King's courage should not be reduced to caricature

Forty years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr.? Has it been so short a time?

In the four decades since the assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, the nation has undergone a stunning social and political transformation that even King may not have anticipated. The average 25-year-old has a hard time imagining what the country was like before.

No Tiger Woods or Oprah Winfrey or Will Smith. No Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama. No black presidents in disaster movies or black babies in diaper commercials.

That was my childhood. Now, political commentators speculate without raised eyebrow about an actual black president. While racism lives on, it's a shadow of its former self.

But it was not easy to get here. We do King and the nation he helped to transform a disservice when we gloss over the social and political tumult created by the civil rights movement, which was deeply controversial and bitterly protested.

So was King himself. The MLK of elementary school pageants and kindly Sunday sermons is sepia-toned and half-remembered, reduced to a few snippets of rhetoric. If you believe that King was meek and politically moderate, passionate but never provocative, you don't know him. You've reduced a complex man to caricature. There was much more to him than "I have a dream."

The historical record reflects that King was widely dismissed as a communist &

a traitor &

by a large segment of the American citizenry, including no less a figure than J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. Though King taught his followers to offer no more than bowed heads to snarling dogs and firehoses, he was accused of fomenting violence.

He grew tired of well-meaning whites who counseled patience lest civil rights protesters spark a backlash, a fatigue that prompted his eloquent 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." He addressed the same "go slow" sentiment in 1964, when he said:

"The most popular explanation for the backlash is that it is a response to Negro 'aggressiveness' and 'excessive demands.' It is further attributed to an overzealous government which is charged with so favoring Negro demands that it has stimulated them beyond reason. These are largely half-truths and, as such, whole lies."

While King was generous in his praise for those white religious leaders, including Jews and Roman Catholics, who supported the civil rights movement, he also harshly criticized white churchmen who did not. In a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, he said:

"The white church ... has greatly disappointed me. ... As the Negro struggles against grave injustice, most white churchmen offer pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. ... White churchgoers, who insist that they are Christians, practice segregation as rigidly in the house of God as they do in movie houses. Too much of the white church is timid and ineffectual, and some of it is shrill in its defense of bigotry and prejudice."

Among the most controversial public statements King ever made was his 1967 repudiation of the Vietnam War, delivered at New York's Riverside Church. Aside from its incisive criticism of the war itself, it offered a biting critique of America's use of power.

"I know I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today &

my own government," he said.

The Vietnamese "watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. ... So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children," King said.

That speech is rarely recalled during commemorations of King's life and work, but it is as much a part of his legacy as his speech during the 1963 March on Washington. It is a reminder that he believed that genuine allegiance to his country lay in realistically appraising its weaknesses while laying his life on the line to make it better.

He was a patriot.

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