins). After its formation, the Black community braced itself for another insulting whitewashing of Black history and pain.

But the report, which was established by a Lyndon Johnson executive order, said the reason for the riots was “White racism… White institutions created it, White institutions maintain it, and White society condones it.”

“No commission on the executive level has said that before or since,” said Reed. Aggressive, King-style civil disobedience apparently was getting the message across. In all the times Reed heard King speak, he only heard him talk about peace once — and that had to do with getting out of Vietnam.

“King talked about peace all the time,” said Reed, but only to White media asking when the protesting and tension would ease up. King would tell them that peace is not the absence of tension, that without justice there is no peace.

Dr. Wornie Reed //  Cecilia Leonard, Virginia Tech

“That’s where the chant comes from,” said Reed. No justice, no polite obedience. And that went for anyone that took issue. “I can remember being an unwelcome guest in Black households,” said Reed of soliciting support in King’s heyday as a social agitator.

In the weeks before he was killed, Reed said King was honing in most on the issue of poverty, sometimes working 20-hour days. He was organizing a massive civil disobedience campaign in Washington, DC. He and his cohorts anticipated it to be the largest they’d ever assembled, with a contingency plan of literally grinding the nation’s capital to a halt if the country continued to ignore the poor.

“These are not things I’ve read, but things he said to us and we would do,” said Reed. Then King had to head to Memphis for a side issue, a garbage workers’ strike. “There was always a side issue,” said Reed.

Riots sprung up everywhere immediately after King was killed. Also, said Reed, nearly instantly the propaganda machine went to work characterizing King as a benevolent dreamer attributing any assimilation or progress to calm, peaceful protest.

More commissions formed to study the post-King riots, but they now pointed to the “problematic character of Black Americans,” said Reed. “We’ve been there ever since.

“One thing that is better now,” said Reed, is that, because of the Voting Rights Act, many more Blacks hold public office. That advancement alone, though, has “not resulted in the improvement of African American life.”

In fact, Reed said in a statement, “The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 made 2018 one of the worst years for voter suppression of African Americans and other minorities since 1968.”

Poverty was bad enough in King’s day that he was willing to put his life on the line in efforts to change it. Yet “poverty is worse now,” Reed told the MSR, adding that economic downturns like the recent recession tend to fall hardest on the heads of Blacks. “For children, it’s substantially worse.”

King helped force the Vietnam War to an end, but militarism is still rampant, like the drawn-out bouts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He would have been campaigning vociferously against this,” said Reed.

And racism, the last of King’s big three issues, is no better and “in some areas worse,” said Reed. “Racism in housing has gone pretty much unabated.”

Incarceration under the present criminal justice system — in a nation that’s about 13 percent Black — has a two-thirds Black population and is so deeply, fundamentally racist that, said Reed, that if King and Mother Theresa came back to life this instant and were put in charge, they would still be the world’s biggest acting bigots.

“Many of us assumed that things would be tough,” said Reed, “but not this bad.” Reed went so far as to say that King’s legacy, so misconstrued over the years, doesn’t help Blacks much now. “In fact, it hurts us.”

Reed has yet to visit the King memorial in DC. “I am not officially boycotting,” he said, but he remembers sitting in an Atlanta church when King, again, told those listening he didn’t plan to live long, but this time added that he did not want a monument built. He felt that a monument to one person’s achievements wouldn’t do anything for the hungry or wrongly imprisoned.

“We need to have a movement,” said Reed. In the 40 years since King’s death, there had been no racial movement by Blacks. Reed said he was concerned as he watched young Black people like his son mature into adulthood in an era of no struggle.

Then the everyday police killings of Blacks caught fire on social media, and Black Lives Matter came to the fore, a group that Reed is enthused over.

When told about how Black Lives Matter Minneapolis’ civil disobedience efforts  — like highway, state fair and airport shutdowns — were often greeted locally by scorn, complaints of pointless disruption, rudeness and inconvenience, Reed encouraged, offered support, and said the best sign that a protester is following King’s legacy is when people are aggravated.

“Oh, absolutely,” said Reed. “Nobody was more vilified than MLK.”