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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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Let Dr. King Be The Hero He Really Was

You will probably not be able to escape it over the next two weeks. Lectures, concerts, panel discussions, art exhibits and more, leading to a culminating “Let Freedom Ring” celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28. It’s all in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s soaring and inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech. In many places, there are organized efforts to have churches ring bells at 3 p.m. on that day. Will there be an elected official anywhere who will not have an MLK event on the schedule?

All these events will be well-intentioned, peaceful, sometimes even uplifting. Almost all will be comforting to the decision-makers and dignitaries sitting up on the stage, nodding and waiting for their turn to publicly proclaim their admiration of Dr. King.

In reality, Dr. Martin Luther King spent his life making people at the front of the room feel uncomfortable.

The man celebrated at most Martin Luther King Day events each January and who will be the central figure at anniversary events this month, is a safe, relaxing, popular figure, with only safe, relaxing, popular messages. You know: Don’t act all prejudiced and everything.

It’s fine for little kids, but it makes a courageous, towering figure into a one-dimensional, Big Purple Dinosaur. What a big yawn. Dr. King wasn’t boring, wasn’t safe, wasn’t a cuddly toy. And he wasn’t just about “civil rights.”

The government watched absolutely everything he did, in public and in private. It wasn’t because he favored racial equality under the law. By the mid-1960s, that was the majority opinion in America. The leadership of the F.B.I. attempted to derail and destroy Dr. King not because he was a threat to public safety, but because the power of his words and of his message were a threat to the way things were.

With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, much of America’s formal system of apartheid was, in a legal sense, significantly dismantled. Unlike many Americans of good faith, King never saw this as the culmination of a fight, but of just one in a series of transformations that must take place to bring about equality of opportunity and a fair shot at the American Dream for scores of millions left out of it.

“We have raised their hopes, but have not been able to realize their dreams,” Dr. King said in late 1966. Worried that many would give up on nonviolence without meaningful change, he went to Washington, came to Long Island, traveled the country calling for direct action to abolish poverty. He urged that it be paid for with the billions of dollars he called “wasted on ill-conceived warfare” in Vietnam. He proposed, over and over, formal alliance between the rights movement and organized labor.

Martin Luther King was not just the country’s leading spokesperson for racial equality, but for peace, for fair wages, for labor protections and for an end to widespread poverty in the richest country in the world. He saw these as all one thing.

And before he paid with his life, he paid with his popularity. His calls for peace, in particular, led to scathing, near-hysterical condemnations on the editorial pages of Newsday, The New York Times and hundreds of other media outlets.

Near the end of 1964, the Gallup organization found him to be the fourth most admired man in America. In 1965, he was down to sixth. After that, he dropped off the list.

Don’t make Dr. King into a safe, cuddly, stuffed toy. Let him be the hero he was. The kids will understand.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: