When Nelson Mandela died 46 days ago at the age of 95, the tributes pouring in painted him as a senior statesman; lovable, cuddly, graceful and all about forgiveness of his oppressors.
Thankfully we got to watch Idris Elba play the former South African president on the big screen in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, based on the book written by Mandela. In the screen adaption, we saw the fire and rage burning in the eyes of Mandela as he did all he could, including take up armed resistance, to fight for the freedom of his people.
Just imagine if this generation never got the chance to witness that Mandela. They would have watched mainstream media and taken away the image of a docile figure who was more grandfather than freedom fighter.
If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today to celebrate his birthday (the real date is January 15), he would be 85, and we would be genuflecting in his presence, and treating him much in the way we did Mandela. Even though King was killed at 39—young by any measure—we still hold him up as if he is an old man, a mythic figure who walked this earth decades ago.
Were it not for the surviving lieutenants who worked with him, and his large body of work, we would not know the truly revolutionary figure that he was, and in many cases, a radical force for change.
See, you can’t be both a docile, meek, quiet, and unassuming man if Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, calls you a radical in 1959 when you were barely 30 years of age. Wilkins and other established civil rights leaders didn’t want a young, smart, dashing figure cutting into their power base, but King was not to be denied. He was force of nature and a force for good that eventually, they had to acquiesce.
J. Edgar Hoover, a domestic terrorist masquerading as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, called MLK “the most dangerous Negro in the U.S.”
That level of hate would never be bestowed upon someone was anything short of a revolutionary.
What made King so dangerous was that in the tradition of the Black Church, he used the power of oratory to speak to the evils of America, even when that meant opposing the federal government.
When King’s Feb. 4, 1968 speech called the “Drum Major Instinct,” normally focuses on him describing his funeral and what needed to be said.
But in a powerful passage, King honed in on the Vietnam War and the shameful behavior of the United States, drifting towards a goal of destroying the world, along with other super powers.
“We are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct ‘I must be first.’ ‘I must be supreme.’ ‘Our nation must rule the world,’” he said.
“And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
“God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. we’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”
Here is a pastor accusing the United States of committing war crimes. Imagine King today, or any other civil rights leader, using such rhetoric with regards to the Iraqi war or what is happening in Afghanistan. He would ripped to shreds on cable news, and called a traitor to his people.
But King understood that moral leaders are not supposed to be in the go-along-to-get-along crowd. In fact, Rev. Dr. King was clear that pastors had a prophetic calling, and not a political and partisan one. When entering the Oval Office, his desire was simple: speak truth to the president of the United States and not be concerned about getting invited to the annual Christmas party or other trinkets political insiders use to keep their critics at bay.
In essence, he was a living embodiment of the Protestant anthem, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
In a sermon in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 18, 1956, titled, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” King was clear as to the role of Christians.
“I can see no moral justification for that (physical) type of war. I believe absolutely and positively that violence is self-defeating. War is devastating and we know now that if we continue to use these weapons of destruction, our civilization will be plunged across the abyss of destruction,” he said.
“However, this is a type of war that every Christian is involved in. It is a spiritual war. It is a war of ideas. Every true Christian is a fighting pacifist.”
Only revolutionaries speak of war while others call it a movement. King fully understood that the effort to bring Jim Crow to his knees and to bury him for good was not going to be an easy task. It would require the kind of planning, focus and commitment similar to that used on the battlefield.
In fact, ask any battalion leader and they will tell you that the point man is vital to a mission. The point man is responsible for going out first, surveying the land and scoping out the potential danger.
What many don’t understand is that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference never walked into a town sight unseen. He sent advance teams ahead to survey the land and to get a sense of their supporter and detractors. You don’t do such a thing unless you are a revolutionary.
Whether it was the pulpit, his writings and interviews in Jet and Ebony magazines, or numerous speeches, King understood the power of the tongue, much like America’s founding fathers used the power of the pen.
If they were revolutionaries in fighting back against the tyranny of the British, then King and others were revolutionaries in demanding that America honor its commitment to full equality.
So on this day, don’t be fooled by the soft, sanitized, and safe version of Dr. King. Go to the MLK Papers Project at Stanford University to get a much deeper understanding of this powerful, radical and revolutionary figure.
We do ourselves an injustice if we allow someone else to define King only in his or her image. Thankfully with books, videos and speeches, we can retain the raw essence of Dr. King for eternity.