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Three Important Facts About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy That Have Not Been White Washed

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Three Important Facts About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy That Have Not Been White Washed

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Today, America celebrates the immeasurable legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister whose tremendous reach and profound impact transcended beyond the pulpit of his Montgomery, Alabama, church to create a civil rights movement of resistance against racial segregation and anti-Blackness in the United States. Dr. King’s achievements and life story have been shared over the decades as a source of inspiration to unify and promote equity and equality among different racial groups. However, while doing so, Dr. King has been depicted as a non-violent pastor and civil rights leader who only promoted patience and compassion for the perpetrators of racial prejudice and White supremacist culture as a solution to eradicate racial inequality.

However, this representation does not portray his varied perspectives as they evolved about racism and protests. Many argue that this was done to shape the current views of future Black protests and social movements and ultimately to condemn, police, and pathologize reactions to racism that are not rooted in love and compassion for those who enact or support racism and White supremacy in America. Furthermore, some historians argue that Dr. King’s legacy and teachings have been White washed to make racism more palatable for Black Americans.

Many historical recollections of Dr. King’s life also omit the intense campaign that the FBI waged against him and the pain he and his family consequently endured. These distortions and glaring omissions taught in school curricula and passed down as old generational wives’ tales have reshaped history and linger like a bad cough. Here are three facts about Dr. King that have not been as widely discussed.

1. The FBI attempted to destroy Dr. King. Beginning the March on Washington in 1963 until his assassination in 1968, the FBI methodically engaged in a relentless and concentrated campaign to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his work. Several well-known documentaries such as MLK/FBI have examined J. Edgar Hoover’s “obsession” with “destroying” Dr. King. The FBI campaign against King began with wiretaps and quickly escalated – revealing intimate details about his life and infidelity. Hoover also hired individuals to spy on King and eventually sent him an anonymous letter, along with some of their tapes, suggesting that he kill himself.

The FBI would receive intel that King was planning to meet in various hotels for business and personal meetings and enter the hotel before King arrived. They would be let in by hotel management and allowed to bug those rooms and to have the rooms next door, where they could listen in to what was going on when King and his associates entered their rooms. Even more alarming, when the FBI learned of King’s plans to meet in another city, they quickly followed him to those cities to start monitoring and wiretapping the confines of those rooms.

Hoover’s obsession was supposedly driven by an irrational fear that King would become a communist. Consequently, his goal was to learn intimate details about King to give to the press, which would tarnish his reputation as a Christian minister. Despite his best efforts, members of the press never published the FBI’s findings. Many argue that the real motivation behind Hoover’s campaign against Dr. King was that he despised the fact that King was a well-educated, beloved, and influential Black man trying to move the needle forward in promoting equal rights for Blacks during Jim Crow South.

2. The FBI recruited informants close to King. A Black Photographer Ernest Withers, who was well respected by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and took many of the widely recognized and iconic photographs of the civil right movement, was an informant for the FBI. Although Withers did not start as an informant, after Withers became known for his pictures documenting the civil rights movement, the FBI quickly propositioned him to be an informant against King.

3. King’s views on violence and protest changed over time. Although it is true that Dr. King promoted patience and love and focused largely on charging people, he also understood the power of legislative changes to promote equity for Blacks and supported abolitionist movements. In fact, his Civil Rights movement was an abolitionist movement and he was very much aware of racism’s deep roots in American culture, which is evidenced in his speeches such as, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and his sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Over the years, Dr. King’s perspective about violence and protests began to change. This was especially true during the latter part of his life. King begun to examine and speak out against global affairs — vehemently denouncing the Vietnam War and focusing more on economic justice. Meanwhile, urban areas composed of mostly Black residents remained marginalized by the institutions that promised to uplift and protect them. The urgency for change was high, and were at a boiling point.

Dr. King was beginning to recognize this tension. Toward the end of that same year, King began to grapple with the frustration, pain, and anger that many younger Black civil rights leaders were feeling. In a tense 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, Dr. King said that most Black people in America still believed in nonviolent resistance but acknowledged that a growing group in the Black community was now advocating for violent resistance.

He went on to further contextualize the violent uprising by saying, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He also predicted more violence in the coming summers. By 1967, it was apparent that King continued to toil with the idea of the appropriateness of violent protests.

During his speech at the American Psychology Association’s annual convention in Washington, DC, he now described violence almost as a necessary act — a position in direct contrast to his discussion of riots just a year earlier. Granted, Dr. King might not have been as militant as his younger predecessors would have liked. Still, by the time he spoke in the fall of 1967, he recognized that it would no longer be practical to tell Black Americans to only protest peacefully, kindly, and respectfully.

Aside from the misattributed quotes, patronizing memes, and poor rationale for color-blind ideologies made in his name, some social scientists argue that the real misfortune of King’s legacy is that many of the White people who so frequently invoke his legacy in the name of peace, do so with a fundamental perversion of his message. Nonviolence — as discussed and fetishized in proximity to the poor and the marginalized — is often only examined and imposed in response to any uprising of those people. Although riots are a language, responses to riots are their own language, a language of doublespeak.

The call is for peace and love, but the actual demand is for complete silence altogether. So, as the country reflects on the monumental impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many hope that is done so in truth of his perspectives and the malicious campaigns that were plotted against him.

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