Each year, there are celebrations on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackson, Mississippi, has some of the most elaborate. There are parades, breakfasts, banquets, contests, and awards ceremonies. Many municipalities, including Jackson, have streets and thoroughfares – no matter how small or rundown – that are named in honor of King. In that same manner, even conservative white politicians are given to quoting King to substantiate their positions. Almost everybody wants to give the impression that they admire King. That, however, is not the case.
During his lifetime, many people in each race railed against King and all that he represented. Even years after his death, a student teacher being evaluated by the writer complained that his onsite supervisor would not allow him to teach anything about King even though the assigned textbook covered his career. Too many people are hypocritical and/or forget that King was not a one-size-fits-all kind of person. That he was controversial then and now.
If the MLK celebrations are to be genuine and true reflections of the man and the things for which he stood for, we must own up to the fact that, in many ways, King stirred controversy. In many ways, he generated opposition, including opposition from those who would claim to be his admirers and followers.
An example of this is an early encounter witnessed by the writer in the fall of 1960. Dr. King came to Jackson to meet with Medgar Evers and other NAACP officials about joining with and helping organize the developing Jackson Movement. The idea was rejected, however, because King’s tactics were much more along the idea of mass marches and civil disobedience. While Evers, personally had no problem with the idea, national leaders such as Roy Wilkins pressured Evers. Furthermore, based upon King’s national reputation, the Clarion Ledger and Jackson Daily News had tried to poison the atmosphere, saying that Jackson’s Black population did not need such outside agitators. The end result was that King was blocked due to the controversy.
Several other major controversies to which one can point include the following. (1) Controversy was stirred when King led massive nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Alabama, including the use of children. He was criticized for encouraging the breaking of laws and for putting the children’s lives in danger. (2) Controversy swirled around King’s position on and debates with Black Power advocates, especially Stokely Carmichael. Many young people and more militant activists felt that King’s tactics were not yielding much change and were not suited for communities where the problem of racism was intrinsically rooted. (3) King’s position against the war in Vietnam drew the ire of many white liberals. They felt that King was not being a loyal American and that he should stick to civil rights. Finally, although not as intense as the examples above, there were people who questioned the idea of staging a March on Washington, King’s involvement in the Memphis garbage workers strike, his forays into Chicago and Detroit, and his plan for a Poor People’s March on Washington.
In short, there was a degree of controversy around virtually every public action that King would take. That is usually the cost in engaging in such civil and human rights activity. In that sense, there would be no King if he had shied away from such controversy. There would be no Malcolm, no Mandela, no Marcus, no Ida Wells, no Fannie Lou Hamer, and no Ella Baker. We would still be “a-singing” on the slave plantations.
Fortunately, King did not allow controversy or opposition to stand in his way. Because he and others kept pushing, there was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. There was the creation of affirmative action programs and other similarly progressive milestones that took place. (Although present-day Trumpism and the slide backwards are real, they cannot erase what was accomplished during the Civil Rights Movement.) Because of King and the Movement, there was a greater degree of pride and courage generated among the garbage workers in Memphis, among school children in Birmingham, and among Black professionals who had often been tolerated, but not respected as such. On a personal level, King received the Nobel Peace Prize, had his Letter from a Birmingham Jail enshrined in world literature, been suggested by many as a modern-day saint, and was celebrated around the world as a shining example of intelligence and moral courage.
This son of a preacher man, who had become world-renown, never lost the common touch that diverted him to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to visit his friend Aaron Henry and his daughter, who was a senior at Immaculate Conception High School, on his way to Memphis’ Lorraine Motel the day before he was assassinated. It is that kind of common touch that enabled him to lead thousands of hopeful and needy followers despite the contemporary controversies.
Whenever we think about the controversies and criticisms that King faced for his activism, we are reminded of President Franklin Roosevelt’s response when his activism was at its height. FDR said that there are many ways of going forward, but only one way to stand still.