The role of Martin Luther King during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement is still under debate among some. He was the most widely recognized of the civil rights leaders, many of them ministers in black evangelical churches who in the late fifties had organized themselves into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). His promotion of the idea of nonviolent resistance, and in his eloquence, King held a special place in the rights movement. King, wrote one white woman, had captured the
devotion of the masses of Negroes….My wash lady tells me every week about how she hears the angel’s wings when he speaks, and God speaks directly through him and …he speaks directly to God.
When 250,000 people, about one-third white and the rest black, marched on Washington in August 1963 to be counted for civil rights legislation, King addressed them:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustices and oppression, will be transformed into oasis of freedom and justice.
King and others realized that racial harmony and justice would only transform when both races engaged in some kind of discourse. The mistake many make regarding King is that they have not given his intellectual prowess enough attention. King, who borrowed from the tenets of Romanticism and the writings of Henry David Thoreau, was a pragmatists. However, he immersed himself in a praxis of intellectual realism. I have read where some academics have written about the Marxists views of MLK in which sought to unify black and white sharecroppers — much like that of Melvin B. Tolson; however, King’s movement focused a bit more in the urban centers. King once wrote about how poor blacks and poor whites might one day unify to abolish their common condition and class oppression; however, since MLK was using the steel city of Birmingham as a model, he quickly realized that a labor of unity would not occur through labor unions; it was possible by way of religion and social condition.
Ten years earlier, Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, highlights the challenges many blacks felt in white America:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.
Ellison is addressing this distorted perception — the failure to see the humanity and individuality of black people — has its roots in the historic veil of slavery and Jim Crowism that separates the black world from the white world. MLK worked to bring both worlds together by removing this veil that promoted blindness. As my favorite intellectual W.E.B. DuBois notes:
The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals , and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.
DuBois contends that we (black folks) must be a part of the white world just as the white world must be a part of the black world. Thank you Dr. King for using your intellect and faith in humanity to know and understand that we would figure it out. I will attend a concert tonight honoring King. I hope to reflect some as guest speakers address his goals and many of his accomplishments.