social justice It’s been over three decades since Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday—but the public image of the man hasn’t grown with the times. Sociology professor Jonathan Rieder, a leading Dr. King expert, offers his opinions based on decades of pioneering research. His most recent books are The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. Thanks to a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and one from the Dubois Institute at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, he spent 2015-16 in Cambridge and Alabama working on his new project, Crossing Over: Black-White Encounters in the Transition from Rhythm and Blues to Soul and Beyond.
Who was the real King and how should we remember him correctly?
Professor Jonathan RiederThat’s always the nagging question, and there’s no simple answer to it. The main problem is that we’re constantly inundated with images of the dreamer, the ambassador of love, who envisioned little black and white children holding hands. Surely there’s some truth to that image.
But that image is too often put in the service of national self-congratulations; look how far we’ve come!: It marks off the time of unfreedom from the freedoms of today. And so it’s easy to forget that for all his honeyed words and diplomacy, King was a tough-minded warrior for justice who never stopped chastizing the larger society for racism and all manner of other evils. Nor was he naive about the power of moral appeal to move white conscience, though he never stopped trying. And finally he thought there were always suffering people on the Jericho Road. The task of justice is never finished. Vincent Harding called King “an inconvenient hero.” King meant to unsettle, to disrupt, to speak inconvenient truths.
What are some of our biggest misconceptions?
That image of King as a dreamer is one of many misconceptions. For starters, and it’s not really surprising, King tended to show only certain sides of himself before white audiences, and even certain black audiences. He tended to keep up a public image of great dignity and refinement. Backstage, it was a different story. King could be hilarious, and bawdy too. He was a wicked tease. He and his preacher buddies joked about sex, about “white crackers” and fried-chicken eating black preachers.
The popular mythology also obscures King’s sympathetic view of black anger, as if he was never an angry black man. But King went through a long period of hating white people, which is why he rarely judged the people who had yielded to hate. “I know the temptation to become bitter . . .it comes to all of us,” he told one audience after the Watts riots, placing himself in that “us” of black anger. Only then did he elevate his audience and preach, “but there is the better way of Jesus Christ.”
Finally, King is often treated as if he was some lone Moses