The Real Martin Luther King

Martin Luther KingIgnore All the Bad Advice: Let Dr. Martin Luther King Be Your Mentor, Embrace Open Conflict and Social Upheaval, and Always Speak To and For the Oppressed

No American political leader in the twentieth century faced more opposition to his fight for equality and justice than Dr. Martin Luther King. Repeatedly urged by his family, friends, supposed allies and enemies to give up organizing direct action, mass independent mobilizations, and the building of a powerful civil rights movement,

Dr. King summed up his attitude to all the naysayers in his most famous, often misrepresented “I Have A Dream” speech. Dr. King led the fight against the old Jim Crow when few others in his generation were prepared to stand up. He was familiar with all the difficulties of being a voice for and of the oppressed.

Dr. King battled depression, self-doubt, loneliness and abuse his whole life. At the same time, almost all his greatest speeches and most memorable expressions of joy and rapture occurred when he was marching with others for freedom and dignity for all.

Dr. King was the last speaker to address the 1963 March on Washington, even though the March was the direct outgrowth of the successful campaign Dr. King led to break the back of Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. The older establishment civil rights leaders feared Dr. King’s militancy, and most disapproved of his direct action tactics.

They hoped that by having him speak last, he would have less of an impact on the crowd and that his speech would be featured less prominently in coverage of the event. Boy, were they wrong.

In the days after Dr. King’s victory in Birmingham, black communities all across the south stood up and fought for their freedom. Some of the local struggles were completely pacifist in character. Others were more like the struggle Dr. King led in Birmingham. These struggles combined both the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience advocated by Dr. King, and the tactics of direct self-defense favored by the vast majority of Birmingham’s teen-agers who were in an alliance with Dr. King.

Beginning in Birmingham and continuing through Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967 and the other urban uprisings that occurred before his death, Dr. King always defended the youth who chose to answer the police brutality directed against them or their communities by hurling bottles or rocks at the police. Dr. King urged all those who decried the anger of the youth to direct their energies at ending the continuous violence of authorities against our communities and the institutional racism that makes violence against the oppressed a daily occurrence.

Leading the new movement is the best way Latina/o and black students can fight off depression, alienation, and the crippling loneliness and despair that paralyze too many of us too much of the time. The greatest obstacles we face as leaders is overcoming the untrue, but often repeated, view that for us to win we must find a way to make our cause appealing to white people.

Like Dr. King, we must overcome our fears and doubts and always speak to and for the Latina/o, black, immigrant, and other oppressed communities. When every mainstream force is telling us that the rich and powerful are the only force that can determine humankind’s destiny, when we are constantly sent the message that we must suppress our anger and indignation and find a way to “persuade” them to recognize our worth and stop denying us the basics we need to survive, reading Dr. King can remind us that the exact opposite of what we are being told is actually what is needed.

If we can just get ourselves to tell the truth about racism and stop fearing being ourselves–or even just support others who have the courage to take these actions–we can, like Dr. King, build a powerful mass civil rights movement and win.

Returning to the campuses this September after a summer with our families, many of us feel the pressure to submit to “the luxury of cooling off” or to become intoxicated by “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” that Dr. King refers to in the passage below. If we do not bury our true feelings, our anger, our indignation, or the great joy and humanity we feel when we are standing together and fighting, then we will be able to embrace “the fierce urgency of now”.

In the last part of this quote Dr. King refers to the media’s characterization of the summer of 1963 as “the sweltering summer” and he says there will be more such summers unless the oppressed are granted justice. Every year after 1963, the media would focus on the question of whether the summer that was just beginning would be another “long hot summer”. 2009-2010 was our new student movement’s first “hot fall” and “hotter spring”. We need this year and every year hereafter to be red-hot school years until we have won justice and freedom and completed the work Dr. King began for us.

BAMN is a completely integrated organization of today’s young Martin Luther Kings. We know that many young leaders of our movement to end the new Jim Crow yearn to breathe free and cannot stand the hypocrisy and dehumanizing effects of our society. We know these young leaders will hear in Dr. King’s words the truth and spirit of his uncompromising dignity and defiant anger and know that we too can stand up and win. We invite all of you who have not yet done so to join BAMN.

A Passage from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington:

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note [the Constitutional guarantee of inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness for all who live on American soil] insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Recommended Reading:

Martin Luther King: Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Complete “I Have a Dream Speech”

Excerpts from “Trumpet of Conscience”

“Riverside Speech” Against the Vietnam War

MLK’s Speech in Support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers

Stay updated on BAMN’s work on Affirmative Action:


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